Review Written by Anne Eisenberg and Originaly Published in The New York Times on September 1, 2012
WHEN I graduated from college, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took effect, sex discrimination was legal. I wanted to write for a newspaper or newsmagazine, but despite an armload of credentials and skills, I soon learned the score: Women could do research, be secretaries and, if very lucky, work for the ghetto called the women’s page. But other than that, the guys were hired as the writers, and that was that.
"The Good Girls Revolt" by Lynn Povich (PublicAffairs), scheduled for release next week, is the little-known story of how a small band of women at Newsweek successfully challenged this industrywide practice. They fought the men of Newsweek in the early 1970s, becoming the first women in the media to sue on the grounds of sex discrimination.
At Newsweek in the mid-1960s, Ms. Povich writes, the problem was sexism, pure and simple. Although the women were graduates of the same top colleges as the men, and had the same or better qualifications, they were hired for the mail desk, or as fact checkers, and rarely promoted to reporter or writer.
Many women hired there, including Nora Ephron, Ellen Goodman and Jane Bryant Quinn, quickly saw the lay of the land and left.
Ms. Ephron, who died in June, lasted less than a year. “For every man, there was an inferior woman,” she told Ms. Povich. “They were the artists and we were the drones.” The male writers sat by the window of the office. The female assistant sat six feet away, perched by the door, compiling the research folders the males used to write their articles.
Finally a core of women that included Ms. Povich began organizing to fight back. The nervous band of sisters recruited members in secret — mainly in the ladies’ room — terrified that they would be found out and fired. In search of a pro bono lawyer to take the case, in the winter of 1970 they approached the brilliant, fiery Eleanor Holmes Norton, then the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
It was an inspired choice. A veteran civil rights advocate and an avowed feminist, Ms. Norton took one look at Newsweek’s male-dominated masthead, and realized that she was seeing a clear case of discrimination.
Some of the women wanted to take their case directly to Newsweek’s editor in chief, Osborn Elliott, a charming man who had three daughters of his own. Ms. Norton had a tart view of such tactics. “You goddamn middle class women — you think you can just go to Daddy and ask for what you want?” she asked them.
In one of the many striking sequences in the book, Ms. Povich describes how Ms. Norton forged them into a combat unit, reminding them of their rights and teaching them how to fight management and succeed. “Ladies,” she advised, “you have to take off your white gloves.”
The band of 46 staff members persevered, filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 1970, charging they had been systematically discriminated against in hiring and promotion.
THE male editors were as shocked as they would have been if their own daughters had risen in revolt. “We were the polite, perfectionist ‘good girls,’ who never showed our drive or our desires around men,” Ms. Povich writes of her caste. “Now we were becoming mad women, a quality praised in men, but stigmatized — still — in women.”
Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post and president of the company that owned Newsweek, was a player in the battle as it unfolded. Hers is one of the many fascinating portraits in the book. Mrs. Graham was caught in the middle, a businesswoman looking after her property, but also a member by birth of the sisterhood. She was perplexed by the news of the complaint. “Which side am I supposed to be on?” she asked.
Mr. Elliott soon agreed to enter into negotiations with the rebels, and terms were hammered out. The magazine promised to seek out women for reporting and writing tryouts.
But it took several years of trench warfare for the women to push themselves onto the writing staff. The recalcitrant editors kept on recruiting through the old-boy network, and the women filed a new complaint of sex discrimination with the commission in 1972. The magazine finally accepted goals and timetables for hiring women in 1973.
The personal and the political are deftly interwoven in the fast-moving narrative by Ms. Povich, who began at Newsweek as a secretary — with a little help from her father, the star Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, who asked Mrs. Graham, his boss and friend, to set up a job interview with his daughter.
Only a few years after she was hired, Ms. Povich was in the ladies’ room plotting an insurrection. She could feel Mrs. Graham’s disapproval. “After all,” Ms. Povich writes, “she was responsible for my entree to Newsweek, and now I was the apostate suing her magazine.” But it was mainly her father’s feelings that concerned Ms. Povich, “since I now found myself in the unusual position of suing his boss.”
She explained the situation with Mrs. Graham to him this way, “I’m not angry at her personally, just at the men who run her magazine.”
The barricades did fall at Newsweek, for Ms. Povich and many other women. In 1975, she became the first female senior editor. (But not at the same salary as male colleagues. She discovered the discrepancy and had to fight for equal pay, too.)
Many women who became writers in the media on the heels of the cases at Newsweek and other publications benefited, said Gail Collins, now an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and one of the many writers interviewed for the book.
“I arrived in New York approximately one second after the women at places like The New York Times and Newsweek had filed lawsuits,” Ms. Collins says. “People like me, who came right behind them, got the good jobs and promotions.”
Women today have opportunities and solid legal support, Ms. Povich writes. But many of the injustices that young women face now are the same ones women fought 40 years ago. Sexism is still alive and well in the workplace.
“The discrimination may be subtler, but sexist attitudes still exist,” she says.
“The Good Girls Revolt” has many timely lessons for working women who are concerned about discrimination today, and for the companies that employ them. Feminism is an incomplete revolution that has yet to reach its goals. But this sparkling, informative book may help move these goals a tiny bit closer.