The Good Girls Revolt: When 46 Women Sued Newsweek for Discrimination

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Lynn Povich | The Good Girls Revolt | 2012 | 14 minutes (3,368 words)

Following this week’s news about the firing of Jill Abramson from the New York Times and the discussion of gender pay disparity, here’s some historical context: The full opening chapter of Lynn Povich’s book, The Good Girls Revolt, about the first female class action lawsuit against Newsweek. Thanks to Povich and PublicAffairs for allowing us to reprint the excerpt below.

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“Editors File Story; Girls File Complaint”

On March 16, 1970, Newsweek magazine hit the newsstands with a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement titled “Women in Revolt.” The bright yellow cover pictured a naked woman in red silhouette, her head thrown back, provocatively thrusting her fist through a broken blue female-sex symbol. As the first copies went on sale that Monday morning, forty-six female employees of Newsweek announced that we, too, were in revolt. We had just filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that we had been “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume a subsidiary role” simply because we were women. It was the first time women in the media had sued on the grounds of sex discrimination and the story, irresistibly timed to the Newsweek cover, was picked up around the world:

• “‘Discriminate,’ le redattrici di Newsweek?” (La Stampa) “Newsweek’s Sex Revolt” (London Times)
• “Editors File Story; Girls File Complaint” (Newsday)
• “Women Get Set for Battle” (London Daily Express)
• “As Newsweek Says, Women Are in Revolt, Even on Newsweek” (New York Times)

The story in the New York Daily News, titled “Newshens Sue Newsweek for ‘Equal Rights,’” began, “Forty-six women on the staff of Newsweek magazine, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced today they were suing the magazine.”

The UPI photograph capturing the announcement shows three young white women sitting alongside our attorney, a serious black woman with an imposing Afro. Behind them are pictured several rows of women in their twenties; I am shown standing in the corner with long dark hair. At 10 A.M. our lawyer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, began reading a statement to a packed press conference at the ACLU’s office at 156 Fifth Avenue. “It is ironic,” she said, waving a copy of the magazine, “that while Newsweek considers women’s grievances newsworthy enough for such major coverage, it continues to maintain a policy of discrimination against the women on its own staff. . . . The statistics speak for themselves—there are more than fifty men writing at Newsweek, but only one woman.” She pointed out that although the women were graduates of top colleges, held advanced degrees, and had published in major news journals, “Newsweek’s caste system relegates women with such credentials to research jobs almost exclusively and interminably.”

Eleanor noted that a copy of the complaint had gone to Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post and president of the Washington Post Company, which owned Newsweek. “The Newsweek women believe that as a woman, Mrs. Graham has a particular responsibility to end discrimination against women at her magazine,” she said. She called on Mrs. Graham and the editors to negotiate and asked for “the immediate integration of the research staff and the opening of correspondence, writing, and editing positions to women.”

Then she opened the floor to questions for the three Newsweek women at the table. One reporter asked who was the top woman at the magazine. Lucy Howard, a researcher in the National Affairs department, replied that it was Olga Barbi, who was head of the researchers and had been at Newsweek for forty years—which got a big laugh. Then Gabe Pressman, the veteran investigative reporter for local WNBC-TV, pushed his microphone in front of Mary Pleshette, the Movies researcher, and asked whether the discrimination was overt. “Yes,” she answered. “There seems to be a gentleman’s agreement at Newsweek that men are writers and women are researchers and the exceptions are few and far between.”

It was an exhilarating moment for us, and a shocking one for Newsweek’s editors, who couldn’t have been more surprised if their own daughters had risen up in revolt. We had been secretly strategizing for months, whispering behind closed doors, congregating in the Newsweek ladies’ room, and meeting in our apartments at night. As our numbers increased, we had hired a lawyer and were just reviewing our options when we were suddenly presented with a truly lucky break. In early 1970, Newsweek’s editors decided that the new women’s liberation movement deserved a cover story. There was one problem, however: there were no women to write the piece.

I was the only female writer on the magazine at the time, but I was very junior. As a researcher at Newsweek, I had also done a lot of reporting, and my editor in the Life & Leisure department, Harry Waters, had liked my work and encouraged me. He recommended to our senior editor that I be promoted to a junior writer, and in March 1969, I was. In addition to fashion, I wrote about social trends, including the gay-rights and women’s movements. But things weren’t going well. The senior editor who promoted me had moved to another department and the new editor thought my stories were too sympathetic to the activists. My copy was often rewritten.

When the idea of doing a women’s lib cover was proposed in early 1970, the editors were savvy enough to realize they couldn’t have a man write the story. Though I was not experienced enough to tackle a cover story, another woman on the magazine could have written it: Liz Peer, a gifted reporter in Newsweek’s Washington bureau. But the editors never reached out to her. (When I asked my editor why they hadn’t asked Liz, he told me that although she had been a writer in New York and a foreign correspondent for five years, he “wasn’t sure” she could write a Newsweek cover.)

Instead, for the first time in the history of the magazine, the editors went outside the staff and hired Helen Dudar, a star writer at the New York Post, to do the piece. (Helen’s husband, Peter Goldman, was a top writer for Newsweek.) That galvanized us. Our case might take years to wind its way through the EEOC backlog, but announcing our lawsuit the morning the “Women in Revolt” cover came out would get us prominent press coverage. We knew that worse than being sued, the publicity would mortify the magazine’s editors, who prided themselves on the progressive views and pro–civil rights coverage that put Newsweek on the map in the 1960s.

The Sunday night before the press conference, we gathered at Holly Camp’s West Eighty-Third Street apartment to prepare for the historic day ahead. We were nervous, excited, and resolute. I felt especially happy for my close friend Judy Gingold, the conscience of our collective. Judy had been the first one to see our situation at Newsweek as a moral issue, and against the grain of her good-girl up-bringing, she had pushed us to file a lawsuit. First on our agenda was deciding who would speak at the press conference. Silence. No one wanted to do it. Pat Lynden, a reporter in the New York bureau who never shied from confrontation, finally said, “I’ll do it with someone else.” Lucy Howard, a good friend of Pat’s, stepped up. “I thought if I don’t do this, the whole lawsuit will go down the drain,” she recalled. “It never occurred to me that I would have to answer a question. I just assumed I would be a warm body and that Eleanor would speak.” Then Mary Pleshette proposed that I join them, but I demurred. “As someone who has become a writer, I don’t think I should represent the class,” I said, throwing it back to her. “Mary, why don’t you do it?” Mary, always the first to raise her hand in class, said she would be willing to do it as long as everyone agreed, which they did.

The three spokeswomen moved to a corner to practice answers and to discuss what they would wear (Lucy decided on a pink John Kloss dress, Pat a rose-colored T Jones dress, and Mary a burnt-orange shift). Another group formed to write a release about the Monday press conference, which Susan Agrest’s husband would drop off later that night at various news organizations to get the event on their daybooks. The rest of us, with our lawyer’s help, drafted a letter to Katharine Graham informing her that we were about to file the suit. “We are writing to you,” the letter said, “because we cannot believe that you are fully aware of the extent to which we are discriminated against at Newsweek.” Then we all chipped in to fly Sunde Smith, a twenty-three-year-old Business researcher, to Washington the next day because she still qualified for the $17 student fare on the Eastern Airlines shuttle. Sunde, who had to get back to work Monday morning, was to hand the letter to a friend of Lucy’s, who would deliver it to Kay Graham at her stately Georgetown home.

The top editors were off on Mondays, having put the magazine to bed Saturday night, so we had to find someone to deliver a similar notice to Newsweek’s editor-in-chief, Osborn “Oz” Elliott. None of us wanted to confront our fearsome leader at the door of his East Seventy-Second Street town house. I volunteered my husband, who relished the task. As we carefully choreographed our insurrection, several women were still arguing that we should first go to management with our grievances. Others were filled with dread. “When I got home that night,” recalled Lucy Howard, “I sat sobbing in the bathtub and thinking my eyes were going to be all puffy tomorrow. I was feeling I have to do this—but I can’t.”

We were hardly radical women. Nine days earlier, on March 6, five members of the Weatherman Underground had accidentally blown up a town house on West Eleventh Street as they were assembling bombs in the basement, killing two men and a woman—all in their twenties. Even in the media, there were far more outrageous actions than ours. Several weeks before our suit, freelance writer Susan Brownmiller convinced the newly formed Women’s Media Group to hold a sit-in at one of the major women’s magazines. Except for Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan, which promoted sexual liberation (mostly to please men), the other leading women’s publications, all edited by men, were still preaching Kinder, Küche, Kirche, the German maxim for “children, kitchen, and church.” The protestors decided to target the Ladies’ Home Journal, whose slogan, “Never underestimate the power of a woman,” took on new meaning two days after we filed our complaint. On March 18, more than one hundred members of various women’s lib groups gathered at the Journal building at 9:15 A.M. and filed up to the fifth-floor corner office of John Mack Carter.

In his career, Carter had edited the big three women’s magazines: Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal. A small, Southern, courtly gentleman, Carter was stunned as the brigade of women barged into his office. The protestors immediately began reading a list of demands, including hiring only female staffers—and a female editor-in-chief—providing free on-site day care, ceasing to publish advertisements that degraded women, and turning over the editorial content of one issue to the women, to be named the Women’s Liberated Journal. Cornered at his desk for more than eleven hours, Carter was silent while various women spoke to him about their lives, their aspirations, and their frustrations. Elsewhere on the floor, protestors engaged secretaries and editorial assistants in earnest conversations. Only Lenore Hershey, Carter’s deputy editor, spoke up. “She was a tiger at the gate, a bear guarding her cub, a magpie passing judgment on our clothes, our hair, our extremely rude manners,” wrote Brownmiller in her memoir. “Sisterhood failed us badly with Lenore Hershey. I got the feeling that even Carter wished she’d just shut up and listen.”

At one point, Shulamith Firestone, leader of the New York Radical Feminists, jumped onto Carter’s desk screaming, “I’ve had enough of this,” and lunged at him. One of the radicals who had taken judo grabbed Firestone’s arm and flipped her into the crowd. After that, according to Brownmiller, Carter started negotiating with the women. In the end, the Journal agreed “to explore” opening a day-care center and to turn over eight pages in the August issue to the protestors, paying them $10,000.

Compared to that kind of guerrilla action, we were models of propriety. We didn’t want to overthrow the system. We were proud to be part of a powerful and liberal institution like Newsweek; we just wanted to transform it to make it better for women. In the 1960s, feminists had scored several important legal victories, including the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and in 1967, an executive order that prohibited sex discrimination in hiring and promotion by federal contractors. In the 1970s, female journalists would declare war on their newsrooms and protest how women were covered in the media—and we were the first to challenge the industry’s sexist policies. “The Newsweek case was pathbreaking in terms of impact on the law and on society,” Eleanor Holmes Norton told me. “It encouraged other women to come forward, it had an effect on journalism, and it had a wide-ranging effect on women. Journalists had to write about it, and because the women were so extraordinary, because the case was so clearly one of blatant, unmitigated discrimination, it made people understand discrimination against women in an important way.”

Two months after we filed our complaint, ninety-six women at Time Inc. would file a sex discrimination complaint against Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. In the next few years, women sued their employers at the Reader’s Digest, Newsday, the Washington Post, the Detroit News, the Baltimore Sun, the New Haven Register, and the Associated Press. In 1974, six women at the New York Times—represented by one of our lawyers—filed sex discrimination charges on behalf of 550 women and in 1975, sixteen women at NBC initiated a class action lawsuit covering 2,600 present and past employees. “When women with staff jobs in the media began to rise up, feminism moved into another dimension,” said Brownmiller. “Their courageous actions were to change the face of journalism forever.”

In the end, it turned out that our extraordinary efforts to reach Katharine Graham that Monday in March were for naught. She was on vacation in the Bahamas. When Oz Elliott and Newsweek chairman Frederick “Fritz” Beebe telephoned her later that morning to tell her about the women’s lawsuit, she was flummoxed. “Which side am I supposed to be on?” she asked them.

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Like Katherine Graham, we all were confused. We were women in transition, raised in one era and coming of age in another, very different time. It is hard for people today, even many women, to comprehend the social order that prevailed in the roughly two decades after World War II. The 1940s and 1950s were a period of growing prosperity, incipient suburban sprawl, and a baby boom that kept our mothers fully occupied. Jim Crow was nearly everywhere, gays were strictly closeted, and a woman’s place was in the home, at least after marriage and children. In those rare instances when women were hired for jobs usually held by men, they generally earned a lot less and often were treated as sexual fodder.

“We were the tail end of the old generation,” explained personal finance columnist Jane Bryant Quinn, who worked briefly at Newsweek in the early 1960s. “We wore hats and gloves. We couldn’t go to proms and parties without dates— and the men had to do the asking. We also didn’t have many role models in the working world.” Most of us had graduated from college in the ’60s, when half of our classmates earned their “M-R-S” and got married when they graduated in June. “Our generation was raised to be attractive and smart—but not too smart,” said Pat Lynden. “We were to be deferential to men, to get married, raise children, and be ornamental wives dedicated to our husbands’ careers.”

Yet here we were, entering the workplace in the 1960s questioning—and often rejecting—many of the values we had been taught. We were the polite, perfectionist “good girls,” who never showed our drive or our desires around men. Now we were becoming mad women, discovering and confronting our own ambitions, a quality praised in men but stigmatized— still—in women. In her insightful book, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, psychiatrist Anna Fels described the two emotional engines of ambition: the mastery of specific skills and the necessary recognition of that mastery by others. Even today, she told me, as women have developed skills and expertise, they are “subtly discouraged from pursuing their goals by a pervasive lack of recognition for their accomplishments.” Women fear that seeking recognition will expose them to attacks on everything from their popularity to their femininity. But recognition in all its forms—admiration from peers, mentoring, institutional rewards, and societal approval—is something that makes us better at what we do, Fels explained, and without it “people get demoralized and ambitions erode.”

In January 2012, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, spoke about an “ambition gap” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She noted that ever since the 1980s, women have progressed at every level except at the top, where, in the past ten years, they’ve leveled off at 15 percent to 16 percent of executive jobs and board representation. “We don’t raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons,” she said. One reason, she noted, was that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. As a man gets more powerful and successful, he is better liked. As a woman gets more powerful and successful, she is less liked.”

What led to our revolt? Why did our generation suddenly realize that our place in society was changing—and had to change? In part, we were carried by the social and political currents of our time. The civil rights movement was forcing a national conversation about equality and providing a model for all the protest movements of the 1960s. The music revolution was empowering a new “youth generation,” which in turn was creating a “youthquake” in art and fashion. And over it all, like an ominous shadow, the war in Vietnam was fostering a deep skepticism—and cynicism—toward authority.

For women, especially young, white, middle-class, collegeeducated women, the booming postwar economy provided new opportunities and jobs far more interesting than the tedious suburban lives of our mothers. The birth-control pill, which went on sale in 1960, allowed us to control our destinies while the sexual revolution gave us permission to explore our desires. All that fueled a women’s movement that questioned how we wanted to live our lives. As Gail Collins wrote in When Everything Changed, her 2009 history of American women from 1960 to the present, “It was, all in all, a benevolent version of the perfect storm.”

But even with the social winds in our sails and the women’s movement behind us, each of us had to overcome deeply held values and traditional social strictures. The struggle was personally painful and professionally scary. What would happen to us? Would we win our case? Would we change the magazine? Or would we be punished? Who would succeed and who would not? And if our revolt failed, were our careers over—or were they over anyway? We knew that filing the suit legally protected us from being fired, but we didn’t trust the editors not to find some way to do us in.

Whatever happened, the immediate result is that it put us all on the line. “The night after the press conference I realized there was no turning back,” said Lucy Howard. “Once I stepped up and said I wanted to be a writer, it was over. I wanted to change Newsweek, but everything was going to change.”

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Excerpted from The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich. Copyright © 2012 by Lynn Povich. Excerpted by permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Photo: PublicAffairs

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