Power Suit: Dissent in the Newsroom

By Andi ZeislerSeptember 10, 2012

The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich

IN HER THOSE-WERE-THE-DAYS-MY-FRIENDS essay “Journalism: A Love Story,” Nora Ephron famously wrote of moving up the pink ladder at Newsweek, from mail girl to clipper to checker, that “It was a given in those days that if you were a woman and you wanted to do certain things, you were going to have to be the exception to the rule.” Ephron’s recollection of hitting the newsmagazine’s impermeable glass ceiling is recounted as matter-of-factly as an encounter with a bad bowl of soup: Once she realized that she would never get to be a writer at the magazine, she simply moved to a job at the New York Post, where she had four bylines in her first week. In typical — that is to say, delightfully decontextualized — fashion, the essay acknowledges, but then shrugs off, a deeper awareness of that workplace’s structural inequity. The first time I read it, I wondered whether Ephron’s many cohorts at the clip and research desks were so at ease with those inbuilt limitations. As it turns out, many of them weren’t. Lynn Povich’s new book The Good Girls Revolt more than picks up Ephron’s slack, delving into what it took for one group of women to interrogate, fight, and start to correct the inequity.

In 1970, Povich was part of the first-ever class-action sex-discrimination suit, filed by 46 female employees at Newsweek. The women were clippers, researchers, and, in a few cases, reporters. If they expressed interest in writing, they were promptly rebuffed with the edict “Women don’t write at Newsweek.” But even those who didn’t necessarily aspire to the top of the masthead realized that the subservient role of women at the magazine wouldn’t change unless they forced a few hands. Their EEOC suit stated that the women had been “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume a subsidiary role”; with strategic irony, it was filed the same day that Newsweek’s cover story on the feminist movement, titled “Women in Revolt” hit newsstands.

A lawsuit was an unprecedented move, and, for the women involved — self-identified “good girls” of breeding and manners, many of them graduates of Seven Sisters colleges like Vassar and Radcliffe, and none previously possessed of radical urges — a revelatory one. (Povich herself, the daughter of sportswriter Shirley Povich and sister to the soon-to-be media macher Maury, recalls writing to a friend that becoming a journalist would be her “first exposure to a real challenge.”) Though the burgeoning women’s movement was in the air, its heady sisterhood-is-powerful scent hadn’t yet reached many women who, particularly in the high-pressure, big-ego work of New York City media, had been taught to view each other as competition. As Pat Lynden, a reporter who signed on to the suit in its infant stages, recalls in the book, “Women just didn’t trust each other. We didn’t talk about our salaries. We fought over the bones like crazy.”

And what little professional camaraderie there was didn’t cross race lines. Though there were black women working as researchers at Newsweek, they declined to join the suit, a fact that was both frustrating and understandable to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the black ACLU attorney who helmed the case. “We were in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement,” Norton recalls in the book. “For black women to make that transition—to make a partnership with white women, who were among the most privileged in society—was uncomfortable for them.”

Still, as the Newsweek women began the process of building their case, the “click moments” that characterized second-wave consciousness raising began piling up, cementing their shared experiences. Incidents of open discrimination and of what — these days — is instantly recognizable as harassment defined Newsweek’s office culture of the time. Writers badgering secretaries about their sex lives? Click. Male reporters enticed to take Newsweek jobs with the promise of “getting to screw the researchers”? Click. Female reporters asked to turn over their notes to male reporters for no reason other than gender? Click, click, click. Indeed, the institutional sexism at Newsweek was something approaching a point of pride for the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Osborn “Oz” Elliott; he responded to the lawsuit by issuing a statement that read, in part, “The fact that most researchers at Newsweek are women and that virtually all writers are men stems from a newsmagazine tradition going back almost fifty years.”

Povich’s account of the case unspools with a cinematic energy, helped along by the real-life bold names who featured in it, including Katherine Graham, whose Washington Post Company owned Newsweek, and Gloria Steinem, whom Graham recruited to advise Newsweek management on how best to handle the negotiations with the women. Norton, the civil-rights activist-turned-congresswoman, is both the brains and the much-needed brawn of the suit, reminding the women again and again to “take off your white gloves.” And among the 46 women who signed on are quite a few whose names will be familiar to newshounds and media-watchers, among them Carter-era White House correspondent Eleanor Clift and business columnist Jane Bryant Quinn. But The Good Girls Revolt is powerful in part because it doesn’t seek to tie up the messy, imperfect, real-life events with a neat bow of made-for-TV, proto-you-go-girl closure.

The Newsweek suit was groundbreaking, and, indeed, it quickly begat similar gender- and race-based class-action lawsuits at media organizations including the New York Times, Reader’s Digest, the Washington Post, and Time Inc. But it wasn’t as simple as the women protesting discrimination, the men seeing the error of their entrenched sexist ways, and the office culture changing accordingly; and it wasn’t as expected as the women protesting discrimination and the men pushing back in order to defend the status quo. In fact, versions of both those scenarios played out in the aftermath of the lawsuit. Oz Elliott, notably, had his own consciousness raised by the process, and it’s clear that he earned Povich’s affection as much by his willingness to really listen to the women’s case as by having the juice to offer them a chance to write for Newsweek. But the highly subjective in-house process of deciding what made a Newsweek writer, as well as an absence of the kind of casual mentoring that helped male writers hone their chops, also ensured that the boys’-club atmosphere remained. Pat Lynden’s writing tryout, for instance, is recounted thus:

Pat was given the assignment [on child care] because she had written a cover story on the subject for the New York Times Magazine in February 1970. The senior editor, Joel Blocker, told Pat to come to him with any problems or questions about the assignment and that he would be glad to help. She took him at his word and gave him her first draft. “The next thing I knew, he called me in to his office to say he’d turned over the assignment to Jerry Footlick,” she recalled. “I asked what the problem was and said I wanted to fix it. But Joel shook his head and said Jerry was doing the story.”

And though there was some immediate change, and some undeniable success stories — Povich herself became the magazine’s first female senior editor in 1975, and went on to be editor-in-chief of Working Woman magazine and a managing editor at MSNBC — The Good Girls Revolt acknowledges that, as with so many social revolutions, the beneficiaries weren’t necessarily the ones on the front lines, but those who came after them. There’s also the inconvenient reality that while every female employee involved in the suit felt that women should be able to be a Newsweek writer, not all of them wanted to. As Povich and her cohorts recall, this led to a few put-up-or-shut-up moments for women who truly loved their jobs at the research desk, but felt that they couldn’t turn down writing opportunities lest they be viewed as proof that the storied 50-year-old newsmagazine tradition shouldn’t be upended after all.

Perhaps the most salient thing about the case, though, is that so few people today know it even happened. Povich writes in the book’s introduction about several young, female contemporary Newsweek staffers who began to notice that, despite having grown up in an age of putative Girl Power, they were encountering career obstacles that had everything to do with their sex. One, an intern, was on track for a staff position — until three guys showed up for summer internships, and were offered jobs soon after. Another, an editor, found that, while she was assiduously pitching stories, the handful of male interns who treated her like their den mother were being handed assignments. When a researcher at Newsweek’s library told them about the landmark lawsuit, they had their own “click” moment, and endeavored to write a piece for the magazine on just how much had — and hadn’t — changed for women in workplaces like Newsweek. Writes Povich:

Jessica [Bennett], Jesse [Ellison], and Sarah [Ball], and many young women like them, are beginning to understand that legal principles are not the only impediment to power. They see that the rhetoric they were taught—and believed—does not fully exist in the real world; that women still don’t have equal rights and equal opportunities; that cultural transformation is harder than legal reform.

The resulting piece was “Are We There Yet?” a four-page story that almost didn’t run when editor Jon Meacham recused himself from overseeing it. (The writers and their male editor, Marc Peyser, eventually appealed to the magazine’s editorial director.) Among more general statistics about women’s gains, losses, and compromises in white-collar workplaces, the piece noted that Newsweek, while more equitable than it was in the days of Oz Elliott, still assigned all but a handful of its cover stories to male writers. (Months later, a merger between the magazine and Tina Brown’s website The Daily Beast made Brown Newsweek’s first female editor-in-chief, a milestone that she noted in press interviews with no small satisfaction.)

In delving into a piece of women’s history and exploring its legacy for women today, The Good Girls Revolt is both a compelling case study and a reminder that we shouldn’t be too quick to append the prefix “post” to the word “feminism.” Certainly, Newsweek and the papers and magazines whose suits followed were comparatively rarefied spaces, and their willingness to explore institutional change was at least partly fueled by the specter of bad PR and diminished sales numbers. (How many less high-profile workplaces, with less face to lose, never allowed for this kind of revolt in the first place?) But it only takes one look at media coverage of the annual byline count conducted by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, to realize, well, women still don’t write — at least not enough — at Newsweek. And the New Yorker. And Harper’s. And The New Republic. And it takes almost as little time to realize that there are plenty of people willing to defend byline imbalance, invoking individualist arguments instead of considering that systematic, institutional bias still holds fast in some of our most ostensibly progressive strongholds of journalism and opinion. Newsweek’s women won the battle; but Povich acknowledges the myriad spaces — workplaces, schools, kitchens, Congress — where the war is still being waged, and urges us to take off our own white gloves for the ongoing project of parity.


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LARB Contributor

Andi Zeisler is the co-founder and editorial/creative director of Bitch Media, the nonprofit organization best known for publishing Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. She is the coeditor of BitchFest: 10 Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and the author of Feminism and Pop Culture (Seal Press.) She is currently working on a second book about feminism and popular culture. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and speaks frequently on the subject of feminism and the media at various colleges and universities. Find her on Twitter at @andizeisler.


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