‘Good Girls Revolt’: The Feminist Legacy of a Newsweek Lawsuit

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Anna Camp as Jane Hollander, Erin Darke as Cindy Reston and Genevieve Angelson as Patti Robinson stand at the News of the Week office in Amazon's new show "Good Girls Revolt," inspired by Lynn Povich's 2012 book about the gender discrimination lawsuit filed by 46 Newsweek women in 1970. Amazon Prime Video

Updated | Fifty years ago, a man would have written this piece. I might have done research or helped report it, but a man would have written the words. While his career advanced, I might have been told to go somewhere else if I wanted to write, because “women don’t write at Newsweek.” This was the “tradition” for decades, until 46 women sued the magazine for gender discrimination in 1970.

Some women “came in with that consciousness. From the beginning they knew that this was not the way women should be in the world,” says Lynn Povich, one of the female staffers who filed the complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and fought for change. For the most part, though, “the men didn’t get it and the women didn’t get it.”

Povich’s 2012 book, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, inspired the new Amazon series Good Girls Revolt. The pilot was released for Amazon’s “pilot season” last November. The full first season is due out on October 28.

In the 1960s, a woman’s career trajectory at Newsweek could include roles as a mail girl, clipper, researcher and reporter. But almost uniformly, that’s where it ended. Only men were hired or promoted to staff writer. Povich, an anomaly, became a junior writer while dozens of female colleagues remained in lower ranks. It wasn’t until 1969 when one researcher, Judy Gingold, learned from a friend of a friend who was a lawyer that this situation was actually illegal, violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that the women began to organize secretly and sought an attorney. They found Eleanor Holmes Norton, then assistant legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, now a delegate to Congress for Washington, D.C., and always “smart, shrewd, and sharp-tongued,” as Povich writes in her book.

By then, a fierce movement of women and women’s groups had emerged in American society, demanding to talk about family, reproductive health, employment and more. Their voices were so boisterous as to reach the old art deco Newsweek building on Madison Avenue; the editors decided to run a cover story on women’s liberation. They realized at least that a woman should write it but hired Helen Dudar from the New York Post rather than using in-house talent.

On March 16, 1970, Newsweek published a cover in primary colors: A naked woman in red-tinged silhouette raised her fist against a bright yellow background, crashing through a blue Venus symbol used to represent the female sex. The Newsweek women, the first in media to sue for sex discrimination, chose that morning to file their complaint and hold a press conference, making public the underground effort that had been fomenting in the office.

Dudar’s cover story was prescient, though the author didn’t know how much the sentiments she described resonated internally at Newsweek. The American woman “earns less than men and has fewer prospects for promotion, no matter how superior she may be,” she wrote, and the “New Feminists” are “talking about changes in social attitudes and customs that will allow every female to function as a separate and equal person.” But Dudar also observed that “women’s lib questions everything; and while intellectually I approve of that, emotionally, I am unstrung by a lot of it.” The fraught process of confronting injustice is the ethos of this moment of cultural transition—the heyday of second-wave feminism—and the central theme of the first season of Amazon’s series, a fictionalized take on the history Povich recounts in her book.

“When we look at it today, the simple proposition that anybody as talented as these women ought to understand that they should have the same opportunities… misunderstands where the country was,” Norton tells Newsweek. “They had to go through a period in which risk was mitigated and in which possibility of victory was understood.”

As such, Good Girls Revolt doesn’t start out with a group of rebellious women ready for a fight, but with a staff chasing after stories at News of the Week, the thinly veiled stand-in for Newsweek. Each woman in the leading trio experiences an unraveling as she starts to “get it.” For Cindy Reston (Erin Darke), a mousy, sweet-spoken newlywed, it’s a sexual self-discovery and the realization that she is lonely in her marriage, not content to just be her husband’s wife. For Jane Hollander (Anna Camp)—the sharp, polished daughter of a wealthy family who balks at the idea of being a “career girl”—it’s a rising panic that she is further from getting a ring on her finger than she anticipated. And for Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson)—passionate, insightful and immersed in the ’60s counterculture of music, sex and drugs—it’s the tension between her feelings for Doug, the writer she’s assigned to work with and who she’s sleeping with, and her envy for his career.

Despite a few snags, the show is deeply engaging, a refreshingly authentic look at journalism onscreen with strong, believable female characters. The men, too, are nuanced. But Dana Calvo, creator of the show and an executive producer and writer on it, says that Povich, who read scripts for accuracy and advice, would repeatedly indicate that some of the men were more sexist in real life. Calvo adds that there was a limit to what Amazon would let them depict.

Good Girls Revolt is an era drama—the newsroom clacking and ringing with typewriters and rotary phones. Still, it remains relevant today. “Look at the tape we’re listening to,” Calvo tells Newsweek, speaking in the days after the release of a vile recording featuring Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. In the writers’ room, she says, they talked about how much, but also how little, has changed.

The recent allegations against Roger Ailes are just one very visible reminder. After his ouster, my colleague Lucy Westcott collected stories from journalists that ranged from everyday sexism to harassment and assault, all but two from women. The survey she sent out was not a scientific study, but the more than 50 responses that came in a week made it clear these incidents were not isolated. Just a few months earlier, a union analysis found that full-time female employees at Dow Jones properties—like The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch and Barrons—made, on average, “about 87 cents for every dollar paid to full-time men,” with only seven of the top 30 salaries in the newsrooms going to women. An Indiana University study suggests that Dow Jones is not alone, finding that the median salary for women in journalism in 2012 was roughly 83 percent of the median salary for men.

“Media on all platforms are failing women,” said Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, in her foreword to the WMC’s “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2015.” This more-recent report found that “women, who are more than half the population, are assigned to report stories at a substantially lower rate than men. In evening broadcast news, women are on-camera 32 percent of the time; in print news, women report 37 percent of the stories; on the internet, women write 42 percent of the news; and on the wires, women garner only 38 percent of the bylines.”

Newsweek isn’t immune. In 2010, three female staffers published “Young Women, Newsweek, and Sexism.” Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball had discovered the story of the 1970 lawsuit a few years before Povich published her book, at a time when they were experiencing frustrations of their own. Though it was nothing as overt as what the ’60s Newsweek “dollies” went through, they watched male colleagues get promoted faster and land more bylines, sometimes with ideas the women had pitched and had rejected. Only six out of 49 covers were not written by men in 2009, they said, and the editorial masthead at the time was 39 percent women. But “just as our predecessors’ 1970 case didn’t happen in a vacuum,” they wrote 40 years later, “Newsweek today is neither unique nor unusual.” Their goal was not to disparage Newsweek specifically, but to bring attention to a common problem in the media and other fields.

“Today it’s hard to recognize,” she says. “Is it sexist or is it just me? Is it sexist or am I crazy?” Bennett tells me from Boston while on the publicity tour for her new book, Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace. She draws a direct line from her experiences at Newsweek and learning about the lawsuit to her book, which came out September 13. “Hearing their story taught us so much about our own story,” she says. “We forget these battles that have been fought in the past and then we fight them again.”

Since Bennett, Ellison and Ball wrote their piece, Newsweek has been through several major upheavals—the sale by the Washington Post Company in 2010, the merger with The Daily Beast later that year, the cessation of print with “#LastPrintIssue” on the cover in December 2012 and finally the 2013 sale to IBT Media, which saw the company built up again from scratch and the return of the print magazine in March 2014. Today, women comprise just over a third of the editorial masthead, roughly 45 percent of staff writers and two of seven editors in the very top section of the page (though one of the two is temporarily out of the office after the birth of her son). Through October, staff, contributing and freelance women had written or co-written 19 out of 41 cover stories this year, while in 2015 women wrote or co-wrote 19 out of 48 cover stories.

The structure of the Amazon series’ first season reflects the idea that change doesn’t happen quickly or easily. The frustrations of Patti, Cindy, Jane and their colleagues crystallize throughout 10 episodes (only the first seven of which were made available to Newsweek at the time of this writing) as they come together and plot their big reveal. The finale, according to Calvo and Povich, depicts the day when they lodge their formal complaint and announce their demands to their bosses and the world.

“Now we get to see fallout of that action,” Calvo says. If Amazon green-lights a second season, viewers will have a chance to see the “women propelled forward in this system, with all the confidence and solidarity” that was forged in Season 1. “I’m excited to write the messy lives these women have created for themselves.” Ones that are likely to increasingly resemble the lives of women today: several steps ahead of where women were in the 1960s, but not yet at the end of the road.

Povich emphasizes that achieving equality is not only for the benefit of women, but also that of men, children and society. “This is not a women’s problem,” she says. It’s everyone’s problem.