Young Women, Newsweek, and Sexism

The Visual Language of Liberation: Women's history on NEWSWEEK covers. CLICK TO VIEW PHOTOS.

They were an archetype: independent, determined young graduates of Seven Sisters colleges, fresh-faced, new to the big city, full of aspiration. Privately, they burned with the kind of ambition that New York encourages so well. Yet they were told in job interviews that women could never get to the top, or even the middle. They accepted positions anyway—sorting mail, collecting newspaper clippings, delivering coffee. Clad in short skirts and dark-rimmed glasses, they'd click around in heels, currying favor with the all-male management, smiling softly when the bosses called them "dollies." That's just the way the world worked then. Though each quietly believed she'd be the one to break through, ambition, in any real sense, wasn't something a woman could talk about out loud. But by 1969, as the women's movement gathered force around them, the dollies got restless. They began meeting in secret, whispering in the ladies' room or huddling around a colleague's desk. To talk freely they'd head to the Women's Exchange, a 19th-century relic where they could chat discreetly on their lunch break. At first there were just three, then nine, then ultimately 46—women who would become the first group of media professionals to sue for employment discrimination based on gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Their employer was NEWSWEEK magazine.

Until six months ago, when sex- and gender-discrimination scandals hit ESPN, David Letterman's Late Show, and the New York Post, the three of us—all young NEWSWEEK writers—knew virtually nothing of these women's struggle. Over time, it seemed, their story had faded from the collective conversation. Eventually we got our hands on a worn copy of In Our Time, a memoir written by a former NEWSWEEK researcher, Susan Brownmiller, which had a chapter on the uprising. With a crumpled Post-it marking the page, we passed it around, mesmerized by descriptions that showed just how much has changed, and how much hasn't.

Forty years after NEWSWEEK's women rose up, there's no denying our cohort of young women is unlike even the half-generation before us. We are post–Title IX women, taught that the fight for equality was history; that we could do, or be, anything. The three of us were valedictorians and state-champion athletes; we got scholarships and were the first to raise our hands in class. As young professionals, we cheered the third female Supreme Court justice and, nearly, the first female president. We've watched as women became the majority of American workers, prompting a Maria Shriver–backed survey on gender, released late last year, to proclaim that "the battle of the sexes is over."

The problem is, for women like us, the victory dance feels premature. Youthful impatience? Maybe. But consider this: U.S. Department of Education data show that a year out of school, despite having earned higher college GPAs in every subject, young women will take home, on average across all professions, just 80 percent of what their male colleagues do. Even at the top end, female M.B.A.s make $4,600 less per year in their first job out of business school, according to a new Catalyst study. Motherhood has long been the explanation for the persistent pay gap, yet a decade out of college, full-time working women who haven't had children still make 77 cents on the male dollar. As women increasingly become the breadwinners in this recession, bringing home 23 percent less bacon hurts families more deeply than ever before. "The last decade was supposed to be the 'promised one,' and it turns out it wasn't," says James Turley, the CEO of Ernst & Young, a funder of the recent M.B.A. study. "This is a wake-up call."

In countless small ways, each of us has felt frustrated over the years, as if something was amiss. But as products of a system in which we learned that the fight for equality had been won, we didn't identify those feelings as gender-related. It seemed like a cop-out, a weakness, to suggest that the problem was anybody's fault but our own. It sounds naive—we know—especially since our own boss Ann McDaniel climbed the ranks to become NEWSWEEK's managing director, overseeing all aspects of the company. Compared with the NEWSWEEK dollies, what did we have to complain about? "If we judge by what we see in the media, it looks like women have it made," says author Susan Douglas. "And if women have it made, why would you be so ungrateful to point to something and call it sexism?"

Yet the more we talked to our friends and colleagues, the more we heard the same stories of disillusionment, regardless of profession. No one would dare say today that "women don't write here," as the NEWSWEEK women were told 40 years ago. But men wrote all but six of NEWSWEEK's 49 cover stories last year—and two of those used the headline "The Thinking Man." In 1970, 25 percent of NEWSWEEK's editorial masthead was female; today that number is 39 percent. Better? Yes. But it's hardly equality. (Overall, 49 percent of the entire company, the business and editorial sides, is female.) "Contemporary young women enter the workplace full of enthusiasm, only to see their hopes dashed," says historian Barbara J. Berg. "Because for the first time they're slammed up against gender bias."

How Woman's Rights Have Paid Off: Click on image to view photos.

We should add that we are proud to work at NEWSWEEK. (Really, boss, we are!) We write about our magazine not because we feel it's worse here, but because NEWSWEEK was once ground zero for a movement that was supposed to break at least one glass ceiling. Just as our predecessors' 1970 case didn't happen in a vacuum, NEWSWEEK today is neither unique nor unusual. Female bylines at major magazines are still outnumbered by seven to one; women are just 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than a quarter of law partners and politicians. That imbalance even applies to the Web, where the founder of a popular copywriting Web site, Men With Pens, revealed late last year that "he" was actually a she. "I assumed if I chose a male name [I'd] be viewed as somebody who runs a company, not a mom sitting at home with a child hanging off her leg," the woman says. It worked: her business doubled once she joined the boys' club.

We know what you're thinking: we're young and entitled, whiny and humorless—to use a single, dirty word, feminists! But just as the first black president hasn't wiped out racism, a female at the top of a company doesn't eradicate sexism. In fact, those contradictory signs of progress—high-profile successes that mask persistent inequality—are precisely the problem. Douglas describes those mixed messages as "enlightened sexism": the idea that because of all the gains women have made, biases that once would have been deemed sexist now get brushed off. Young women, consequently, are left in a bind: they worry they'll never be taken as seriously as the guys, yet when they're given the opportunity to run the show, they balk. A recent Girl Scouts study revealed that young women avoid leadership roles for fear they'll be labeled "bossy"; another survey found they are four times less likely than men to negotiate a first salary. As it turns out, that's for good reason: a Harvard study found that women who demand higher starting salaries are perceived as "less nice," and thus less likely to be hired. "This generation has had it ingrained in them that they must thrive within a 'yes, but' framework: Yes, be a go-getter, but don't come on too strong. Yes, accomplish, but don't brag about it," says Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl. "The result is that young women hold themselves back, saying, 'I shouldn't say this, ask for this, do this—it will make me unlikable, a bitch, or an outcast.' "

Somewhere along the road to equality, young women like us lost their voices. So when we marched into the workforce and the fog of subtle gender discrimination, it was baffling and alien. Without a movement behind us, we had neither the language to describe it nor the confidence to call it what it was. "It's so much easier when you're the generation that gets to fight against [specific] laws than it is to deal with these more complicated issues," says Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist. In a highly sexualized, post-PC world, navigating gender roles at work is more confusing than ever. The sad truth is that when we do see women rise to the top, we wonder: was it purely their abilities, or did it have something to do with their looks? If a man takes an interest in our work, we can't help but think about the male superior who advised "using our sexuality" to get ahead, or the manager who winkingly asked one of us, apropos of nothing, to "bake me cookies." One young colleague recalls being teased about the older male boss who lingered near her desk. "What am I supposed to do with that? Assume that's the explanation for any accomplishments? Assume my work isn't valuable?" she asks. "It gets in your head, which is the most insidious part."

Recognizing that sexism still exists despite its subtlety is one of the challenges of the new generation—though it doesn't hold a candle to what the dollies of 1970 pulled off. When they filed their legal complaint, the bottom tiers of the NEWSWEEK masthead were filled almost exclusively by women. "It was a nice place—especially if you were a man," says Nora Ephron, a NEWSWEEK "mail girl" in 1962. The women reported on the murder of a colleague, the State Department, and the 1968 campaign. But when it came to writing, they were forced to hand over their reporting to their male colleagues. "It was a very hopeless time," remembers Brownmiller. "After a while you really did start to lose your confidence. You started to think, 'Writing is what the men do.' "

Over dinner one night, a young researcher poured out her frustration to a lawyer friend, who ordered her to call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She did, and slowly her colleagues signed on to a class-action suit. They found a fiery young lawyer—now D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton—and they waited, nervously, until the time was right. "We were very staid, ladylike, not guerrilla-theater types," says Pat Lynden, one of the group's early organizers, who wrote cover stories for The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Magazine even while she wasn't allowed to write for NEWSWEEK. "But eventually we just couldn't take it anymore."

A year later, as the national women's movement gathered steam, NEWSWEEK's all-male management decided to put feminism on their cover. Oblivious to the rebellion brewing at home, they looked past the legions of NEWSWEEK women and went outside the building for a writer—to the wife of one of their top brass, whom they would ultimately describe, in an editor's note, as "a top-flight journalist who is also a woman." It was the final straw. The night before the issue hit newsstands, the NEWSWEEK women sent a memo announcing a press conference. They pooled their money to fly a colleague to Washington to present a copy to Katharine Graham, the magazine's owner, who later asked, "Which side am I supposed to be on?" Then on Monday, March 16, 1970, the NEWSWEEK women did what journalists do best: they took their story public. Crowded into a makeshift conference room at the ACLU, NEWSWEEK's "news hens" (as a local tabloid called them) held up a copy of their magazine, whose bright yellow cover told their own story: "Women in Revolt." Two days later the women of The Ladies' Home Journal would stage their own sit-in; others were soon to follow.

It was a moment of hope, one that set the stage for a wave of progress that continued rapidly through the 1990s. Twenty years after the NEWSWEEK dollies rose up, mothers were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, women's organizations such as NOW saw surges in membership, and expanded affirmative-action programs ensured that girls had equal access to education. "Girl power" became the new female mantra, and young women's empowerment groups sprang up at YWCAs. By 2000, when the female employment rate peaked, many women thought the job was done.

In the years since, there has been what Douglas describes as "a subtle, insidious backlash." In the face of 9/11, two wars, and now the Great Recession, gender equality—and stereotyping—became a secondary concern. Feminism was no longer a label to be worn with pride; Britney Spears and Paris Hilton now dominated airwaves. But the changes were more than cultural. The Global Gender Gap Index—a ranking of women's educational, health, political, and financial standing by the World Economic Forum—found that from 2006 to 2009 the United States had fallen from 23rd to 31st, behind Cuba and just above Namibia. Companies may have incorporated policies aimed at helping women, but they haven't helped as much as you'd think. "The U.S. always scores abysmally in terms of work-life balance," says the WEF's Kevin Steinberg. "But even here, [women] still rank 'masculine or patriarchal corporate culture' as the highest impediment to success." Exhibit A: the four most common female professions today are secretary, registered nurse, teacher, and cashier—low-paying, "pink collar" jobs that employ 43 percent of all women. Swap "domestic help" for nurse and you'd be looking at the top female jobs from 1960, back when want ads were segregated by gender.

The women of NEWSWEEK thought, or hoped, they'd begun to solve these problems four decades ago. Yet here we are. "It's sad," says Lynden, now 72. "Because we fought for all that." There's no denying that we're enjoying many of the spoils of those women's victories. We are no longer huddled in secret; we're reporting for a national magazine, and we're the ones doing the writing. We have a president whose first act in office was to sign a law that promises equal pay for equal work. Yet the fact that such a law is necessary makes the point: equality is still a myth. "We've got the entire weight of human history behind us, making us feel like we're kind of lucky to have jobs," says writer Ariel Levy. "And I think it takes a lot of fearlessness to think, 'F--k it, go ahead and yell at me, I'm going to fight for what I deserve.' " We've come a long way, baby. But there's still a long way to go.