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'Good Girls Revolt': Story Of A Newsroom Uprising

Sep 9, 2012
Originally published on September 10, 2012 8:42 am

In the 1960s, Lynn Povich worked at Newsweek — where she became part of a revolution.

"At Newsweek, women were hired on the mail desk to deliver mail, then to clip newspapers, and, if they were lucky, became researchers or fact checkers," Povich tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer, whom she knows personally. "All of the writers and reporters were men, and everyone accepted it as that was the way the world was — until we didn't."

Povich's new book, The Good Girls Revolt, tells the story of how the women sued their bosses and changed the workplace. The first spark that set off the rebellion was in 1969 — five years after the Civil Rights Act made gender discrimination illegal.

"It was only as the women's movement started gaining steam that it suddenly dawned on us that, oops, there's something wrong with this picture here — that this movement doesn't just apply to those women, it applies to us, and we have to do something about it," Povich says. "And it's illegal."

So the women sued — twice. The first time, they failed, according to Povich. Then they decided to hire Eleanor Holmes Norton, who had become the human rights commissioner for the city of New York, and Harriet Rabb, a young lawyer at Columbia who was running an employment-rights seminar.

Rabb put across goals and timetables. The women asked for a third of the reporters and a third of the writers to be women, and a third of the researchers to be men. They aimed to integrate the category to show that researcher was not just a woman's job — it was an entry-level job for anyone with those skills, Povich says.

"Our final demand was that there be a woman senior editor. And they balked at this because it was management — we can't tell them who to put in management," she says. "And we just said, 'We're not signing an agreement where there's not a woman in the meetings where all the decisions are being made.' And they promised to have a woman senior editor by the end of 1975."

The women gave the men two years to find a woman they could have in their management meetings.

"I was told they approached Gloria Steinem, who by that time was editing her own magazine, Ms.," Povich says. "And I don't think she would have wanted to be a senior editor at Newsweek at the time. And she said to me, 'They probably came to me because I was like Jose Greco, the only Spanish dancer they knew.' "


Interview Highlights

On why the women took the menial jobs

"We were so happy to be working in an interesting place ... surrounded and talking about the news of the day. The world of the '60s still had classified ads that were segregated, 'Help Wanted — Male' and 'Help Wanted — Female.' And most of the female occupations were nurses, teachers, secretaries and jobs of that sort."

"And I think that, as one of the men said, we were all blind. I mean, the men accepted this system, and those of us who stayed at Newsweek accepted this system."

On the "Rosa Parks" of the Newsweek movement

"The woman who started the [movement] — what I call our Rosa Parks of our little movement — was a woman named Judy Gingold, who was a Marshall scholar in Oxford, came back, could not find a job and ended up being a researcher at Newsweek, fact-checking people. And she was having a conversation with a friend who was a lawyer, describing the situation at Newsweek, and the woman said, 'You know that's illegal.' And she had no idea. And she said, 'Well, I don't think the men know it's illegal.' And [the lawyer] said, 'Well, call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.' And the woman said to her, 'Yes, it's illegal.' And Judy said, 'Well, I think we have to tell the men.' And the woman said, 'Are you crazy? People don't want to give up power. If you tell them about it, they will promote two women, co-opt all of you, and it will be over. Your case is so clear cut, you've got to do something.' And so now Judy had a moral issue — this was illegal, something wrong was happening — and so she came back and started organizing us."

On recruiting in the ladies' room

"We would sort of look under to see who was in the ladies' room, look under the stalls, and then we'd approach someone at the sink, and say, you know, 'Ugh, I've got to check this story by so-and-so,' and, 'God, I could write it better than he does,' and if the woman seemed to respond, then you'd say something like, 'Well, we're thinking about doing something about changing this system. Are you interested?' And one by one, we reeled people in."

On how times haven't changed

"It surprised me when I met these young women at Newsweek today, because, you know, they were all supercompetent, been told since they were kids that they could do anything, and yet, when they got into the work world, after a year or two, they were suddenly feeling marginalized — that guys seemed to be getting better assignments, and young guys with equal qualifications or even less were somehow being promoted faster than they were. And they couldn't understand why, because this was post-feminism, the sex wars were over, we were all equal now. So it couldn't be that thing called discrimination; it must be them. They just must not be talented enough to move ahead.

"Well, I think it's more difficult for young women now, because it has the air of equality, but when you look under the surface, of course, there [are] still hostile work environments; there's still not equal pay for women. So, there's no longer the blatant categories and castes for women, but yes, I also think that, with women's issues currently on the front burner in this political system, many of us indeed thought these rights were secure that we had won, and yet you see how threatened they are, both in the work world and with reproductive rights and violence against women. I mean, vigilance is necessary."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

"The Good Girls Revolt" by Lynn Povich tells a story that was incredibly important to a certain group of women - a group that includes me, and every woman who works in a news organization. The book is the story of, as the subtitle has it, how the women of Newsweek sued their bosses and changed the workplace. And I am here to tell you that they did change the world of women working in journalism. Lynn Povich is in our New York studio to talk about her book. Lynn, welcome.

LYNN POVICH: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Let me say right away that you and I know each other and we have many friends in common. We're almost exactly the same age, we came to journalism at the same time with many of the same ideas and ambitions. We started at low-paying menial jobs and no prospects of advancement because women did not move up in journalism. And we were thrilled - how dumb is that?

POVICH: We were so happy to be working in an interesting place, as you said, you know, surrounded and talking about the news of the day. Some women knew, saw the lay of the land quite early, that they would never be promoted to writer or reported. They would, as Jane Bryant Quinn said, end up checking men who were less talented than she. Women were hired on the mail desk to deliver mail, then to clip newspapers, and if they were lucky became researchers or fact checkers. All of the writers and reporters were men. And everyone accepted it as that was the way the world was until we didn't. It suddenly dawned on us that, oops, there's something wrong with this picture here and we have to do something about it. And it's illegal.

WERTHEIMER: Well, that's the thing that I think is so remarkable. I mean, surely you knew that, right?

POVICH: Well, we didn't know it actually. The woman who started our little movement was a woman named Judy Gingold, and she was having a conversation with a friend who was a lawyer, describing the situation at Newsweek. And the woman said you know that's illegal? And she had no idea. And she said, well, you know, I don't think the men know it's illegal. And she said, well, call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the woman said to her, yes, it's illegal. And Judy said, well, I think we have to tell the men. And the woman said, are you crazy? People don't want to give up power. If you tell them, they will promote two women, co-opt all of you and it will be over. Your case will be so clear-cut you've got to do something. And so now Judy had a moral issue. And she came back and started organizing us.

WERTHEIMER: So, you started recruiting people to sign onto the lawsuit, and this is another part that is deeply and horribly nostalgic for me. You did a lot of your persuading in the ladies room, where you're not at all likely to encounter bosses.

POVICH: We would sort of look under to see who was in the ladies room, look under the stalls, and then we'd approach someone at the sink and say, you know, oh, I've got to check this story by so-and-so, and, you know, God, I could write it better than he does. And if the woman seemed to respond, then you'd say something like we're thinking about doing something about changing the system, are you interested? And one by one, we reeled people in.

WERTHEIMER: So, you brought the suit, but it didn't quite work.

POVICH: A few women went to the bureau, but the women who tried out as writers all failed, we think because the men didn't want them to succeed, and very little happened. And so we decided we had to hire another lawyer, and we hired Harriett Rabb, a brilliant young lawyer at Columbia who was running an employment rights seminar.

WERTHEIMER: So, you started over. You filed suit again.

POVICH: Correct. Harriett put across goals and timetables, which were then increasingly in use in these cases, where we asked for a third of the reporters and a third of the writers to be women. And most important, a third of the researchers to be men, to integrate the category to show that this was not a woman's job. It was an entry-level job for anyone with those skills. And our final demand was that there be a woman senior editor. And they balked at this, 'cause it was management. We can't tell them who to put in management, and we just said we're not signing an agreement where there's not a woman in the meetings where all the decisions were being made. And they promised to have a woman senior editor by the end of 1975. We gave them two years to find any woman they could to have in those meetings.

WERTHEIMER: It was not that long ago. It's so amazing to think about it.

POVICH: Well, I was told they approached Gloria Steinem, and she said to me, well, they probably came to me because I was like Jose Greco, the only Spanish dancer they knew.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, you begin your book by describing a lunch that you had with some young women from today's Newsweek who were feeling a little bit like you had.

POVICH: Yes, it surprised me when I met these young women at Newsweek today. Because, you know, they were super-competent and told since they were kids that they could do anything. And yet when they got into the work world after a year or two, they were suddenly feeling marginalized, that guys seemed to be getting better assignments, and young guys with equal qualifications or even less were somehow being promoted faster than they were. And they couldn't understand why, because this was post-feminism, the sex wars were over, we were all equal now. So, it couldn't be that thing called discrimination. It must be them. They just not be talented enough to move ahead.

WERTHEIMER: So, what does that mean? The more things change the more they remain the same?

POVICH: Well, I think it's more difficult for young women now, because it has the air of equality. But when you look under the surface, of course, there are still hostile work environments, there are still not equal pay for women. Many of us thought these rights were secure that we had won, and yet you see how threatened they are, both in the work world and with reproductive rights and violence against women. I mean, vigilance is necessary.

WERTHEIMER: Lynn Povich's book is called "The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace." Lynn, thank you very much and congratulations on your book.

POVICH: Thank you so much for having me, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.