September 2012

Anne Gray Fischer


The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich

On March 18, 1970, over one hundred activists occupied the offices of the Ladies' Home Journal. Under the banner of the magazine's slogan "Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman," the activists presented a list of demands, including the hiring of nonwhite women at all levels of the masthead, free on-site childcare, and salary raises. The beleaguered editor-in-chief sat cornered in his office for the duration of the eleven-hour sit-in, until Shulamith Firestone, one of the movement's leaders, leapt onto his desk in a fit of rage, ripped a copy of the magazine apart, and lunged at the man. Firestone was hastily detained by the other feminists, and soon after, the editor opened negotiations.

Just two days before the Ladies' Home Journal occupation, forty-six women from Newsweek announced to a packed press conference that they were filing an unprecedented class-action lawsuit against their employer for gender discrimination. "Compared to the guerilla action [of the Journal sit-in], we were models of propriety," writes Lynn Povich in her account of the lawsuit, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. These "middle-class ladies" wouldn't dare leap on any desks, but they had calculated the timing of the press conference to maximize their publicity, and Newsweek's pain: that very day, Newsweek ran a cover story on the feminist movement, "Women in Revolt." Two class-actions and several years later, Povich, who started her career as a Newsweek secretary, was eventually named the first female senior editor. The Newsweekdiscrimination lawsuit set off a host of others at media outlets across the country, including The New York Times and Time, Inc.

The women who sued Newsweek sparkled with prestige, what their first lawyer, civil rights luminary Eleanor Holmes Norton, called "pristine female brilliance." They were Radcliffe graduates; Fulbright, Marshall, and Phi Beta Kappa scholars; and their credentials often came with a Rolodex full of professional connections, too: "father's friends" play a big role throughout the book, and, as Povich discloses, her own father was a prominent columnist for The Washington Post.

Despite these advantages, the women were bound to secretarial research jobs, particularly tedious in a pre-Internet newsroom, forced to watch their male counterparts from Harvard land writing assignments and move up the masthead, not to mention the pay scale. These injuries were compounded by a hostile atmosphere of routine sexual intimidation. Though Povich too often delivers her stories of harassment in shorthand, with winking references to Mad Men, they are truly frightening: in one instance, after a researcher refused an editor's increasingly aggressive advances, he marched up and down the Newsweek halls screaming her name, using words even PublicAffairs deemed unprintable.

The Newsweek women wanted an end to the abuses and degradation, but unlike the Journal occupiers, they didn't want to topple the prevailing power structure; on the contrary, they wanted their own piece of it. "It was thrilling to feel the pulse of the news and to have that special pipeline to the truth that civilians couldn't possibly have," gushes Povich, in one of her many love letters to Newsweek and the media establishment at large. Another researcher adored being a "handmaiden to the writer gods." It is staggering, then, that these passionate champions of the system would dare challenge it -- but when their confrontation with the magazine is presented as a "homegrown revolution" ("plotted over home-baked crab cakes and claret lemonade"), Povich's claims become especially problematic.

Povich frames the lawsuit as a triumphant moment in feminist history, yet she and the other women are also quick to distance themselves from the "lunatic fringe" of the women's liberation movement, or "women's lib," as Povich breezily calls it. A former colleague reflects, "I love and respect all those rude and noisy women whose protests -- even the silly protests -- achieved so much for women's freedom and choice." For Povich, the lawsuit was a "radicalizing act," but she betrays a deep ambivalence toward her radical contemporaries who sought to overthrow the system, rather than work it.

The Good Girls Revolt is emblematic of a narrow and much-maligned vision of the women's movement in the 1970s, one that is white, professional, and in Povich's own word, deployed with an unapologetic self-awareness, "elitist." Though Povich proudly declares that Norton, the women's first lawyer, was "a serious black woman with an imposing afro," only one of the six black women approached signed on to the initial lawsuit. "There was a feeling... that we were an afterthought," said one researcher. If we, like Povich, agree that "feminism isn't finished," then what is the value of her history, skewed as it is by her exclusive brand of advocacy? The Good Girls Revolt deserves close scrutiny because it is a history written for emerging women in the media, the spiritual home of the feminist backlash -- in 1990, a year before Povich left the magazine, Newsweek declared feminism "the great experiment that failed" -- and its misdirecting cousins, "having it all" and the "end of men." The Good Girls Revolt is meant for the women who will write the evolving narrative of feminism.

Learning our history, Povich rightly, if blandly, argues, is empowering. To prove her point, she introduces three young Newsweek and The Daily Beast writers, perfect new-generation analogies for Povich and her colleagues. Forty years after the lawsuit, these "bright young things" still suffered discrimination at the magazine (now edited by Tina Brown). They had shared a similar distaste for "angry, man-hating, granola-crunching" feminists, until they unearthed the history of the lawsuit and the young women had a "feminist awakening," stunned to find themselves in a longer struggle for women's rights.

Povich is happy to take credit for their conversion, but the historical lesson she offers throughout The Good Girls Revolt -- a repeat of the myopic "women's lib" she espoused forty years ago -- will not be enough to provoke a new and lasting "feminist awakening" among good girls and women alike. There is surely no revolution in the pages of The Good Girls Revolt, but clear-eyed and critical readers will find a rough draft of history that demands to be rewritten.

The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich
ISBN: 978-1610391733
288 pages