The Revolt of the “Good Girls” at Newsweek  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2012

The Revolt of the “Good Girls” at Newsweek   

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

By Lynn Povich

PublicAffairs

288 pages; $25.99

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Ironies overflow in Lynn Povich's look back at Newsweek's landmark 1970s equal employment case, starting with her title. What would drive "good girls," which adult professionals still could be called back then, to "revolt" when they had secure jobs at a top national magazine?

Was it when a male editor complimented a female researcher on her "perfectly pointed breasts"?

Or working in a culture where another male, in his job interview, was told, "The best part of the job is that you get to screw the researchers"?

Or was it the cumulative effect of years of blatant discrimination, where "Newsweek never hired women as writers" but only as researchers and mail clerks in what the editor himself called "a newsmagazine tradition going back almost 50 years"?

These specifics and more help explain what drove 46 Newsweek women to file an EEOC complaint against their magazine in 1970 on – another irony – the very week it published a cover story, "Women in Revolt," about the nation's women's movement.

Povich, one of the complainants, describes a set of educated, accomplished women, ranging from cautious to bold, and how they recognized the outrage in their midst and mobilized to challenge it. She strikes a fair tone, neither naïve nor sanctimonious. Povich readily acknowledges that plenty of consensual flirting and sex were going on and that "our short skirts and sometimes braless tops only added to the boil."

But she also unsparingly conveys the one-sided "Mad Men kind of atmosphere" and the magazine's failure to enforce appropriate standards and to treat women and men equitably.

Among her achievements is a complex portrait of Newsweek Editor Osborn Elliott and his path from defensive adversary to understanding ally.

In perhaps the biggest irony, Elliott had rejuvenated Newsweek by positioning it as more progressive than Time, with an antiwar, pro-civil rights tone. But the magazine remained blind to its own overt discrimination.

"My consciousness at the time was zero," Elliott told Povich later. "Here we were busily carving out a new spot as a liberal magazine and right under our own noses was this oppressive regime."

Povich also draws rich portraits of the women involved. She is generous with details of her own story, the good and the less so, as she rises to become Newsweek's first female senior editor and later to edit Working Woman.

For them all, filing the complaint was a milestone. Greeted at first with some derision ("Newshens Sue Newsweek," New York's Daily News headlined), the case quickly brought the magazine's editors into negotiations.

It took several rounds, but over time the magazine moved to hire and promote women more fairly. "The struggle rerouted our lives, emboldened us, and gave many of us opportunities we never would have had," Povich writes. "It made Newsweek a better place to work and a better magazine."

And not just Newsweek. Before long, similar uprisings were afoot at Time Inc., the Washington Post, the New York Times and other media organizations.

Povich's book might have benefited from more detail on the government's role in forcing the settlement, but overall it makes good reading and good history. (It should be noted that Povich and her family are major donors to the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where I teach).

A final irony is that the story still hits nerves decades later. Povich opens by describing conversations with several young women at Newsweek in 2009 as they confront their own workplace concerns. "There have been many victories," she writes. "But many of the injustices that young women face today are the same ones we fought against 40 years ago. The discrimination may be subtler, but sexist attitudes still exist."

***

In a nice bit of timing, Povich's husband, Stephen B. Shepard, is publishing his own memoir ("Deadlines and Disruption: My Turbulent Path from Print to Digital," McGraw-Hill, $30). Drawing on 20 years as editor of BusinessWeek and later as founding dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Shepard shares many interesting stories. But beyond them, he offers perceptive analysis of where journalism stands today and an imaginative vision of where it can go.

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