The Good Girls Revolt


First aired on Q (20/11/12)

In the 1960s, if you were a woman and you wanted to be a news reporter, the challenges were immense. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers were within their legal rights to discriminate against their employees based on sex. And for years after the act passed, biased hiring and promoting continued to be rampant.

During this time, Lynn Povich was a young woman who had gotten a job as a researcher at Newsweek, the iconic magazine that was founded in 1933. When asked if the TV show Mad Men has convincingly recreated the era, she said there was certainly a lot of carousing, inappropriate behaviour and sex in the office, but that men in advertising were much better dressed than journalists.

"It was a very glamorous place to work, on one hand because it was exciting and it was about the news," she told Q guest host Jim Brown recently. "But women were hired essentially to start working on the mail desk delivering mail, and then to clip newspapers, and if you were good at that, to become a fact checker. Men with the same kinds of credentials, and graduating from the same schools, were hired as reporters and writers. So while it was very collegial and exciting, it was also very discriminatory and patriarchal."

It was this workplace treatment that eventually led Povich and 45 other women at Newsweek to file a class action lawsuit against the company in the early 1970s, becoming the first women in media to sue because of sex discrimination. Povich has chronicled their legal battle in the book The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace.

So why does Povich refer to this trailblazing group as "the Good Girls"? Because many of them weren't even sure they wanted to be journalists, they were mostly happy to just have jobs. They were well mannered, polite and not particularly outspoken or political. They didn't realize that the job segregation happening at Newsweek was illegal due to the Civil Rights Act. It wasn't until one of the researchers was describing the workplace dynamics to a lawyer friend that it became clear the women were being discriminated against. As more and more of the female employees talked about the situation, the more they wanted to do something about it.

"It dawned on us that we actually wanted careers," Povich said. "We were told [growing up] to be good wives and mothers...[Instead, we] discovered sort of our own ambition and what we wanted to do."

The women began organizing, meeting secretly in the ladies' washroom. They hired lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was active in the civil rights movement (and who would, years later, be elected to Congress). It was exciting, but Povich also remembered being "terrified we would be found out and fired."

The Good Girls wanted to get as much attention as possible on this issue, so they waited for a news peg, a story or news event that could help make their lawsuit timelier in the eyes of the public.

The peg came from their own magazine. In 1970, Newsweek wanted to publish a big story about the women's rights movement. When the cover story "Women in Revolt" came out on newsstands, Povich and her female colleagues announced their lawsuit the same day.

"The timing was so delicious," she said, adding that the lawsuit story got picked up by major media outlets around the world. Her favourite headline was "Newshens sue Newsweek."

When Povich got back to the office, she remembers the mixed reaction from the rest of the staff. "A lot of the men who we worked with supported us. They knew we were smart and we were capable," Povich said, adding, "there were certainly editors who were furious with us...some men were against affirmative action."

good-girls-revolt-cover-120.jpgThey won the lawsuit and helped to usher in a new era in which women were taken seriously as journalists. The changes didn't happen quickly, though, as Povich notes that the group had to launch another suit a couple of years later, this time with much more specific goals concerning equality in hiring. Povich herself had to personally fight for equal pay when she was promoted to a senior editor at Newsweek.

And while many women work as news reporters and senior editors in newsrooms across the world today, Povich points out that things may not have changed as much as we might think. She recently connected with three women journalists -- Sarah Ball, Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison -- who started working at Newsweek in the last decade. The young women felt that their male counterparts were being offered better assignments and quicker promotions, despite being equally or less qualified.

This feeling of being subtly discriminated against was the catalyst for a 2010 article titled "Are We There Yet?," which generated a lot of conversation about how far gender equality still has to go in our society's companies and workplaces.

Povich also found out that the women had never heard of the famous Newsweek lawsuit in the 1970s. The magazine had moved its archival library of clippings and files to Texas and the story had largely disappeared from the public consciousness.

"I was shocked that there was not one scintilla of evidence about our lawsuit [at Newsweek]."

Povich's memoir is one way to keep the story alive.

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