Lynn Povich had always considered herself a good girl. She went to college, figured she’d soon marry and have children and knew she’d find work, but not necessarily a career. She was one of the few women at Newsweek in the 1960s able to rise from the position of fact checker or researcher. But the upward trajectory was anything but certain in this Mad Men-like work culture. It took an EEOC suit she filed with 45 female colleagues in 1970 for “systematic discrimination” by management. But it was several years—and a second suit—before the women of Newsweek were able to make real gains. In 1975, Povich was named the magazine’s first female senior editor, but not all women progressed. In fact, three young reporters found out about the suit decades later and realized they, too, faced many of the same obstacles. They wrote a Newsweek cover story in 2010, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the suit, titled “Are We There Yet?” The short answer: No. We are not.
Povich has chronicled the lawsuit in The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, out today. We spoke with her last week about why she’s proud to be called an “affirmative action baby” and why the challenges of women’s rights in the workplace continue. An edited version of the interview follows.
MORE: You open the book with three of today’s younger Newsweek journalists who say they hadn’t even really realized that they, too, were being discriminated against. Has the “good girl” mentality really changed all that much?
Lynn Povich: I do think women have a tendency to think they are the problem. Before women volunteer to do something or ask to do something they read 18 books or get an extra degree to really prepare. They’re not as risk-oriented in saying, “Sure, boss, I can do it.” There is a confidence issue, I think, still, among women. That surprised me a little bit because our generation and the women after us tried to instill in our daughters that they can do anything and go anywhere. And, in fact, most of them succeeded extremely well through school. But the work world is where women have always begun to see what the obstacles are. And the fact (the young reporters) didn’t identify it as discrimination was interesting to me. I guess (to them) the sex wars were over, we were all equal now. They had been told that and bought that.
MORE: You compare the Newsweek culture to a Mad Men-esque environment. If it was a cultural norm, what was the push that led the women to challenge it?
LP: There were women who knew they wanted to be writers and they weren’t going to be writers at Newsweek, and so they left and did very well—Nora Ephron, Ellen Goodman, Jane Bryant Quinn, Susan Brownmiller. But I think many of us didn’t think about it. Even though we were highly educated—I went to an all-girls school that had a long feminist tradition—we were raised to think our main purpose in life was to be wives and mothers and that we might work. We bought that until one day we didn’t buy it. For many of us, it was because there was a women’s movement that started saying, wait a minute, there’s something wrong with this picture. Here at Newsweek, we have similar, and sometimes better, credentials than men who are being hired as writers. There’s something wrong here.
I always wonder about Rosa Parks—at what moment did she finally say I’m not moving? It is a magical moment that sort of happens. The person at Newsweek who started it all was a researcher, Judy Gingold. She was told by a friend that the system at Newsweek was actually illegal according to the Civil Rights Act.