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.
MORE: What was the atmosphere like after the first suit was filed— changes weren’t happening and writing position “try-outs” for women were pretty much a joke?
LP: It was really hard for the first staff women who tried out as writers. Except for one who ultimately made it, they all failed, even though two of them had been published elsewhere. One had gotten cover stories at both The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine. The other was writing for the Village Voice. They were being recognized outside of Newsweek, but their tryouts went nowhere. I would say most of the writers and reporters with whom we worked every day were very supportive because they knew the kind of work we could do. I think most of them respected us and understood that we were well qualified. As with many organizations, the discrimination was in middle management, although several of the very top editors also were not happy with the women.
MORE: You call yourself an affirmative action baby.
LP: I would have never been offered the job as senior editor if it hadn’t been for our lawsuits or the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I’m proud to be an affirmative action baby. Anna Quindlen told me when she speaks to audiences, she too, says, “I am an affirmative action baby and if you think affirmative action means hiring a second-rate, mediocre person, you’re looking at one.”
MORE: So many journalists that followed just a few years after you say in the book that the Newsweek women – and The New York Times women who also filed a lawsuit—really allowed them to rise in the ranks. Do you consider yourself a trailblazer?
LP: I do. I think we were pioneers and opened the door for lots of women, not just in the media, but in the workplace in general. It’s rare that the women on the front lines really benefit. It was the generation just after us, the Anna Quindlens and the Gail Collinses who say to me, your generation did it for us. I look back on it: We were pretty young, most of us between 24 and 27, and we were passionate about the injustice; we felt we had little to lose. In the Old Testament, Nahson, who was Jewish and in the exodus from Egypt, was the first person who put his foot into the Red Sea, not knowing it would part. Those of us at Newsweek did things without knowing what was going to happen, and that was incredibly courageous. Having 46 of us gave us strength. Together, we gave each other the courage and the will to do it. … What’s interesting to me now is in this political season, women’s issues are becoming so prominent again and so important. My hope is that this generation, too, will be galvanized.
MORE: What are the most important lessons you learned during your career?
LP: You have to stand up for yourself. Our generation was mentored by men, and many of us were lucky enough to have good mentors. But, ultimately, we had to do it ourselves and push forward ourselves. This sexual discrimination suit showed me that when you actually organize and do something that requires risk you can create change, and that even the good girls can do it if they’re determined and focused and know their rights.
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