By Christian, Shirley
Nieman Reports , Vol. 66, No. 3
The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace
BY LYNN POVICH
PublicAffairs. 249 pages.
DURING ITS CIVIL WAR, TINY EL SALVAdor was a place where correspondents could go out to rural battle sites and guerrilla camps during the day and return to the capital in time for dinner in a good restaurant. On one such evening in 1982, about a dozen of us enjoyed a roast-pig feast and fine wine as guests of the late Abe Rosenthal, executive editor of The New York Times. As we ate, a television correspondent asked Abe how our experiences in Central America compared with his covering the war in breakaway Katanga province in the Congo two decades earlier.
"The most obvious difference," Abe responded, "is that here I am surrounded by women."
While that may have been a slight exaggeration, there were women at the table representing the Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Miami Herald, and probably others.
Looking back, I can see that an incredible change had occurred in opportunities for women in the relatively short time since 1970, when women at Newsweek sued to stop sex discrimination at the newsmagazine. Their battle was not about slogging along muddy roads and pursuing recalcitrant army officers but about gathering the courage to say, "Enough!" to the mainly Ivy League gentlemen with whom they worked side by side. They shared food, drink, good times, late nights at the office when the magazine closed, and, yes, beds--but not the titles, glory, promotions and raises.
Lynn Povich, who began her career at Newsweek as a secretary and news aide in the Paris bureau after graduating from Vassar in 1965, recounts all of this in "The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace." It's not a sweeping book about women's rights on the job or even about women and journalism, but a sort of genteel tell-all and intimate description of how one group of women faced the expanding horizon that the 1960s brought. Some were determined; some were reluctant. It's a highly readable account laden with names most of us recognize, often in unflattering circumstances.
However, as the product of the land of Amelia Earhart and Carrie Nation and of state universities where I never feared to raise my hand, I can't help but see the Newsweek women as timid and quaint, even for their time. It was my time, too. By the '60s, doors were opening for women (and minorities), and women who wanted real journalism jobs didn't go into a female ghetto called the research department at Newsweek. The late Nora Ephron, who left Newsweek for the grittier world of the New York Post, told Povich years later: "I knew I was going to be a writer, and if they weren't going to make me one, I was going to a place that would."
Povich herself, even though she went on to a successful career both in and out of Newsweek, wonders "why the rest of us didn't get it, why we just didn't leave and try our luck elsewhere. Maybe because we were simply happy to have jobs in a comfortable, civilized workplace that dealt with the important issues of the day."
This book is revealing of the sense of entitlement and anointment felt by these women who came mostly from elite women's schools--where they "could be the first to raise their hands"--and thought it was their right to stay in the cozy white-shoe world surrounded by men from similar backgrounds. Most of them seemed to be grappling with whether to give up their pillboxes and the rest of the Jackie Kennedy mystique.
Trish Reilly, one of the women who sued, later found herself too conflicted about her life and ambitions to accept a transfer to the Los Angeles bureau, a step toward advancement. …