There’s a dramatic scene in the first episode of Good Girls Revolt that’d make a good prologue here. A male editor calls the newsroom to attention and praises a reporter’s well-written article. All’s good and well until a woman reveals that she wrote it. Or rather, that she secretly re-wrote a man’s copy. That wasn’t part of her job—she was supposed to quietly help report and research but leave the writing to the men.
The male editor is livid to see his comfortable vision of “how things are done around here”—men writing and getting credit and women assisting in the background—disrupted. The woman quits. And as she walks out, several stunned women’s gazes follow her. Their eyes are wide and their mouths gaping. The moment marks the first stirrings of the titular revolt.
Now, that’s not at all how it actually happened in real life. But the series is based on Lynn Povich’s book, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, which recounted real events. Povich was one of 46 women at Newsweek who became the first in media to sue for gender discrimination—and she was later named the magazine’s first female senior editor, alone among men in the room where decisions were made.
She arrived at Newsweek in the 1960s after graduating from Vassar. At the time, she says, the magazine’s leadership considered writing in its very particular style a God-given talent—one bestowed solely on men. Women worked, if not as secretaries, then in the mailroom or as researchers or reporters. But not writers, let alone high-ranking editors calling the shots.
Women interviewing for jobs at the newsmagazine were told “If you want to be a writer, go somewhere else—women don’t write at Newsweek.”
Povich started as a secretary at the Paris bureau and later went to work at the magazine’s headquarters in New York City, where she soon became an exception. Though tradition dictated that women didn’t write, her boss was tired of covering fashion and promoted her to junior writer—not the first, but the only one at the time.
“You’re so lucky Harry’s your boss,” a friend told her. And that’s how it worked then: The men held the power over what little room they allowed for women to shine. Although Newsweek didn’t include bylines in those days, the big stories and their writers were called out in the “Top of the Week” page at the front of the magazine. The women who did much of the research and reporting were frequently left out, unless the male writer they helped happened to advocate for them. So Povich says she was lucky, but “others were as or more talented.”
The case began to take shape when one researcher, Judy Gingold, had lunch with a lawyer friend who told her that the gendered caste system was actually illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Povich was one of the first she shared this information with. And what started as hushed conversations among a few women in the bathroom grew into a historic lawsuit.
The women recruited dozens of female colleagues and turned to Eleanor Holmes Norton—today a Congresswoman for Washington, D.C., but then a young lawyer working as the assistant legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
They filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And they picked the perfect moment to announce it, scheduling a press conference on the morning Newsweek published a cover story about the women’s liberation movement. It was written by a woman, but not one on staff. The cover line said: “Women in Revolt.” And Newsweek’s “good girls” certainly were.
“It is ironic that while Newsweek considers women’s grievances newsworthy enough for such major coverage, it continues to maintain a policy of discrimination against the women on its own staff,” Norton said that day, according to Povich’s book. “The statistics speak for themselves—there are more than 50 men writing at Newsweek, but only one woman.”
The male editors were shocked, but agreed to enter into negotiations. The two sides agreed on a memorandum of understanding the next month and signed it on August 26, 1970—exactly half a century after women won the right to vote. It felt like a win, but the document was vague and change was slow. The women sued again in 1972.
One stipulation of the second agreement they signed in 1973 was that management would appoint a female senior editor heading one of the magazine’s seven sections by the end of 1975. Late that year, after a months-long tryout, Povich was promoted to the role, overseeing pages devoted to news media, television, life/style, religion, and ideas.
“You’re terrified of failing once you are put in this position,” she says. There’s a huge amount of pressure not only to prove yourself, but also to serve as an example for an entire group. It feels as though you’re carrying others’ reputations along with your own, and “you want to succeed so that you don’t fail and don’t fail the group.”
While there’s a limit to what one person can do, “it helps if the first is someone who truly represents the class,” Povich says, and cares deeply about the larger community around them. “You have to recognize that there are many like you that could and should follow.”
Povich stayed at the magazine for another decade and a half, shepherding cover stories such as “How Men Are Changing,” “Living With Dying,” and “Saving the Family.” She then went on to become editor in chief of Working Woman magazine and east coast managing editor for MSNBC.com.
“The Newsweek action totally radicalized me,” she says. She became passionate about women’s issues in journalism and outside of it, and the experience helped shape the rest of her career—from working in newsrooms to writing her book and speaking about the lawsuit to serving on advisory boards for the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.
There’s one point Povich wants to set straight. Sure, she ended up being the first female senior editor, but it was the collective action that got her there. “We were the first,” she emphasizes. “We did it together. There’s power in numbers,” she adds. “Firsts are really dangerous,” she continues, pointing to the firsts to come forward in the #MeToo movement. “The lesson is to do it as a group.”
Though the recent television show took a wide berth around the facts, that’s one thing it got right. The women, with wildly different personalities and worldviews, join forces and put up a fight. Together.
And Povich, who’d thought her 2012 book was the end of the story, saw it continue with a show that reached and gripped a whole new generation of women.
What Motivated Her to Become the First
I actually didn’t recognize or have a desire to be a writer until [my editor] suggested it. When he suggested it I just thought—it’s like when you’re told you’re really good at this and you’re flattered into thinking, “Oh okay that sounds good.” I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had bosses who see in me things I didn’t necessarily see in myself or at least go after.
I think that’s true with a lot of firsts. There are firsts where people do really know what they want and they go after it. But I think with a lot of firsts, someone sees something in you that may not have realized or you hadn’t thought much about or wasn’t on your radar.
The Biggest Challenge She Faced
You want to succeed because you feel like you’re carrying everybody’s reputation. When I was writing, I wanted to have good copy that would get through. When I was editing, I wanted to show that my pieces were good and wouldn’t get bounced back from the higher ups and that I could work well with writers. So I think there are two things. One is that you want to succeed so you don’t fail and you don’t fail your group, whatever your group is. The other thing is do you have an influence and a voice and respect from your peers in the room? And how do you handle yourself?
Advice She’d Give Another First
If you’re the first, somebody believes that you have the talent and the personality to do the job. Otherwise you wouldn’t be the first. So you have to believe in yourself and trust in your own value. And you have to recognize that there are many like you who could and should be following you.
Note: Stav Ziv was a staff writer at Newsweek before joining The Muse.