Book Talk: THE GOOD GIRLS REVOLT, by Lynn Povich

The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace
Lynn Povich
PublicAffairs (September 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 161039173X / 9781610391733)
Nonfiction: History/Women, 288 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, obtained at Book Expo America 2012
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines (Chapter 1): “On March 16, 1970, Newsweek magazine hit the newsstands with a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement, ‘Women in Revolt.’ The bright yellow cover pictured a naked woman in red silhouette, her head thrown back, provocatively thrusting her fist through a broken blue female-sex symbol. As the first copies went on sale that Monday morning, forty-six female employees of Newsweek announced that we, too, were in revolt. We had just filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that we had been ‘systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume a subsidiary role’ simply because we were women.”

Book description, from the publisher’s websiteOn March 16, 1970, Newsweek magazine hit newsstands with a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement entitled “Women in Revolt.” That same day, 46 Newsweek women, Lynn Povich among them, announced they’d filed an EEOC complaint charging their employer with “systematic discrimination” against them in hiring and promotion.

In The Good Girls Revolt, Povich evocatively tells the story of this dramatic turning point through the lives of several participants, showing how personal experiences and cultural shifts led a group of well-mannered, largely apolitical women, raised in the 1940s and 1950s, to stand up for their rights—and what happened after they did. For many, filing the suit was a radicalizing act that empowered them to “find themselves” and stake a claim. Others lost their way in a landscape of opportunities, pressures, discouragements, and hostilities they weren’t prepared to navigate.

With warmth, humor, and perspective, the book also explores why changes in the law did not change everything for today’s young women.

Comments: As 2013 begins, 80-year-old Newsweek magazine will enter a new phase as an online-only publication. It’s not the first time that changes in the socioeconomic landscape have forced it to change how it operates. Forty years earlier, the magazine was sued by almost fifty of its female employees when they didn’t see any other way out of the uncredited “research” ghetto in which any woman who wasn’t a secretary was forced, by practice and policy, to dwell. In The Good Girls Revolt, Lynn Povich–one of the Newsweek women who spearheaded the lawsuit–describes the work culture that deemed that writing, reporting, and editing were men’s work, and the societal changes that drove a group of well-educated, capable women to demand that culture be changed.

The Newsweek lawsuit may not be an especially well-remembered incident in the barrier-breaking and society-reshaping years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but as the first action of its kind by women working in the media, it’s a significant one. In March 1970, Newsweek was the first major newsmagazine to do a cover story on the second-wave feminist movement–and with no women reporters or writers on staff, it had to hire a freelancer to produce it; the researchers and fact-checkers who sued to change that status announced their legal filing the same day that story was published. Change didn’t come quickly–or particularly willingly–and when internal “understanding” broke down, the women pursued further legal action.

In documenting the story of the lawsuit, Povich–who was named Newsweek’s first female senior editor five years after the first filing–spoke with many of the individuals affected by the action, including those charged with implementing its mandated remedies and those who were conflicted over being involved with it at all. While they supported changing Newsweek‘s discriminatory practices, some of the women who joined the lawsuit didn’t personally want the opportunity to become writers or reporters or editors, and Povich treats their viewpoints as even-handedly as she does those of women for whom those opportunities couldn’t come fast enough.

Thanks to actions like the Newsweek lawsuit, gender discrimination in the workplace is officially illegal now, but that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared; it just takes more subtle forms that are more challenging to address. Those of us who were children when these groundbreaking events were occurring–and those who weren’t born until after the Equal Rights Amendment had withered from lack of passage–need to be reminded of the struggles that made things possible for us and of the matters that are still far from settled. The Good Girls Revolt is a fast-paced, engagingly written (and reported) chronicle of one of those struggles…and a good, consciousness-raising reminder.

Rating: 3.75/5
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