On the one hand, as woman writing on the website you’re reading right now, I couldn’t be more of a prime target for a television show about women at a newspaper in the 1960s and ’70s rising up and saying “Fuck you!” to all their oppressive male coworkers and bosses than myself. On the other, there’s something about how well-matched I am to the topic that prompted an eye-roll when I first heard the premise for Good Girls Revolt. The subject-matter was too familiar for me to find it inspiring—at least, at first.
Good Girls Revolt is a now-streaming Amazon pilot based off a book by a 2012 book by Lynn Povich called The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. It’s one of several shows that have cropped up in the past few years devoted to women in media and/or the women’s movement during that time period, including Lena Dunham’s Max, about “the stirrings of second-wave feminism, as seen through the eyes of an ambitious magazine writer who stumbles her way into the women’s movement,” and HBO’s series on the creation of Ms. magazine. Just this week, Olivia Munn announced she was developing another—this one about “a young journalist who gets hired by an ambitious New York news programming chief as a publicity stunt to be one of the first female on-air sports reporters.”
It’s easy to see why this particular time period has sparked such an interest: the success of Mad Men and its focus on gender roles has combined with a growing population of young women creators in Hollywood who are likely to find the stories of their mother’s generation increasingly interesting. And despite a recent disaster in The Newsroom, journalists—like doctors, lawyers and cops—are easy fodder for both large and small screens.
While Good Girls Revolt fictionalizes the newsroom it covers, changing Newsweek to a magazine called News of the Week, Povich’s book is as fact-based as it comes: she herself was one of the 46 women working at Newsweek who sued the magazine on April 26, 1970. In Povich’s words, it’s “the story of how and why we became the first women in the media to sue for sex discrimination,” told via her memories, as well as interviews with her fellow plaintiffs and their colleagues.
That their work structure feels so old-fashioned is a testament to how successful the “good girls revolt” actually was. If you were a woman who worked at Newsweek (or at most publications in those days), you were a researcher who worked with a reporter, which meant you did a lot of the work for the reporter to craft into an article for which he would get all the credit. Combine that dynamic with an environment where everyone was sleeping with each other (or trying to) and you got a powder keg of drama and discriminatory practices. As Povich explains:
My boss, Harry Waters, told me when he came to the magazine in 1962, “it was a discreet orgy. When I interviewed for the job, my editor said to me, ‘The best part of the job is that you get to screw the researcher.’ “That,” he went on, “reflected the position of women at the newsmagazines, both literally and figuratively. It reinforced in young women that that’s their position—it’s underneath. That’s as far as they can get.”
The women secretly organized for months until they filed their lawsuit with now-Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, then at the ACLU. Once they filed, their male coworkers (and Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, who also oversaw Newsweek) were surprised, to put things very lightly. Still, the response wasn’t all negative, though it would be an uphill battle to get promised promotions; Povich describes how one sympathetic editor, Osborn Elliott, came around to their plight.
“My consciousness at the time was zero,” he admitted to me before he died in 2008. “Here we were busily carving out a new spot as a liberal magazine and right under our noses was this oppressive regime—and no one had a second thought! It was pretty clear to me on that Monday that the women were right.”
Despite knowing that several famous feminists passed through Newsweek—Nora Ephron, Susan Brownmiller—and feeling familiar with the way this decade pertains to media history, I barely remembered this lawsuit before reading Povich’s book. Nor did I remember the controversy she covers involving Jezebel, when journalists Sarah Ball, Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison at Newsweek struggled to get the anniversary of the lawsuit covered by their own publication in 2010.
“It’s nice to see a full-throated embrace of feminism by the magazine that, among its many cycles in and out of the gender war, was responsible for one of Susan Faludi’s signature examples of the 1980s backlash against feminism,” Irin Carmon wrote on this website after the piece came out, before going on to point out that there are no women of color mentioned in the story, and that the entire piece reads as navel-gaze-y, a missed opportunity to discuss a wider variety of issues plaguing women today, as well as five years ago, as well as 45 too.
It’s not that women of color weren’t working at Newsweek in 1970, but that they decided not to join the suit against the magazine. Povich interviews two black women who worked at Newsweek, who explain they didn’t feel that their concerns and experiences were the same as those of their white coworkers. At one point, Holmes Norton (who is black) is described as being frustrated with the hesitancy of the white women she is working with, yelling at them, “You God damn middle-class women—you think you can just go to Daddy and ask for what you want?”
But otherwise, it’s true: black women are not the story in Povich’s book, nor are they the story in Newsweek’s followup. In an update on their blog The Equality Myth, and in Povich’s book, Ball, Bennett, and Ellison argue that Jezebel’s criticism was distracting:
“You can argue about sexism,” said Jesse, “but in the feminist blogosphere, there’s a strange infighting that happens that’s destructive. When Jezebel attacked us, I felt like I had lost a best friend. Nobody can be feminist enough. I see so much of that on these sites. Feminism takes on an exclusionary sensibility and competitiveness.”
Noting that their piece had originally contained quotes from people of color, Ball, Bennett, and Ellison elaborate on the angle of the edit:
But for better or worse, Newsweek is a mainstream publication, writing for a mainstream audience, so we have to assume our readers aren’t as entrenched in the inner workings of feminism as we, or some of our readers, are. In that sense, it’s only natural that we would use mainstream sources–many of whom, yes, are white.
The problem of trying to appeal to a mainstream audience is a complaint that comes up in Good Girls Revolt, the show, if from an entirely different perspective. With Grace Gummer barely recognizable in a wig as Nora Ephron, Joy Bryant as Holmes Norton, and Anna Camp and Genevieve Angelson as researchers Jane and Patti (one more straight-laced, the other a burgeoning hippie), the show purports to show the struggle for women’s equality—but in a fun way.
“They’re reporters, we’re researchers. We report, investigate, and write files for the reporters; they do a pass on them, put their names of them, and then the stories go to press,” Patti explains to Nora about the researcher-reporter dynamic as she joins the newsroom on her first day, though it’s Nora who gets all the good lines.
“It’s like you guys are fighting over the lower bunk bed in jail: who gets to make the guys who are writing the story look better,” she says to Jane and Patti, as they battle over who gets to do research on a breaking story out of California involving a death at the 1969 Altamont Festival. (“I don’t joke about writing or cooking,” Nora says at another point.)
The main fight of the pilot involves Jane and Patti hustling to get their bosses—who won’t allow them to publish articles with anonymous sources: ah, those days!—to consider the words of a backup singer and a groupie valid. “These are our man on the street interviews, except they happen to women with no clout,” Patti says, when a woman who goes by “Juicy Lucy,” who casts the penises of the rock stars she sleeps with in plaster, is rejected as a credible source. “No one on the subway or in the entire state of Wisconsin can relate to her,” the dick editor, William ‘Wick’ McFadden, played by Jim Belushi, says. “They’re not mainstream, honey.”
You’re supposed to see the obvious similarity between Patti and her sources. As Danielle, the backup singer who won’t let her name be used for fear of retribution from the bands she works with, explains, “I’m disposable. I’m a backup singer. My job is to sweeten the band’s sound. And I do that only as long as I look good and sound good to them. You dig it?”
At the end of the episode, Nora quits when she finds out that, though she wrote words praised by said dick editor, the reporter she works with is going to get the credit regardless. “Well, your name is all you have to journalism,” dick editor responds. “So, good luck, Nora Ephron.” It’s a joke, see: we know what happened to Nora and her name.
The women have complicated relationships with their coworkers/boyfriends. Patti won’t give up her career aspirations for hers, Jane spends her life trying to please hers, and Cindy’s (played by Erin Darke) is poking holes in her diaphragm. But by the end of the episode, things have shifted: “Somehow everything feels different,” Cindy says after Nora invites them to a consciousness-raising circle hosted by Holmes Norton. “You know, maybe things could change,” Patti responds.
It’s so hokey it’s hard not to gag a bit. And yet, I didn’t. Good Girls Revolt covers egregious levels sexism that I haven’t seen or experienced firsthand in my life, but at times, Povich’s original source material felt uncomfortably true to modern diversity struggles—enough to lift the show up from its cheesiness. For example, when she describes the troubles Newsweek had in reforming their hiring practices, it sounds familiar:
One of the major problems in recruiting women writers was that vacancies were not posted. The editors simply continued to recruit through their old-boy network. At one meeting, Oz admitted that the editors didn’t have any “resources” for finding writers; they just asked friends and colleagues in the business, obviously all male.
Or on the frustrations they had with trying to get women promoted:
This was the problem we had anticipated in arguing for more women writers: the judgment of what is good reporting and good writing is purely subjective.
Management still seemed stumped about how to move forward, and at the December and January meetings, they asked us for constructive solutions.
Povich’s story ends relatively happily; she tells of the strides their lawsuit had in getting women jobs in places like Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. Though, as longtime Times employee Gail Collins explains, it was more beneficial for some than others.
“I arrived in New York approximately one second after the women at places like the New York Times and Newsweek had filed lawsuits,” she recalled. “The women who fought those fights were not the ones who got the rewards. People like me, who came right behind them, got the good jobs and the promotions.
Newsweek then is not Newsweek now, but the same issues have trickled over to newer publications. Today, employees benefit from transparency; you can easily count the diversity or lack thereof at your company and tell the world about it. And yet, when purported accountability is often seen as a stand-in for action, employees suffer too.
Embarrassingly, I couldn’t sleep after finishing just one episode of Good Girls Revolt. I couldn’t help but obsess over how complacent I’ve been in assuming that expressing support for diversity at my own company would be roughly equivalent to standing up and demanding it. A conundrum from the ‘70s remains: if the purpose of this job is primarily to uplift the stories of people with smaller voices, how do you best go about doing it within your own job, and the industry at large? Do it the wrong way and you are criticized for not being diverse enough, within this your plea for diversity. Don’t do it at all and you’re limiting the types of stories an editorial body will tell.
Povich’s book, and the pilot that came from it, are proof that speaking out leads to results, if not perfect ones. The Newsweek lawsuit had a tangible effect on the publication’s slant: an analysis of Newsweek articles “between 1969 and 1975 by a student at the University of Missouri showed that the number of lines devoted to women or women’s issues nearly doubled in those six years, the greatest increases coming in the Sports and Business sections.” If the lessons of 40 years ago are anything to go by, helping yourself and your coworkers can only help others—so long as it’s not the only story you tell.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images via Amazon Video