By Samar Khoury
In 1970, 46 women sued Newsweek for sex discrimination, making them the first women in media to sue their employer. That lawsuit was a groundbreaker in bringing attention to the still pervasive issue of discrimination against women in the workplace.
Lynn Povich was one of those women. Her 2012 book, The Good Girls Revolt, details her time at Newsweek and the lawsuit that inspired women to take a stand. Now, that book has evolved into a dramatized series on Amazon.
Povich started out as a secretary at the Paris Bureau of Newsweek magazine in the 1960s and worked as a reporter and writer at Newsweek in New York. During that time, only men were hired as writers, and women were usually hired on the mail desk or as fact checkers. Being promoted to reporter or writer was rare for women. Even if they had the same experience, they usually ended up in lower positions than men.
Povich and her female coworkers at Newsweek realized that they were being discriminated against, and they decided to take action. In secret, they started to organize how they would battle sex discrimination in the workplace.
So, on March 16, 1970, Povich and the 45 other female employees filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying that they had been discriminated against at Newsweek.
They started a trend.
“When we sued, the story was picked up by papers not only around the county but around the world. That was really good,” Povich said. “On the one hand, publicity was excellent and did what we wanted it to do, which was embarrass the editors so they would do something quickly. Because it was in the media, and the media wrote about it, women in other news organizations began to organize.”
Two months after the Newsweek complaint, women at Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated sued for sex discrimination, and in the next few years, women from Reader’s Digest, the Washington Post, Newsday, the Detroit News, the New York Times and other publications also sued. “In that sense, [the lawsuit] had a huge impact for women in journalism,” Povich said. “We started the ball rolling.”
The lawsuit raised awareness, but some women faced problems, including Povich. Her boss supported her and suggested she be promoted to a writer, but matters changed when her editor moved to a different department.
“My new editor was very bad, and I almost left,” Povich said. “When he got fired two years later, I did well again, and, ultimately, I was promoted, which was the biggest surprise of all because most women who were in the front line of these lawsuits did not do well.”
Although Povich and the other women received support from a lot of the writers and their immediate superiors, some editors did not approve of what they did.
“There were some men who were resentful and against affirmative action. Some of the top editors thought it was terrible. One of the top editors said, ‘Let’s just fire them all,’” she said.
Following the legal complaint, women who tried out as writers were rejected, despite writing for the New York Times magazine and the Atlantic. “It was very odd that they could be published in other publications and somehow not at Newsweek,” Povich said. “The women really felt that the men, their editors, really wanted them to fail. So that was a tough time for the first women who came forward.”
However, Povich recognized that the lawsuit would not bring immediate results. “As Betsy Wade at the New York Times said about their own suit, ‘We did a brave thing, but we knew it would be for the next generation.’”
Eventually, things looked up for Povich.
In 1975, she became the first female senior editor at Newsweek, and in the next few years, she packaged seven Newsweek cover stories into books—one of which she turned into a CBS Reports Television documentary—and launched Newsweek on Campus and Newsweek on Health.
In 1991, Povich left Newsweek and became Working Woman’s editor-in-chief, then moved on to be East Coast managing editor/senior executive producer of MSNBC.com. Since leaving MSNBC.com in 2001, Povich has freelanced and written books.
Years following the lawsuit, Povich still felt compelled to tell her story.
The Radcliffe Institute at Harvard had requested the legal papers from Povich, and she realized she needed to give them more of the history of the lawsuit before sending the papers. “Once I started interviewing people, I realized that it could be material for a book. It kind of came upon me as more of a surprise,” she said.
In 2007, Povich decided to write The Good Girls Revolt, which PublicAffairs published in 2012.
After the book release, Povich received inquiries about television and film.
“I was reluctant to sell it because it was about me and my friends and I knew television would do something different with it,” she said. Eventually, after getting a call from a contact at Sony, Linda Obst—an editor she had known at New York Times magazine—she allowed the book to be made into a series on one condition: that they fictionalize it. Amazon eventually bought it to make a pilot.
In December, Amazon picked up 10 episodes of the show, for which Povich acts as a consultant. There will be no character playing her.
“I just wanted people to know we were the first and why we did it and how we did it,” she said. “It would be worth be getting out the word to a larger audience—that was always my interest, which was to have people know we were the first.”
Now, looking back, Povich wishes she had written the book sooner.
“I always say I am an affirmative action baby,” Povich wrote in her book, “and proud of it.”
Edited by Annie Zak
Update: Good Girls Revolt is now available to stream on Amazon Prime. Watch here. #GoodGirlsRevolt