It was a true story within a scripted drama magnified by a real-life twist. All together the narrative was so outlandish it could be mistaken for farce.
During a book and author event hosted by Women’s Philanthropy of The Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, Lynn Povich recalled her years of being subjected to gender discrimination at Newsweek. Amazon Studios optioned Povich’s book, “The Good Girls Revolt” (PublicAffairs, 2012), about her experience and the lawsuit that followed, for an eponymous TV series. At the end of the first season, two male executives, including Amazon Studios President Roy Price, made the curious decision to pull the plug on the acclaimed show.
In a serendipitous plot turn, hours before Povich appeared at the Women’s Philanthropy program in East Brunswick, Price resigned after he was accused of sexually harassing an employee. It was something of a karmic coincidence that the event — which was booked in August — took place on the same day as the reports about Price’s indiscretions.
“If you’re charged with sexual harassment, as Roy Price has, you can see why Roy Price couldn’t relate,” and cancelled the show, Povich said.
His resignation came in the middle of the firestorm of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood moguls — most notably Harvey Weinstein — distinguished members of the media, and well-known actors. Even former President George H. W. Bush and the late Elie Wiesel (see Editorial on page 12) have been added to the growing list of potential offenders.
However, the problem is not exclusive to women who work closely with public figures and other powerful men. The audience of about 50 women at the Oct. 17 event was asked if any of them had been victims of harassment: Three-quarters raised their hands.
Nearly 50 years ago, Povich was a crusader in the fight for equality in the workplace. In 1970 she joined 45 other women in filing a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Newsweek, accusing the magazine of gender discrimination.
A graduate of Vassar College, Povich was a secretary in the Paris bureau of Newsweek before moving to New York to work in the magazine’s main office. At the time, newsroom jobs were segregated into three levels: fact-checkers and researchers, reporters, and writers (today these responsibilities are all handled by one individual). The top jobs, including reporters and writers, were closed to women, she said.
Women who were raised in the 1940s and ’50s, she said, were expected to be “good girls,” who would get married, have children, and leave the careers to men. To wit, she noted that half of her graduating class got married straight out of college.
“We were expected to get a job until we married,” said Povich. “The word career was never mentioned.”
But that wasn’t the life she wanted. She and many of her colleagues were shaped by the cultural and social revolution of the 1960s when they came of age. The women at Newsweek began strategizing, often holding meetings in the company’s ladies’ room — even though their jobs would be protected after they filed the complaint, they’d surely be fired if management found out beforehand.
The women felt that a relatable female attorney should represent them, but there were few practicing bias law at the time. They hired Eleanor Holmes Norton, now a Democratic congresswoman representing Washington, D.C., and Harriet Rabb, a young lawyer who would become the first woman dean at Columbia Law School, to file the complaint — the country’s first all-female class action suit.
Ultimately, Povich and the other “Good Girls” had their day, reaching a settlement with the magazine: Not only would women be considered for reporting, writing, and management positions, but a third of the fact-checking jobs would be assigned to men. Five years later, Povich became the first female senior editor at Newsweek.
Within months of the lawsuit, women working at news stalwarts such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and Fortune and Time magazines, filed similar charges for being relegated to low-level, low-paying jobs. NOW (National Organization for Women) filed with the FCC against broadcast media on behalf of women and people of color, revolutionizing the profession.
Although they had won a great battle, the careers of most of the women involved stalled after the lawsuit. Povich remembered that one of her collaborators told her she did not expect to flourish professionally. Instead, the woman told Povich, “I did it for the next generation.”
Still, the recent accounts of sexual assault and discrimination that have surfaced almost five decades after the Newsweek lawsuit demonstrate just how far women have to go to gain parity with men in the workplace.
During the audience participation portion of the evening that followed Povich’s remarks, Ann Gold of Monroe, who said she was a generation older than the speaker and had a career in publishing, said when she was 21 she asked her boss for a raise.
“He put his arm around my shoulder and asked, ‘What does a nice girl like you living at home need a raise for?’” said Gold. “I told him it was none of his business if I took that money and threw it out the window.” Gold got the raise. She added that it was even tougher for her and her contemporaries than it had been for Povich.
“You had 45 other women with you, but I fought the battle alone.”
There has been progress, of course, and although the Glass Ceiling is still intact, it’s far higher than it was in 1970. Even in the last few years, Povich said, companies are aware of “unconscious bias,” and several states now prohibit asking potential hires for their past salaries, which has historically resulted in women being hired at lower wages than men and earning less money over the course of their careers.
Povich revealed a positive note in journalism when she said that the majority of reporters who covered last year’s presidential election were female.
She also said that young women today are more ambitious than those in her generation, and expect careers in law, medicine, engineering, and other professions, but lack organizational experience with social issues because they didn’t witness Vietnam War protests or the Civil Rights and women’s movements.
Still, the women’s marches and protests from the past year could make way for a “second wave” of revolutionaries.
But not yet. Women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, and face numerous gender roadblocks, including pregnancy discrimination and, of course, sexual harassment.
“We have a long way to go,” sighed Povich.