Monday, March 18, 2013

Before Women Could "Lean In" The "Good Girls" Had to Revolt: Newsweek Researchers Rebelled 43 Years Ago This Week

Newsweek  Cover March 23, 1970
On March 16, 1970 Newsweek ran a cover story "Women in Revolt" about the nascent women's movement. To the editors, it was a distant and exotic fringe movement. That same day 46  female Newsweek researchers  and their lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton held a press conference announcing that they were filing an EEOC lawsuit against Newsweek.  This was the first female class action lawsuit. It charged Newsweek with discrimination in hiring and promotions. Newsweek had effectively constructed a female ghetto: the "research department," full of female graduates of prestigious schools who could clip, fact check and research, but not analyse, write or report, and never ever rise to editor. Newsweek had developed a segregated system of journalism that divided research, reporting, writing, and editing roles solely on the basis of gender.

Primary Sources. I tried to track down the original complaint or any primary sources associated with the suit. According to a  librarian at the EEOC reading room, the case did not go to trial, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the 46 women and Newsweek on August 26, 1970 resolving the complaint. The complaint is considered "private" and is unavailable to the public.

Luckily, one of the litigants, Lynn Povich, tells the story of the revolt in her 2012 book, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace.

Setting the Stage It was the "swinging 60's" Mod Squad and Laugh-In were on TV, The Beatles were still together,  the  Viet Nam War would last 5 more years...being a researcher at Newsweek was considered a "pretty good job for a girl...." It didn't even require typing. But... it also provided no career path. These top tier college grads were slotted into a dead end track at the magazine. Since it's founding, Newsweek's editorial staff included "girls' known as "checkers" who researched and verified facts. Years later the term was upgraded to "researcher,"  but in fact, the male writers and editors referred to  them as "Dollies." But being called a "Dollie" was nothing compared to the overt sexual commentary that was permissible at  Newsweek (and most  workplaces) at the time. In 1970, there was no name for this kind of behavior - it appears to have not even been mentioned as a factor in the lawsuit. The notion of the "hostile work environment" was decades in the future.

Norton and the Newsweek researchers
Photo © Bettman/Corbis.

What Problem? We Don't See a Problem. The all male editorial hierarchy at the magazine were completely flummoxed when they heard about the lawsuit. After all,  they supported the  civil rights movement!  The problem was invisible to them! They had not hired radical feminists. The researchers were  women  who wore hats and white gloves to church. They were  women of their time and culture who had stumbled into a societal breach between  the old and new worlds.They had the courage to do something they had not been raised to do. They asked "why not me?" Not all of the researchers wanted to be writers or editors. Some of the women simply wanted their research activities to be given equal status to  the traditionally male roles, such as reporting. They also  agreed that the women  who wanted upward mobility should have the path cleared for them.

The male leadership could not understand that they were doing anything wrong. Even after they settled  with the researchers, there were no material changes in the mobility of women into the writing and editorial ranks. The women had to sue a second time in order  to force the editors to begin to offer reporting, writing and editorial opportunities to the researchers.

"Which Side Am I Supposed To Be On?" Katherine Graham the Publisher and owner of the  Washington Post Company  and Newsweek, when told of the lawsuit - inquired,'"Which side am I supposed to be on?" Well, she was even more conflicted than that.  In 1969 Graham had been interviewed by Women's Wear Daily and made this statement: "I think a man would be better at the job I'm in than a woman." In fairness, Graham was thrust into the position after the death of her husband who had succeeded her father in "the family business."  She was the only woman to be in such a high position at a publishing company, she had no female role models and had difficulty being taken seriously by many of her male colleagues and employees.

Lean In 2013. Sheryl Sandberg's book. Leaning In: Women Work and the Will to Lead: challenges us to wonder why  women outpace men in educational  achievements, but are still under  represented in the C suite and on corporate boards. Yet I hear an echo of Katherine Graham's insecurity and ambivalence in Sandberg's words almost half a century later:"I still face situations that I fear are beyond my qualifications, I still have days when I feel like a fraud."*

Which leads one to wonder, what does this all mean for legal information professionals?

*I recommend reading Deborah Tannen's "You just don't understand me: Men and Women in Conversation," I read it about 20 years ago, but I am pretty sure she addresses gender differences in dealing with insecurity, and expressions thereof...

Note: Jamie Furillo provided research assistance, dare I say "fact checking" this article!


  1. Great writeup. Is the newsweek cover real? They did not cover their own lawsuit did they? Assuming this is just coverage of the broader movement of women's equality.

    I think the Lean In quote is something relevant to everyone, men and women. We all feel like frauds when we are in the learning zone.

    1. Thank you. Yes it is a real cover. If you look at the photo of the women with their lawyer, you will see it on the table in front of them. The editors did realize that it would look bad if they had a man write the cover story, but they hired an outside female reporter to write it because there were no women on staff with sufficient writing experience to write a cover story. Yes, later on Newsweek did report about the lawsuit.

  2. Jean - Thanks for including this post in your "year-end round up"! I missed it the first time around.

    Although most workplaces have moved beyond allowing women to be called "Dollies", there remains a lot to be done. The point you make that the problem wasn't clear to those handing out the assignments is still a problem. Both men and women are unaware of "second generation gender issues" that inadvertently disadvantage women in the workplace. These result from either gender stereotypes or workplace practices that appear neutral but have unintended consequences.

    The answer to the question of what this means to legal information professionals (a "pink collar" profession) is that they must make the value they bring visible to their organizations. They have to proactively negotiate not only for the requisite resources but for the role itself to be viewed as strategic.

    "Leaning In" is not only about working hard - it's also about being clear about how that work you do contributes to the bottom line. The tricky part for women legal information professionals is to communicate that message to others in a way that mitigates backlash. It's complicated but, then again, it's a new year!