The XX Factor

Lynn Povich’s Good Girls Revolt Is the Feminist History Lesson We Need


Amanda, in your recent post about Lynn Povich’s new book, The Good Girls Revolt, you wrote about how little has actually changed since 46 women sued Newsweek in 1970 over discriminatory hiring and promotion practices. I agree with you, and here’s why I think it’s so jarring: Current 20-somethings are arriving at the same disappointing conclusions even though we grew up with an entirely different set of expectations.

When I recently talked to Povich about the book, she emphasized that she never thought she would have a real career: “My family’s expectation—and mine—was that I would work until I was married and had children.” Joining Newsweek after graduating from Vassar in the ‘60s, Povich found herself among a cadre of young women stuck at the lowest rungs of the publication’s pecking order, but they were not particularly radical. Most were just like her: well-educated and happy to have the jobs they did as fact-checkers and the like. “We were the good girls, we weren’t the troublemakers,” she says.

To explain why the good girls rose up, Povich lists fact-checker after fact-checker who surely would have climbed the ranks if she had been male. The choice to file the suit in itself didn’t solve the problem, but it was a start. Women began getting writing and editing tryouts; some, including Povich, were promoted. By 1985, Povich writes, “women pushed their way into every position on the magazine except top management.” Outside Newsweek, Povich and her colleagues’ actions led to similar lawsuits at Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, Newsday, the Washington Post, the Detroit News, the New Haven Register, the Baltimore Sun, and even the New York Times.

Povich worries that young women like me (I’m 21) have no sense of how important the Newsweek story is because we don’t really understand the history. She tells the story of three contemporary female journalists in order to not-so-gently remind us of the generation gap. When Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison, and Sarah Ball started working at Newsweek in the last several years, they found they weren’t getting their articles published and they definitely weren’t getting the promotions they thought they deserved. They were shocked. As Bennett explained to me, there has been a drastic shift in the way that women approach their careers since Povich’s generation: These young women grew up thinking they could do anything in the workforce, and when they encounter sexism, they don’t know what it is or what to do. Bennett, for one, didn’t even think of herself as a feminist until she encountered discrimination herself. That’s common enough in my generation of college students and 20-somethings, I think. We tend to blame ourselves before turning on the system. We are so used to being equal that we wouldn’t know sexism if it subtly dismissed our work at every chance.

For Povich, this is frustrating. She hopes books like hers serve as a corrective. The kind of history she’s telling is “not discussed enough with our daughters and our daughters’ daughters,” she told me. And she’s right. Our parents told us we could do whatever we wanted—but they never told us why.