WHEN I graduated from college, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took effect, sex discrimination was legal. I wanted to write for a newspaper or newsmagazine, but despite an armload of credentials and skills, I soon learned the score: Women could do research, be secretaries and, if very lucky, work for the ghetto called the women’s page. But other than that, the guys were hired as the writers, and that was that.
“The Good Girls Revolt” by Lynn Povich (PublicAffairs), scheduled for release next week, is the little-known story of how a small band of women at Newsweek successfully challenged this industrywide practice. They fought the men of Newsweek in the early 1970s, becoming the first women in the media to sue on the grounds of sex discrimination.
At Newsweek in the mid-1960s, Ms. Povich writes, the problem was sexism, pure and simple. Although the women were graduates of the same top colleges as the men, and had the same or better qualifications, they were hired for the mail desk, or as fact checkers, and rarely promoted to reporter or writer.
Many women hired there, including Nora Ephron, Ellen Goodman and Jane Bryant Quinn, quickly saw the lay of the land and left.
Ms. Ephron, who died in June, lasted less than a year. “For every man, there was an inferior woman,” she told Ms. Povich. “They were the artists and we were the drones.” The male writers sat by the window of the office. The female assistant sat six feet away, perched by the door, compiling the research folders the males used to write their articles.
Finally a core of women that included Ms. Povich began organizing to fight back. The nervous band of sisters recruited members in secret — mainly in the ladies’ room — terrified that they would be found out and fired. In search of a pro bono lawyer to take the case, in the winter of 1970 they approached the brilliant, fiery Eleanor Holmes Norton, then the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.