‘Good Girls Revolt’: Inside Landmark Lawsuit Behind New Feminist Series
Good Girls Revolt, Amazon’s new 10-part series based on the 2012 book of the same title by Lynn Povich, is a fictionalized account of the lives of real women researchers (a.k.a. fact-checkers) working in the magazine industry at the dawn of the 1970s. The show follows Patty, Jane and Cindy as they realize there’s more to life than working long hours to make male writers shine. “It’s like you two are fighting over the bottom bunk in jail,” says a more woke fact-checker (Grace Gummer as a fictionalized Nora Ephron). The show pits consciousness-raising groups and hushed, revolutionary conversations in the office ladies’ room against old-boys’ network hiring practices and casual “nice-guy” sexual harassment as they build momentum to legally take on the Goliath of office sexism.
While the characters in the series are fabricated, the situation is not. When Wick McFadden, the national editor played by Jim Belushi, tells Gummer’s Ephron, “Girls do not do rewrites,” he’s not taking poetic license.
“We were told very explicitly, if you want to write, go someplace else. Women don’t write at Newsweek,” says Povich, who, five years after the lawsuit they eventually filed in 1970, went on to become the magazine’s first female senior editor.
Fans of the book may miss some of the details, like 20-plus women each contributing sparks of expertise or elbow grease: One might have contributed her apartment for a meeting, while another volunteered to speak at a press conference, or offered up their Newsweek-writer husband for underground teach-ins to explain the magazine’s signature prose style to the aspiring women writers.
So how much is history, and how much is TV? Here’s the real story behind the retro Telexes and typewriters:
You’re not going to find many real names in Amazon’s version
Almost all of the people on the show are fictional, as is the magazine, News of the Week. The only two real-life people depicted are Eleanor Holmes Norton, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who brought the suit, and Ephron, who did work at Newsweek in the 1960s, but who had moved on to the greener pastures of the New York Post seven years before the suit.
“When Lynda [Good Girls co-executive producer Lynda Obst] approached me and said she wanted to do a story, and she wanted to buy my life rights, I said to her, ‘Look, we were a bunch of 25-year-olds who just decided to get together and change the system,” Povich says. “The point is we weren’t famous.”
But in the end, Povich explains, “It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘Lynn Povich’ or ‘May Smith.’…There’s no me, there’s [almost] no recognizable characters, but the arc of these women coming to consciousness and deciding to file this complaint is totally accurate.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton is just as badass as she is on the show – but the case wasn’t entirely her idea
Prestigious civil-rights attorney (and now Congresswoman representing the District of Columbia) Eleanor Holmes Norton did work for the ACLU at the time of the suit, and was, in fact, the lawyer who brought the women’s original complaint against Newsweek in 1970. She was also five months pregnant when she agreed to take the case, as she is in the show, but did she not approach the women herself about the suit. They went to her.
On Good Girls, Norton introduces the idea of an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint as a way to fix the sexist split in the News of the Week offices. But in fact, Norton was the third lawyer the women of Newsweek had asked to take on their case.
Because discrimination against women at work only became illegal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some lawyers weren’t sure how to approach the case. The women of Newsweek initially considered Harriet Pilpel, a First Amendment lawyer, but she had no experience in the field of employee rights so turned them down. The second, Florynce Kennedy, had defended Scum Manifesto writer Valerie Solanas after she shot Andy Warhol, but Kennedy’s suggestions of guerrilla theater tactics were too outrageous for the group, and besides, her fee was too high. In the end, they found Norton, whose depiction as an inspiration to the women to push harder and a catalyst for their increasing self-awareness is entirely on point.
It was consciousness-raising groups that planted the seed for the lawsuit
Though the show depicts Nora Ephron as a sort of feminist angel directing the women at News of the Week toward their first consciousness-raising group, that wasn’t the case, nor was Eleanor Holmes Norton a host. However, these kinds of meet-ups, where women came together to talk about their own personal issues, were common in the 1970s. They were a functional tool employed by the feminist movement – talking with other women often resulted in the discovery that they had common problems and could band together to work on them. The original grumblings for change at Newsweek came from a researcher named Judy Gingold, who realized there was a gender problem at the office during one such meeting in the West Village. “All of us in that room felt inadequate,” recalls Gingold. After listening to woman after woman describe the same problems at work, “That’s when I thought, wait a minute … It’s not because we’re undeserving or not talented enough that we’re not getting ahead, it’s how the world is run.”
The magazine was owned by a woman who wasn’t very interested in the feminist cause – but she’s not as heartless as her fictional counterpart
On the show, News of the Week is published by a very unsympathetic woman, Mrs. Bea Burkhart, who inherited the magazine from her father. She appears not only deaf to the women’s plight, but also cuts a rather Cruella de Vil-type figure when she visits headquarters and nearly scares a seven-year-old girl out of office visits for life. The real female publisher, Katharine Graham, is a much more well-liked figure personally, though just as out of touch with feminism as Mrs. Burkhart at the time of the suit.
Graham, on the other hand, inherited her stewardship of the magazine, as well as the Washington Post, from her husband, Philip Graham, after his death from suicide in 1963. (The company had previously been owned by her father, Eugene Meyer, who had left it to his son-in-law after his death in 1943.) The women did in fact decide, as they do in the show, to send someone by plane to the D.C. area to give Graham a copy of the lawsuit in person. And she did, like her counterpart, famously say, “Which side am I supposed to be on?” But she said that to the magazine’s managing editor over the phone, not to the young girl who was sent to inform her. In real life, when one of the women – chosen because she qualified for a $17 student airfare – flew to Georgetown to tell her of the suit, Graham happened to be on vacation in the Bahamas. She learned about it later, by telephone.
There was plenty of sex in the real Newsweek office – just like on the show
The show depicts an amazing amount of actual sex actually happening in the office, which might seem gratuitous at first glance. But, according to Povich, this was an ingrained part of the culture of Newsweek at the time, even down to the detail in the pilot of two coworkers having intercourse in the office infirmary. “Two small rooms with single beds,” the infirmary was, Povich writes, “the assignation of choice. Often a writer would go there to ‘take a nap’ for an hour or two, albeit with a female staffer.” The downside of this culture became increasingly apparent. “Looking back,” she writes, “there was a lot of inappropriate behavior, the kind of ‘sexual favoritism’ and ‘hostile work environment’ that today might be considered illegal.” At that time, however, it wasn’t. Sexual harassment at work wasn’t recognized by the law until 1977.
The announcement of their complaint actually coincided with a cover story about the feminist movement
In reality, as in the show, the announcement of the Equal Opportunity complaint was timed to coincide with the publishing of a cover story in the magazine about feminism itself (titled, “Women in Revolt” in Newsweek). The irony of the magazine covering a movement that it had not absorbed into its own practices was a catalyst for both the real women and their fictional counterparts. And both groups of women had little to no input in the choice of the cover image.
“The image they chose – I’m not sure any woman was involved in it – was actually solarized, a picture of a naked woman, with her hand in a fist through a female sex symbol,” says Povich. “When it came out, we were shocked. How could you put a naked woman [on the feminism cover]?” In the television version, the image is of sexy, bright-red lips, and it’s this tone-deaf image that is the last straw for protagonist Patty as she struggles to come to terms with betraying her male bosses, whom she genuinely likes. It’s a conflict many of the real women at Newsweek wrestled with as well. Many of their bosses were their friends.
But it wasn’t just Newsweek
In the five years after the initial Newsweek suit in 1970, (the first agreement didn’t stick and the women filed again in 1972), the aftereffects were felt through all of news media, as a cascade of female workers at various organizations sued their bosses for years of unequal treatment. Time Inc., whose flagship magazine had invented the idea of the female fact-checker, faced legal action, covering the women at Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. Reader’s Digest, Newsday and the Washington Post all were taken to task as well, as were others including the Detroit News, the Baltimore Sun, the Associated Press and the New York Times. In short, the effect of the Newsweek suit on women in media was tremendous.
More than 40 years after the women of Newsweek successfully sued to gain access to writing and reporting jobs, Povich says the hurdles working women face today are both new and old. “This research has come out stating that women, once they have a job, do well and are respected, but when they’re running for an office, or asking for a job, that’s when people don’t like them, because they’re being too aggressive.”
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After all this time and all the progress in so many fields, Povich says, “that is a very strange situation.” Also, “28 percent of full professors are women, 19 percent of the corporate suite is women, 20 percent of Congress is women. We’ve been topping out.”
“There’s been a lot of progress and a lot that’s very hopeful,” she says. “I think young women today are much more confident and much more aggressive about getting what they want, so I’m very impressed by the women I meet.” If Mad Men was a female-gaze horror movie, then Good Girls is the much awaited redemption sequel. If the latter takes a slow pace to deliver it’s payoff, that’s because so does history. And spoiler alert: The show ends just as the women announce their suit – so there’ll have to be another season.
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