Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review: The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich

I read this book in 24 hours! I started it in line to vote and just couldn't put it down. Read it through lunch, dinner, and finished it at breakfast the next morning. It tells the riveting story of a crucial moment in the ongoing fight for equal rights for women in the workplace.

Do you like the TV show "Mad Men"? Are you glad that you don't personally have to experience that work environment? Well it's based on fact and wasn't that long ago. Just one generation ago it was normal for women, regardless of skills, education and qualifications, to be relegated to the backwaters of secretaries for their entire career. Think of Mary Richards on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" - Lou Grant tells her he's never had a female as associate producer and he also tells her he's going to pay her less than a male. And throughout the run of that show, not another female worked at that TV news program, at least not for more than a week. And similarly, at Newsweek in the exact same era, girls (they were not called women) were restricted to being researchers and could never be a reporter or  writer, forget editor or higher. And most of these women had gone to Smith, Vassar, Barnard, and other similar prestigious Seven Sisters and Ivy League schools.

But in 1970, they didn't know this was illegal until one woman had lunch with a friend who clued her in. The friend knew a little bit about the legalities and advised them to not talk to management, to get a group of women together, and hire a lawyer. Which is exactly what they did. Eventually 40+ women sued Newsweek. They announced their suit the same day that Newsweek's issue with the "Women in Revolt" cover story hit newsstands. The last straw, management knew a man couldn't write that story, and yet they would never give it to a woman who worked there, so they hired a freelancer from out of house. And so the women held a press release.

The lawsuit led to a settlement, but after two years and little to no progress, the women filed another two lawsuits - one which was breach of contract for Newsweek having not done what they promised in the settlement of the first case. That time more progress was made and eventually there was some parity in the editorial staff as well as writing and reporting.

But things seem to have stalled. The author (who was one of the original litigants) was approached by three young women at Newsweek in the mid-2000s who were feeling like their male peers were having an easier time of it, getting more stories faster, not having to pitch them, getting promotions faster and getting more money. They eventually found out about this case which had fallen by the wayside in the intervening 40 years,  and in 2010 they wrote an updated "Women in Revolt" cover story. But sadly, they initially felt they had to submit it anonymously for fear of retaliation. Many young women seem to think sexism doesn't exist anymore, which is pretty absurd when no one would argue the same about race, and yet the battles have been going on for the same length of time (in fact, the only reason it was illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in 1970 was that, in an effort to surely defeat the Civil Rights Act, a segregationist added "sex," which he thought was so ridiculous and absurd that it would most definitely be defeated now. Luckily for everyone, he was terribly wrong.)

This book spoke to me personally, as I too was shocked when I entered the real world. After college I worked at a chain bookstore and my manager was very sexist. She would give any female on the opening shift the most horrible job - vacuuming - which took 3 hours, while the males all got the 20 minute opening duties and spent the other 40 minutes gossiping and drinking coffee in the break room. When confronted, she didn't deny it - she thought that we women wouldn't want to take out the trash or get the newspapers because we might get dirty. I asked what made her think I would be unable to take out garbage without spilling it all over myself, and I did get that changed. But then came time for me to be promoted to supervisor. She offered me the position as the Children's Department supervisor, a department I never went to, in fact avoided, had expressed no interest in. Why? Because I'm a girl. I wanted to be shipping and receiving supervisor. She then told me that [Big Chain] doesn't have any female Shipping & Receiving Supervisors. To which I responded, "Well, they do now!" And I soon found out that it wasn't even true! [Big Chain] wasn't sexist and would have been quite shocked if I'd brought an EEOC suit against them as her claim of a policy was just her own weaselly way to not take responsibility for her own sexism. And did you catch the pronoun in all of this? I was treated like a lesser person because I am a woman... by a woman.

Years later when I worked in NYC for a Big Six publisher, the imprint where I worked operated like a fraternity, despite being staffed half by women. But the men ran the show. They could do no wrong. They worked on the high-profile, big-name books, their failures weren't dwelled on, they weren't grilled to the degree we women were on new acquisitions, they were promoted faster, and in retrospect I'd be quite shocked if they weren't paid better. Like a fraternity, new employees were lightly hazed and had to put in their time as low-level people treated like dirt, and if you didn't take that willingly (can you guess if that applies to me?) you were accused of not being a team player and willing to pay your dues. No thanks.

Today, much like in the 1970s, sexism tends to be subtle, accepted, and hidden (many of my previous employers told me I wasn't allowed to discuss my salary with co-workers which I have come to learn in this book is illegal!) That doesn't mean it's not there. That just means that the generation just now entering the workforce will have to have their own "click" moments as author Lynn Povich describes them, when you realize that things are unequal, it's wrong, and it affects you.

While Ms. Povich was one of the participants, she mostly keeps herself out of the story except when she can't help it which I very much appreciated. I guess it is a memoir, but it reads more like a history. It's an important and vital topic that we need to keep alive today, with the dearth of women in the upper ranks of business, even my own female-dominated industry, book publishing. Well-written, smooth and flowing but filled with fascinating facts and even a few funny tidbits (I particularly liked the fake sample ledes taught at the "Famous Writers School" organized to train the female researchers to become "Newsweek" writers.) This book should be read by all young women starting careers, and also by those of us mid-career who should be fighting for our spots at the table with the Big Boys.

I checked this book out of the library.

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