The Magazine

Treehouse Days

Before Tina Brown, there were problems at ‘Newsweek.’

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By NAOMI DECTER
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Once upon a time, not so very long ago in the 1960s and early 1970s, the late newsmagazine Newsweek was a different, not-so-nice place, and Lynn Povich and 45 other “good girls” who worked there had no choice but to sue to make it (or at least their careers) better. So they did—twice. And they prevailed. 

Lawsuit press conference, March 16, 1970

Lawsuit press conference, March 16, 1970

bettmann / corbis / ap images

Now, you might be wondering why such good girls weren’t at home, barefoot and pregnant, cooking up some tasty morsels and getting ready to hand martinis to their post-work/pre-dinner husbands, instead of spending long nights at Newsweek, smoking, drinking, taking the Lord’s name in vain, and having a lot of premarital and extramarital sex. Well, you see, these weren’t just any good girls; these were the good girls of Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Barnard, and Radcliffe. And they had better things to do with their time than changing diapers and clipping recipes from Family Circle.

But it turned out that the magazine they’d set their well-educated hearts on working for relegated them to the career equivalent: the secretarial pool and/or the research desk. The girls chafed and griped, but their complaints were met with what can only be described as puzzled dismissiveness. (Even the big boss, Katharine Graham—herself a woman!—was less than helpful.) It was just a longstanding tradition at Newsweek that its writers were men, and only men. 

This highly unsatisfactory situation came to a head in 1970, when women’s lib was getting to be all the rage—which meant, inevitably, a Newsweek cover story. Obviously, it would have been, well, weird to have a man writing the story about the liberation of women from the shackles of patriarchal paternalism. But thanks to that unfortunate men-only tradition, no woman at the magazine was in a position to write it. So the patriarchs turned to an outside woman, Helen Dudar, who wrote for the Daily News, the New York Post, and the New York Times—and who just happened to be the (ahem) wife of Newsweek writer Peter Goldman.

Last straw for the good girls. They had nothing against Ms. Dudar, but the time had clearly come for some serious badness. Of course, they were simply terrified that they’d get into trouble for being bad, so they confabbed on the sly for months in the office ladies’ room and the apartments of various co-conspirators, including the Upper West Side flat of their attorney, Eleanor Holmes Norton. 

They filed their EEOC complaint—and held a press conference announcing it—the day the cover story came out. When the resulting settlement talks dragged on for a year with no real results, they sued again (minus the press conference). This time, the patriarchs really, truly saw the error of their ways: Training programs were instituted, promotions were made, and the good girls triumphed. 

The rest is herstory.

Or so you might have thought. Because, guess what? It’s 40 years later and Newsweek girls are still not living happily ever after, especially now that Newsweek no longer exists in print form. Sure, they’re writers, editors, even senior editors. But something just isn’t right. Today’s Newsweek girls are puzzled: They feel that boys are unfairly getting faster promotions and better assignments at the magazine; boys are riding roughshod over girls, high-fiving in the office and putting ESPN on the TV; boys are harassing girls by telling them they’re pretty and asking for advice about lunch preparation. 

The girls are struggling. And this has never happened to them before. They’ve always gotten what they wanted and succeeded at everything—from high school to college to graduate school. But now they’re beginning to think something must be wrong with them. Until, that is, they stumble upon the good girls’ olden-days lawsuit—along with a dog-eared copy of Susan Brownmiller’s In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution

Suddenly, everything is illuminated. It’s not the girls’ fault; it’s that pesky old patriarchy! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Naomi Decter, senior vice president at the Beckerman public relations firm, is a regular contributor to Commentary’s Contentions blog.