Newsweek Still Wages Gender War, 40 Years Later

On 40th anniversary of first sex complaint, women journalists still lag behind.

March 22, 2010, 2:02 PM

March 23, 2010— -- On March 23, 1970, Newsweek published a cover story, "Women in Revolt," about the new militant feminism that was roiling the country, but trouble was already brewing within the magazine's own ranks.

For a year, the "dollies" in the news weekly's research department -- smart and savvy graduates of the nation's finest colleges -- had secretly plotted in the ladies' room to challenge the "gentleman's agreement" that women don't write.

Of the more than 50 writers who carried bylines at the New York-based publication, only one was a woman.

Male editors were taken by surprise as 46 female staffers signed the first gender discrimination complaint against an employer, charging that the magazine had violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"I think the fact that they were so shocked when we pulled it off showed that they were living in their own bubble," said Patricia Lynden, who had been rebuffed by her male bosses one time too many. "They had no idea what we were capable of."

Then, women were considered "flighty," or "couldn't cope because of their periods." They were told by the men in charge that their high-pitched voices didn't sound "authoritative," according to Lynden, now 72 and a writer and tutor.

And while male Harvard graduates got plum internships and overseas assignments, women were relegated to the mail room and fact-checking.

Newsweek didn't even look among its own female staffers to write the ground-breaking cover story on feminism. Instead, they chose Helen Dudar from the New York Post, the wife of an editor.

Even the press descriptions of Newsweek's budding feminists at their March 16 press conference outside the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union ring of the sexism of the day: "slim, mini-skirted," "pretty" and "young," with references to Lynden as a "bespectacled brunette."

Just two days after they filed their complaint, the women at Ladies Home Journal staged a sit-in and other actions followed.

On the 40th anniversary of the revolt, much has changed for women, who have since forged sexual freedoms and broken glass ceilings in political life and in the workplace.

"Today women are highly visible as anchors and correspondents, which was absolutely unthinkable in our day," said Lynden.

But they haven't yet closed the gender gap, even at Newsweek.

In 1970, 25 percent of its editorial masthead was female, but today it is higher at 39 percent, but not equal.

All but six of the Newsweek's 49 published cover stories last year were written by men.

A new generation of Newsweek reporters, like Jessica Bennett, say that some of the statistics are "depressing," but writing about the first-wave feminists has been "empowering."

"Nobody would dare tell us that 'women don't write here' today," said Jessica Bennett, who co-wrote Newsweek's story on the 1970 revolt, "Are We There Yet?".

"Ours is a generation that expects to be treated equally."

But in 1970 women were smart accessories in the male-dominated world of journalism.

A triad of editors, known as the "Flying Wallendas," performed a precarious balancing act, covering the weekly news. Top editor Osborne "Oz" Elliot defended the men-only policy as "a tradition going back almost 50 years."

Lynden, a Berkeley graduate, began in the mailroom in 1963 and quickly moved up to researcher.

"There were three levels – editor, writer, researcher," said Lynden. "Researcher was the bottom of the barrel."

Lynden had already written for The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Magazine and got kudos for covering the political rise of New York Mayor John Lindsay, but her requests for a promotion went nowhere.

"I was never turned down," she said. "I was told I should have it but then whichever senior editor at a given time went to one of the Willendas, I'd never get a straight story."

Newsweek: A 'Mad Man' Culture

The snubs politicized her colleague in the national affairs research department Lucy Howard, who had also begun in the mailroom and had never risen above researcher.

"Pat was told she had to turn over her sources to a young man who had not done any of the work and really not as capable as she was," she said. "That really cut it for me."

Howard, a smart graduate of prestigious Harvard, had interviewed for her job in her best dress and gloves.

For awhile, she fit right in to the Newsweek culture.

"There was a lot of flirting -- it was part of the game and you knew how to handle it," said Howard. "You had to be charming and witty and be able to banter and not cringe at their dirty jokes. It was a 'Mad Men' kind of atmosphere."

Howard and two others, Judy Gingold and Margaret Montagno, began to discuss how they might "stir this up."

As ringleaders, they coaxed one woman at a time to join their cause, often giggling and whispering while washing their hands in the ladies room -- first three of them, then nine and finally 46.

After an attorney friend advised that they had a case, the women approached numerous civil rights lawyers, only to be told they were "crazy," according to Lynden.

But they finally found a young legal associate from the ACLU, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who later went on to head up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"A black lawyer and a woman in full womanhood, pregnant -- she was just perfect," said Lynden.

Surprisingly, at the time a woman -- Katherine Graham of the Washington Post -- was publisher, but that didn't seem to help their cause.

"Women often don't recognize or are insensitive to, discrimination against women," Norton, now a congressman from Washington, D.C., told the press at the time.

Male reaction to the gender complaint was mostly silent.

"I remember running in to 'Oz' in the hall and his taking us into his office. He was so hurt because we were a family, and that we didn't come talk to him," said Howard, who is now 69.

"I remember him saying, and I was insulted: 'I can understand you, Pat, but Lucy, you are such a nice girl.'"

Men too 'Career-Oriented' to Fight

Bruce Porter, who was Newsweek's urban affairs editor in 1970, said the editors weren't intentionally sexist.

"An old boys' network implies the old boys know what's going on and were conscious of keeping them down -- that wasn't the case," he said. "That was how they were born. This was the natural order of things."

Porter, now 71, said many of the young male reporters were sympathetic after the complaint -- he even got in trouble with one of the Wallendas for Xeroxing "propoganda" for the women.

"We all thought they were getting a raw deal, but nobody was going to stand up and get counted," said Porter, who later started the journalism program at Brooklyn College and taught at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

"We were career-oriented and weren't about to risk our jobs," he said.

The ACLU agreed not to press legal action if Newsweek were to immediately set goals and timetables to fully integrate women.

Internships paved the way for top talent like Howard, as well as her co-conspirator Lynn Povich of MSNBC and Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman.

Another was Eleanor Clift, who joined Newsweek as a secretary. Today, she still writes a column, "Capitol Letter," and is a regular panelist on the nationally syndicated show, "The McLaughlin Group."

At 22, she worked as a "Girl Friday" in the Atlanta bureau, answering phone calls at the front desk and Telexing stories. "I taught myself, watching those around me," she said.

Unlike the polished research girls, Clift -- the daughter of a Deli owner in Queens, N.Y., who never finished college -- said she writing was "not within my realm of thinking."

"When I was there it was clear I just wanted to do something where what I was typing was interesting," she said. "It never occurred to me to do anything else."

She later qualified for an internship, going on to cover the 1976 presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter.

"It was a Cinderella story," said Clift, now 69. "They opened doors for me and opened my mind."

But Clift admits that sexism is "still alive, though not as blatant," and statistics bear her out.

Women earn the majority of college degrees and are well-represented in entry and mid-level positions, but they still lag behind in almost every sector of the economy, according to the White House Project, organization that works to advance women's leadership.

And, according to its 2009 report "Benchmarking Women's Leadership," women account for only 18 percent of the nation's top leaders and earn 78.7 cents to the dollar earned by men.

In the world of journalism, women make up only 22 percent of the leadership roles, and they still have fewer bylines -- 1 to every 7 males at the top media outlets -- even though the majority of journalism majors since 1977 have been women.

"A woman has to be man enough for job," said Marie Wilson, founder and president of The White House Project. "If there are two women, it's a cat fight. If it's three, it really starts to make you pay attention. Stereotypes only exist because of the numbers."

But those numbers could be slowly changing.

In 1970, all New York women in their 20s made on average $7,000 less than men. By 2000, they were about even. In 2005, according to an analysis of the latest census results they were making about $5,000 more, a median wage of $35,653, or 117 percent of the $30,560 reported by men in that age group.

In Dallas, those percentages are even higher, according to data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

"Young women like us aren't engaged with feminism in the same way our mothers were," said Newsweek's Jessica Bennett. "So I think the most important thing is that we're talking about these issues, and that we're forcing our magazine -- and hopefully, the culture as a whole -- to look critically at themselves."

"The biggest challenge is recognizing that sexism still exists, even if it's not as overt as calling the 1970 women 'dollies,'" she said "We've come a long way, yes -- but there is certainly still a long way to go."

Her predecessor, Lucy Howard, who wrote the magazine's "Periscope" column until she retired in 2002, has a more militant view.

"Newsweek was progressive and people were open-minded, but they were set in their ways," she said. "Until you really force someone to do something, you can't get them to change. It's a habit."

ABC News Information Specialist Gerard Middleton contributed to this report.

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