Newsweek Still Wages Gender War, 40 Years Later

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

ByABC News
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."