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Newsweek Sexist? Forty Years Ago, Women Staffers Sued For Equal Treatment. Today, Things Aren't Much Better, There And Elsewhere

In Media, women on March 26, 2010 at 11:58 am
Newsweek Cover: Stephen Jay Gould

Image by Ryan Somma via Flickr

Here’s a story that may come as news to any young, ambitious female journalist — or anyone who’s convinced women are equal to men and the F-word is feminism. Old, tired, done.

Not so much, write three current Newsweek staffers, all young women, who discovered a landmark lawsuit, brought by Newsweek’s female staffers in 1970, when women there were called “dollies”.

From this week’s Newsweek cover story:

But by 1969, as the women’s movement gathered force around them, the dollies got restless. They began meeting in secret, whispering in the ladies’ room or huddling around a colleague’s desk. To talk freely they’d head to the Women’s Exchange, a 19th-century relic where they could chat discreetly on their lunch break. At first there were just three, then nine, then ultimately 46—women who would become the first group of media professionals to sue for employment discrimination based on gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Their employer was NEWSWEEK magazine.

In 1970, 46 women sued Newsweek for gender discrimination. Today, three young writers examine how much has changed.

Until six months ago, when sex- and gender-discrimination scandals hit ESPN, David Letterman’s Late Show, and the New York Post, the three of us—all young NEWSWEEK writers—knew virtually nothing of these women’s struggle. Over time, it seemed, their story had faded from the collective conversation. Eventually we got our hands on a worn copy of In Our Time, a memoir written by a former NEWSWEEK researcher, Susan Brownmiller, which had a chapter on the uprising.

In countless small ways, each of us has felt frustrated over the years, as if something was amiss. But as products of a system in which we learned that the fight for equality had been won, we didn’t identify those feelings as gender-related. It seemed like a cop-out, a weakness, to suggest that the problem was anybody’s fault but our own. It sounds naive—we know—especially since our own boss Ann McDaniel climbed the ranks to become NEWSWEEK’s managing director, overseeing all aspects of the company…

Yet the more we talked to our friends and colleagues, the more we heard the same stories of disillusionment, regardless of profession. No one would dare say today that “women don’t write here,” as the NEWSWEEK women were told 40 years ago. But men wrote all but six of NEWSWEEK’s 49 cover stories last year—and two of those used the headline “The Thinking Man.” In 1970, 25 percent of NEWSWEEK’s editorial masthead was female; today that number is 39 percent. Better? Yes. But it’s hardly equality. (Overall, 49 percent of the entire company, the business and editorial sides, is female.) “Contemporary young women enter the workplace full of enthusiasm, only to see their hopes dashed,” says historian Barbara J. Berg. “Because for the first time they’re slammed up against gender bias.” [NB: added boldface here mine]

My first New York City job — oh, I had high hopes! — was for Newsweek’s international edition, the skinny, onion-skin-paper version I’d bought in Africa and Europe myself. I was offered a job tryout of a month. I was warned they already had someone in mind, male, with a fresh Ivy graduate degree (I have no graduate degree). I was also competing with a friend, a lower-level employee there.

I opened the desk drawer to find Tums and aspirin. I got an attaboy note on one of my four stories, one per week, but was still shown the door, as foretold, after a month in their hallowed halls. I did get to go out for dinner with fellow staffers to a nearby Japanese restaurant, everyone confidently using only chopsticks. Luckily, I could too. The conversation was competitively smart.

As fellow True/Slant writer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen — a 12-year staff veteran of Time — has described here, working in the Ivy-educated, mostly white, mostly male ranks of Time or Newsweek is like stepping into a testosterone-soaked locker room full of shoving jocks.

I interviewed three more times over the years at Newsweek, never hired. I admit, I shrivel in job interviews — even with a book, five fellowships, two major newspaper jobs and fluency in two languages. “Do you write for The Atlantic? Harper’s?” I was asked the last time. Of every smart, ambitious, talented writer, about .0002 percent will ever crack one of those two markets, probably two of the most difficult in American journalism to penetrate.

Naively thinking this was intellectually possible without engaging my sexuality — sort of like trying to drive in neutral, as it turned out — I tried, briefly, to get to know a very senior editor there after I left my try-out, hoping he might take an interest in my work and help me try for another chance there.

To my dismay, and shock, he leaned in close at one of our lunches and said, “I can’t smell your perfume.”

Excuse me? He was older, married. I was engaged and living with my fiance. None of which matters. My perfume?

This was also discussed today between current Newsweek staffer Jessica Bennett and former staffer Lynn Povich, one of the editors who sued the magazine, on The Brian Lehrer Show, a WNYC talk and call-in show:

Bennett, at 28 a “senior writer” after four years there, said:  “We were mesmerized by the descriptions of what went on back then. We just couldn’t get enough!” Thanks to buyouts over the years, the women who’d managed to get in and hang on at Newsweek had left. “A lot of institutional knowledge was gone,” said Bennett.

Said Povich, “It’s hard to be a feminist in a ‘post-feminist’ world.”

I’d write off my own lunchtime weirdness with that editor as something dinosaur-ish, impossible today, but for the Newsweek staffers’ current stories:

If a man takes an interest in our work, we can’t help but think about the male superior who advised “using our sexuality” to get ahead, or the manager who winkingly asked one of us, apropos of nothing, to “bake me cookies.” One young colleague recalls being teased about the older male boss who lingered near her desk. “What am I supposed to do with that? Assume that’s the explanation for any accomplishments? Assume my work isn’t valuable?” she asks. “It gets in your head, which is the most insidious part.”

A recent study  of the top 15 political and news magazines found that their male by-lines (the credit line for a story’s writer) outnumbered those of women seven to one.

Plus ca change, mes cheres…

  1. There does seem to be a resurgence of the boorish male, the frat boy is back, maybe it’s something to do with Bush or perhaps a push back aimed at Boomers. Whatever the case the loud, anti-politically correct, chubby, meat and potatoes and martini guy with an ever ready rude remark is now fashionable, crude humor is money at the box office and so are shows with men smoking cigars in their mancaves doing the Mad Men thing. We have the supremes codifying inequality…be quick with the lawsuit.

    Feminism and feminists have become derisive descriptions among the republican and business class and Coulter can appear on television telling Greer that she owes the woman nothing. Maybe she’s right maybe the woman’s movement failed. Woman certainly are reluctant to identify with the woman’s movement, cringe at Feminist moniker, as if every male will imagine them in Birkenstock, with hairy legs and no bra with a fist in some poor guys face.

    Yet there on the Sunday morning network gab fest there will be two new women journalists to one big lug and the ratboy. My imagination does not have room for either of these woman taking in a cookies remark or a snide perfume remark. So maybe our new class of working women need to pick up some old books on the subject and see if there is something in there that they might relate to, perhaps learn from and start kicking some ivy league ass.

  2. “Feminism and feminists have become derisive descriptions among the republican and business class…Woman certainly are reluctant to identify with the woman’s movement, cringe at Feminist moniker, as if every male will imagine them in Birkenstock, with hairy legs and no bra with a fist in some poor guys face.”

    Oy. I’ve heard many derisive descriptions in my day, but feminist? Good to know. The sad truth — and this is very much the issue in the Newsweek story I link to — is there IS no “women’s movement” anymore! I wish to God there was, and maybe 20-something would have a clue that sexist BS is alive and well and still tripping them/us up every day politically and professionally.

    It’s a tired canard that women who believe firmly in their own strength and that of other women can’t handle make-up, a razor or underwire. And many strong, smart women have strong, smart men who love and value us.

    “maybe our new class of working women need to pick up some old books on the subject and see if there is something in there that they might relate to, perhaps learn from and start kicking some ivy league ass.”

    So true! One of the reasons feminism — as a movement — lost favor was some saw it as focusing on white, middle-class concerns. I suspect we’re still separated by divisions of class, race and education — when many women are screwed daily by the same issues of low pay, lack of access to credit (banks are notorious for this) and other issues.

    Women may be so wedded to their “identity politics” they can’t see uniting….?

  3. I tend to ignore or tune out the endless vocabulary of misogynists! But thanks…I had heard of that expression.

    The word thumb-dick springs to mind, you should pardon my unusual crude-ness.

    • I always found it interesting that there is no female version of misogynists, must be just so unthinkable that there is no counter. ‘Cept thumb-dick.

  4. Ah feminism, the word my mother embodied for most of my life. She graduated from high school in 1970, after lying to all of her high school math teachers, saying she was going to be a math teacher, so that she could take higher level math classes. She went on to being a music teacher for over a decade, when she decided after not getting tenure to go back to school and pursue Computer Science. I can honestly say she inspired me, 20 years after she got her MS, to pursue my own degree in CS.

    How naive I was, thinking that sexism was a thing of the past, and it’s made me somewhat jaded against the field in general. On my first day in the lab, I was informed by a (male) grad student that I was just a quota filler and should clear my spot to someone who “belonged.” I didn’t step back into that lab until I got engaged to a programmer myself and grew a backbone working in a call center. But those two years have put a dent into my confidence as a programmer, and I still find myself dodging glares and odd looks when I’m working the lab. Not only that, I found that one of my mother’s maxims turned out true: “Most male programmers won’t even look at you if you don’t do three times as much work, and code several levels above where they’re even capable of seeing. Even then, you’re just a pretty face who can type.”

    Will I ever actually become a programmer? After this, probably not. However, I have pointed myself in the direction of graduating with a BS in Computer Science? Why? Because I want to be able to point that out to every guy (and I’ve met a lot of these so-called gentlemen) who believes that women can’t succeed in the STEMs that I got the shiny diploma, and the world hasn’t ended…yet.

  5. “But those two years have put a dent into my confidence as a programmer, and I still find myself dodging glares and odd looks when I’m working the lab.”

    geekysarah, thanks for sharing your story….although it makes me crazy to hear this. The very worst effect of sexism is exactly this resulting ding to our professional and intellectual confidence — without which we women, certainly in male-dominated fields, like STEM, are well and truly screwed. It’s like trying to run the same set of hurdles after being, emotionally, knee-capped. But, funny thing, that assault is invisible. They know exactly what they’re doing. Ignore them, if you can.

    “Not only that, I found that one of my mother’s maxims turned out true: “Most male programmers won’t even look at you if you don’t do three times as much work, and code several levels above where they’re even capable of seeing. Even then, you’re just a pretty face who can type.”

    Oh, that. Sounds about right for almost any field with men in it — where women (OMG) can compete effectively with them.

    “Will I ever actually become a programmer? After this, probably not. However, I have pointed myself in the direction of graduating with a BS in Computer Science? Why? Because I want to be able to point that out to every guy (and I’ve met a lot of these so-called gentlemen) who believes that women can’t succeed in the STEMs that I got the shiny diploma, and the world hasn’t ended…yet.”

    Did you read this depressing story? It won’t surprise you. I wish I had some fabulous answer for you. The world needs smart, ambitious women kicking ass everywhere…Are there no mentors you can turn to in your field, male or female?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/22/science/22women.html?scp=1&sq=STEM%20and%20women&st=cse

    • Oooh yes, I read that one when it came out. Another article (a bit older) highlights the difference between my mother’s generation of CS majors vs what I’m up against.

      http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Few-Women-in-Computer-Science/348/

      Actually, my best mentor is my fiance, go figure :) He’s a programmer who got an associates in ’01 and has been out in the field for a while. Back before we started dating, but after we first met, he was my go-to guy when I was having problems understanding concepts. He also has no problems giving me pep talks when I’m feeling down and out about the department. My other mentors in the field are my mother and my academic adviser (the only female prof in my department).

      My other solution has been to pick up classes in the linguistics department, which means I actually see other women! And we can do chit-chat! I swear, I emerge from the lab and the smells of Axe body spray and mountain dew, and all I want to do is go to a coffee shop with the girls and talk about shoes, or something equally mindless because I miss chit-chat :( I haven’t been able to train any of my man friends except for my fiance on how to actually talk for pleasure in more than just grunts and fart jokes.

  6. It is a shame that something with an objective measure such as the bi-line stat that you published doesn’t resonate more. I’m sure if you brought it up to the editors of some of these rags they would stammer as it is likely in direct contrast to their self-perception. No matter, because it would likely change not a thing.

    I’ll say this much. When I read this I was a little pissed, but then it occurred to me that if I were a female I would probably feel like I do about getting into heaven with a bunch of religious bigots – F ‘em. What is interesting about the time we live in, especially in terms of good writing, is that it is characterized by abundance, and the difference is that today all that abundance has all sorts of new channels from which it can emerge. The game is changing due to disruptive technologies. Just look at T/S where Most Popular and Active Contributors provide a more level playing field to get noticed and get read. Does that make T/S more feminist than Newsweek? I think so. I’ve often wished they would publish some weekly, or bi-monthly, with the “Best Of,” or “In Depth” just so I could catch more of all the wonderful content that escapes my attention, and I’m sure they could do that fairly by some objective measure based on the performance they see on the site.

    Anyway, I’m starting to drift. The point is, these new channels are way more dynamic and fun. So it’s on this note I will end so as to not get depressed about my subscription to Newsweek.

  7. John, thanks. I agree — and you can see why, as this site allows me an unprecedented freedom editorially — that blogging, and sites like this, can indeed validate and amplify more women’s voices as long as we post good content and can find an audience who values it,

    Ms. magazine used to describe the “click” moment when you realize what BS you’ve been buying. Sorry if I have somewhat despoiled your enjoyment of Newsweek — but not really.

  8. It’s cool, it’s just about the only dead tree thing I read anymore and I’ll let it go soon as it expires.

    As for geekysarah, I’d just like to validate all she wrote. If you think writing gigs are tough, you have no idea how rough it is in propellerland – ruthless. And it’s not even sordid like your lunchtime weirdness. It’s more vindictive. About the only way I can describe it from what I see is to ask you to imagine what most of these male nerds are like. Generally, we’re talking about guys who are not socially well adjusted to begin with, so in addition to being a blunt in their communication they’re also carrying around a bit of baggage when it comes to women, understand? Threatened when you’re good and impossibly critical if you make the slightest misstep. It’s not like that everywhere, but I’ve seen it enough to say that I feel for geekysarah.

    Anyway, get that degree Sarah. The great bit about that educational background is that it can serve in so many ways, the least of which, believe it or not, is writing code. Remember that code is just one part of a comprehensive deliverable and there are many specialties wrapped around that function. System Architecture, Design, QA, Training, and Implementation are some examples, and what’s really interesting is that technical management is increasingly being pulled and developed from these areas so you just never know where the journey will take you. The key is getting in the door and developing a bit of domain expertise so you can apply your knowledge better than your peers. In other words, if dudes don’t want to program with you, perhaps they’ll like it better when they are reporting to you instead.

    • It’s nice to have another cheerleader :) Thank you very much for the sentiment.

      In terms of what I want to do with myself, I really want to work with robots. More specifically caretaker robots, or other such robots that we will start interacting with a lot more in the next 20 years. My goal is to try to make them sound more human, because goodness knows I hate talking to computers in the telephone trees.

      That’s where linguistics and computer science make a happy marriage, because I can design the software, but also be able to write the AI necessary for the robot to pick more natural human-like speech like an actual human. Needless to say, I picked my second language as Japanese for a reason :)

  9. John, thanks for this…I hope, Sarah (?) you have, or can find, a few compassionate professional mentors like John to help you stay strong and focused.

    “Generally, we’re talking about guys who are not socially well adjusted to begin with, so in addition to being a blunt in their communication they’re also carrying around a bit of baggage when it comes to women, understand? Threatened when you’re good and impossibly critical if you make the slightest misstep.”

    I’ve written three long magazine features about women studying and working in engineering, so have heard some of these horror — and success — stories. We used to make fun of the engineers, and vice versa, at U of Toronto and the rivalry between the artsies (arts and science students) and the engineers was long-standing and heated. I’ve seen that lack of social skills. Scary.

    I have not, thank God, been around many men in my work as ugly and aggressive as this — journalism has so many women in it now and we are tough little things who bite back hard, but I know what this form of group bullying can do. I was verbally bullied for three years almost daily, and publicly, in high school by a group of boys; it shaped how I think and behave ever after and I have ZERO tolerance for anyone trying to harm a woman in this fashion. I had two managers at the Daily News who thought it amusing to shout at people, especially those with breasts, in a very large open newsroom. So sophisticated. They could not believe it when I stood up to them.

    Sarah, I love your focus and determination. Japan, as you know, needs your skills; I blogged here about one of their female robots.

    I hope you’ll tell us more (email me privately if you like) and keep us apprised of your progress. It won’t help in those rooms with those nasty nerds, but you have two serious cheerleaders here.

  10. “Actually, my best mentor is my fiance, go figure :) He’s a programmer who got an associates in ‘01 and has been out in the field for a while. Back before we started dating, but after we first met, he was my go-to guy when I was having problems understanding concepts. He also has no problems giving me pep talks when I’m feeling down and out about the department. My other mentors in the field are my mother and my academic adviser (the only female prof in my department).”

    I’m delighted to hear this. One of the toughest issues smart women face — as you see in the classroom — is the (lifelong) thuggish pushback from threatened male competitors. Having someone who loves you AND your work is so helpful. My Dad and stepmother (she was 15 years younger) both worked in film and television and I saw this level of support and advice with them and my sweetie of 10 years is a photo editor so he totally gets what I do (and vice versa.) It’s enormously helpful to have someone who appreciates your professional passion and your brainpower.

    I agree about chitchat! Mindless girltalk is a lot of fun and a helpful counterpoint to saving the world through techno-wizardry. Sounds like you’ve got a good balance.

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