'Good Girls Revolt' Takes On Gender Bias In The Newsroom | KUOW News and Information

'Good Girls Revolt' Takes On Gender Bias In The Newsroom

Oct 27, 2016
Originally published on October 27, 2016 8:16 am

Amazon's new 10-part series Good Girls Revolt was inspired by a landmark 1970 case involving a group of women working at Newsweek magazine who sued their employers for gender discrimination. At the show's fictitious News of the Week magazine, women begin to rise up, too.

As the Vietnam War, the counterculture, civil rights and the Black Panthers make headlines, the hierarchy of the newsroom is clear: the men are reporters, the women are researchers. As one female staffer breaks it down to another, "We report, investigate and write files for the reporters. They do a pass on them, put their names on them, and then the stories go to press."

The researchers didn't get bylines, and they were expected to serve coffee to the bosses. Even if they had done the investigative work on a big cover story, they weren't given much more than a pat on, if they were lucky, the head. These women were highly educated, had attended top universities, and, as a reflection of their time, were taught to be well-mannered and mostly apolitical — they'd been raised to be "good girls."

In real life, the late Nora Ephron was one of those who worked (for a short time) at Newsweek. In the fictionalized series, she's played by Grace Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep (who has also starred in Ephron's movies). She's depicted as challenging her boss (played by Jim Belushi), who insists "girls do not do rewrites," and suggests she not make waves.

Ephron would go on to become a best-selling essayist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright and movie producer and director.

Another young woman who made waves in real life at Newsweek was Lynn Povich, who started out as a secretary in the magazine's Paris bureau. The show is based on her book, The Good Girls Revolt. In it, Povich describes the saga of how she and 45 other young women at Newsweek sued their bosses for equal opportunity and pay. She wrote that for decades, the newswomen had been systematically discriminated against in hiring and promotion. They announced their suit the same day Newsweek's cover story on women's lib hit the newsstands.

"The story was picked up everywhere, as you can well imagine," Povich recalls. "I think the Daily News had one of my favorite lines. It said, '46 women, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced they were filing sex discrimination charges today against Newsweek.' "

Povich says they filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), asking that a third of the reporters and a third of the writers be women, and that a third of the researchers be men. They had to file a second complaint to get Newsweek to comply. A few years later, women at the New York Times, Reader's Digest and other news organizations, including NPR, filed or threatened to file similar class-action lawsuits.

"The fact that we at Newsweek were the first women to organize and decide to change the system from within was an important piece of history, I felt, for people of a younger generation to understand what it was like for women then, and how we managed to change things and inspire other women in the media to do the same," Povich says.

Congress member Eleanor Holmes Norton was a very pregnant attorney with the ACLU in 1970. She helped organize the Newsweek researchers as the women's movement continued to grow. In the series, she's portrayed by actress Joy Bryant. Holmes Norton recalls that she encouraged the women to take off their gloves and fight the system.

"They were going against giants in journalism. Their courage cannot be underestimated," she says. "And you've got to understand who they were: Phi Beta Kappas and other top-of-the-lot women, who were the jewels and who were so pleased to get in on the bottom rung of a big-time news magazine. They were prepared to take anything, and that's what they got — anything, until they rose up, very politely, and insisted upon getting their just due. These were the good girls, indeed I called them the best girls."

Dana Calvo, the show's creator, and an executive producer and writer on it, refers to the Newsweek women as "accidental revolutionaries." As a former journalist with The New York Times, The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, Calvo says, she owes them a lot.

"The series is really about awakening, coming into your own voice, and seeing that you have a right to make demands and pursue your dreams," says Calvo. "But along the way, it complicates your love life, your family lives. Those dreams or those narratives that these young women had for themselves are then constantly being edited and revised in their own minds because they start to see themselves differently."

Making the show was itself something of a revolution in Hollywood, an industry where women still struggle for good parts, top jobs and equal pay. Women were hired at every level for Good Girls Revolt. Women are not just in front of the camera in this show; they are in the ranks of executive producers, writers and directors, including an art director and an Oscar-winning production designer.

"Not only is it great to work with a group of really skilled and powerful women, but also that there are men executives in Hollywood who are capable of recognizing female talent and supporting them," says Liza Johnson, who directed the pilot.

On the set of Good Girls Revolt, the actresses said they welcomed having women and feminist men run the show. Anna Camp, who plays the head researcher for News of the Week, says during production she had a glimpse of what many women experienced in 1969. "You know, we are dressed up in these gorgeous period costumes and the makeup and the hair, and at the time it was very, like, to catch a man," Camp says in an interview with her on the set of the show. "My character, specifically, is trying to catch a man and trying to get married. That's her goal right now."

But it begins to dawn on her character and the other women to ask for more. Author Lynn Povich says for working women, there's still a long way to go.

"When you look at the statistics in Hollywood, they're not running things, or they're not paid as much if they're stars," Povich says, noting, "it's very similar in journalism. They're not running things, there's a question of pay equity. Now, with the Roger Ailes situation, you begin to see that there is still really overt sexual harassment and discrimination."

Forty-six years after the Newsweek case, the ACLU has asked the EEOC and the state of California to investigate gender discrimination in Hollywood.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Read news stories from the presidential campaign, and you will encounter a lot of stories by women. Turn on the news on TV, and you'll find many anchors who are women. This very program is co-hosted by a woman, and its last four executive producers - all women. It would be hard to claim that women have an equal voice in newsrooms in 2016, but they have a large voice in many of them. And you can trace that back to a lawsuit in 1970. Women who worked at Newsweek sued the magazine. That lawsuit is the inspiration for "Good Girls Revolt," which premieres tomorrow on Amazon.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The show starts in 1969 - the Vietnam War, the counterculture, civil rights and the Black Panthers make headlines. And in the newsroom of the fictitious News of the Week magazine, the hierarchy between men and women is clear. One female staffer breaks it down to another.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD GIRLS REVOLT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) They're reporters. We're researchers. We report, investigate and write files for the reporters. They do a pass on them, put their names on them and then the stories go to press.

DEL BARCO: The women researchers don't get bylines and are expected to serve coffee to their bosses. After handing a male reporter a big break for a cover story, the praise is patronizing at best.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD GIRLS REVOLT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You're pretty cute when you got a scoop.

DEL BARCO: Educated at top universities, the women were well-mannered and mostly apolitical. That's a reflection of the time they were raised to be, quote, "good girls." In real life, the late Nora Ephron was one of them. She worked for a short time at Newsweek. In the fictionalized series, she's played by Grace Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep, who also starred in Ephron's movies. Here she is in one scene, challenging her boss, played by Jim Belushi.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD GIRL REVOLT")

JIM BELUSHI: (As William McFadden) Girls do not do rewrites.

GRACE GUMMER: (As Nora Ephron) Why not?

BELUSHI: (As William McFadden) That's simply how we do things here. We have rules, protocol.

GUMMER: (As Nora Ephron) 'Cause those rules are dumb - if copy's good, it's good.

BELUSHI: (As William McFadden) Young lady, you might not want to make waves.

DEL BARCO: Nora Ephron would go on to become a bestselling essayist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, movie producer and director. Another young woman who made waves in real life at Newsweek was Lynn Povich. She started out as a secretary in the Paris bureau.

LYNN POVICH: When I got to Newsweek, there were no women writers.

DEL BARCO: Povich wrote a book about her years there, "The Good Girls Revolt," which inspired the 10-part TV series. She describes how she and 45 other young women at Newsweek sued their bosses for equal opportunity and pay. Povich wrote that, for decades, the newswoman had been systematically discriminated against in hiring and promotion. They announced their suit the same day Newsweek's cover story on women's lib hit the newsstands.

POVICH: The story was picked up everywhere, as you can well imagine. I think the Daily News had one of my favorite lines, it said, 46 women, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced they were filing sex discrimination charges today against Newsweek.

DEL BARCO: Povich says they filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asking that a third of the reporters and a third of the writers be women and that a third of the researchers be men. She says they had to file a second complaint to get Newsweek to comply. A few years later, women at The New York Times, Reader's Digest and other news organizations, including NPR, filed or threatened to file similar class action lawsuits.

POVICH: The fact that we, at Newsweek, were the first women to organize and decide to change the system from within was an important piece of history and, I felt, for people of a younger generation to understand what it was like for women then and how we managed to change things and inspire other women in the media to do the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD GIRLS REVOLT")

JOY BRYANT: (As Eleanor Holmes Norton) Women will not tolerate being second-class citizens anymore.

DEL BARCO: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was a very pregnant attorney with the ACLU in 1970. She helped organize the Newsweek women as the women's movement continued to grow. In the series, she's portrayed by actress Joy Bryant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD GIRLS REVOLT")

BRYANT: (As Eleanor Holmes Norton) What do you think the men you're working with get paid?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) That isn't a fair comparison.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Yeah, they do have different jobs.

BRYANT: (As Eleanor Homes Norton) Right - jobs you're not allowed to have.

DEL BARCO: Holmes Norton says she encouraged the women to take off their gloves and fight the system.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: They were going against giants in journalism. Their courage cannot be underestimated. And you've got to understand who they were - Phi Beta Kappa's and other top-of-the-lot women who were the jewels and who were so pleased to get in on the bottom rung of a big-time newsmagazine. They were prepared to take anything. And that's what they got - anything - until they rose up, very politely, and insisted upon getting their just due. These were the good girls. Indeed, I call them the best girls.

DANA CALVO: I always call them accidental revolutionaries.

DEL BARCO: Dana Calvo, the show's creator, is also one of its executive producers and writers. She's also a former journalist with The New York Times, the Associated Press and the LA Times. Calvo says she owes a debt to those newswomen in the 1970s.

CALVO: The series is really about awakening, coming into your own voice and seeing that you have a right to make demands and pursue your dreams.

DEL BARCO: Making the show was something of a revolution in Hollywood, an industry where women still struggle for good parts, top jobs and equal pay. Women were hired at every level for "Good Girls Revolt," from executive producers and writers, to the cast and crew. That included an Oscar-winning production designer and directors such as Liza Johnson.

LIZA JOHNSON: Not only is it great to work with a group of really skilled and powerful women but also that there are men executives in Hollywood who are capable of recognizing female talent and supporting them.

Background - and action.

DEL BARCO: On the set of "Good Girls Revolt," the actresses said they welcomed having women and feminist men run the show. Anna Camp, who plays a head researcher for News of the Week, says during production she had a glimpse of what many women experienced in 1969.

ANNA CAMP: You know, we're dressed up in these gorgeous period costumes and the makeup and the hair. And at the time, it was very, like, to catch a man, you know what I mean? And my character, specifically, is trying to catch a man and trying to get married. That's her goal right now.

DEL BARCO: But it begins to dawn on the women in the show to ask for more. Lynn Povich, who wrote the book on the good girls, says there's still a long way to go.

POVICH: When you look at the statistics in Hollywood, they're not running things, or they're not paid as much if they're stars. And very similar in journalism - they're not running things. There's a question of pay equity. And now with the Roger Ailes situation, you begin to see that there is still really overt sexual harassment and discrimination.

DEL BARCO: Forty-six years after the Newsweek case, the ACLU has asked the EEOC and the state of California to investigate gender discrimination in Hollywood.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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