A real discrimination case inspired Amazon's new series+ READ ARTICLE
Correction appended, 4:00 p.m.
Some of them were known as “dollies.” The women researchers who worked at Newsweek magazine in the late 1960s got quotes for stories but their jobs offered little upward mobility and less pay than was received by the magazine’s male writers, who got to conduct interviews with important people and write the story’s copy.
In 1970, “the dollies” decided they were fed up. The day that Newsweek ran a cover story about the feminist movement, the Newsweek women put the story’s subject into practice. The following week, TIME explained what was going on, and how the issue wasn’t just about one magazine:
Newsweek‘s cover story on “Women in Revolt” was scarcely on the stands when 46 women researchers, reporters and the magazine’s one woman writer staged a revolt of their own. They complained to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that they are “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and are forced to assume a subsidiary role simply because they are women.” Newsweek‘s women were particularly incensed because the magazine had commissioned a freelance woman writer to do the Women’s Liberation cover story. Osborn Elliott, Newsweek‘s editor in chief, said that most of his researchers are women because of a “newsmagazine tradition going back almost 50 years.” He was quick to add, however, that he was not unwilling to alter tradition.
…Until recently, the rebellious restlessness of women in journalism had rarely surfaced. Last summer a female sportswriter sued to gain access to the press box at a professional football game; a feature writer won the right to withhold her byline from “wives-of-famous-men” assignments. And three months ago, women staffers ousted the male hierarchy of the underground and pornographic newspaper, Rat.
Now, Amazon is resurrecting the tale in Good Girls Revolt, a television series that will premiere on the streaming service on Friday, 10 days before an election dominated by conversations about sexism and gender. Based on the book The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich, who was one of the women who filed the complaint, the show disguises Newsweek as News of the Week and adopts a Mad Men vibe—if Mad Men were told from Peggy’s perspective.
In the first episode of the series, women at the magazine begin to realize that something is amiss when Nora Ephron—who, unlike most of the characters on the show, gets to keep her real name—quits over discrimination. (In a wink to Ephron fans, she is played by Grace Gummer, a daughter of Meryl Streep, who starred in many Ephron movies and played a semi-fictionalized version of the famous writer in Heartburn.)
Povich tells TIME that the Ephron scene is exaggerated: She did quit within a year of coming to Newsweek, but she didn’t make such a dramatic exit. Povich says that Ephron was an exception, in that unlike most of the women hired at Newsweek she was sure she wanted a journalism career, or a career at all. “In school most of us were told that we’re very bright, we’re capable, we’re accomplished. But the word career was never spoken,” says Povich, who graduated from Vassar in 1965. “We were highly educated. We loved working in newsrooms. We knew we wanted to work, but we didn’t really think of ourselves as having a career. We weren’t motivated to say, ‘If I can’t be a writer here, I’ll go somewhere else.'”
It took the realization that the magazine’s hiring and promoting practices could be illegal for them to call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
They began gathering ranks, recruiting others to their cause in the women’s bathroom in order to avoid detection, and solicited advice from Eleanor Holmes Norton, then an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, now a long-serving member of congress. “If we saw somebody in the restroom that we trusted or knew pretty well, we would say something like, ‘He and I both graduated from Columbia Journalism School, and now he’s a writer and I’m not’ and just sort of gauge what the reaction would be before presenting what we were doing,” says Povich.
Finally, in 1972, Newsweek promised that by the end of 1974, one-third of the magazine’s writers would be women and by the end of 1975, one-third of those hired for or transferred into foreign correspondent positions would be women.
Povich says that the response from men within Newsweek was mixed: “Some of the best writers said, ‘You go girls!’ But there were also guys who were against what was then called affirmative action, who didn’t believe we should have aired our laundry in public.” Povich later became the first female senior editor at Newsweek (though at a lower salary than her male counterparts).
Change within the industry still has a long way to go. A 2012 study out of Indiana University found the median salary for women in journalism was about 83% of the median salary for men. A few years ago, when Povich began to write her book, she met a group of women then working at Newsweek, who expressed frustration with sexist slights in the newsroom. Yet she noticed young women shying away from the label “feminist”—something that left Povich, now 73, and her fellow trailblazers upset and bewildered. But now, she thinks that things may be changing.
“What I find fascinating is since Donald Trump [has been accused of sexual harassment and assault] all these young women are really angry, and they sort of get it and realize what feminism means,” Povich says. “When [Amazon] first said they wanted to come out in October with the series, I thought people are just going to be subsumed by the election, nobody is going to watch a series. But now the timing seems so propitious.”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described female employees at Newsweek in the 1960s. Only some of them were called “dollies,” and generally their role was limited to research tasks. The story also misstated Lynn Povich’s age. She is 73.