Lynn Povich

“I Was Determined to Set History Straight.”

Interviewed by Penny Stoil, VFA Board, April 2019.
Videographer: Ron Myrvik

PS:  Lynn Povich you’re an award-winning journalist with a 40-year career. Twenty-one years were spent at the very prestigious Newsweek magazine. You started as a secretary when you graduated Vassar in 1965 and you achieved the title of Researcher. But that was it – researcher – the final title for most women there regardless of talent or ambition. Five years later, 1970 the women’s movement was heating up, and at Newsweek the women had reached their boiling point.  As a budding feminist, you were one of the leaders of what became known as The Good Girls Revolt – the first women of the media to sue their employer for Sex Discrimination. Lynn, describe the workplace for women at the magazine in 1965. Who held what titles? 

LP:  Newsweek‘s system was copied from Time, and both news magazines had men from the very top; editors, writers, reporters and only women as researchers or fact checkers. Henry Luce decided that this would be a step up from being a secretary for women. But once you are hired as a researcher, you really couldn’t get past the barrier of becoming a reporter. A few women did. But when they had women reporters, many of them were hired from outside the magazine. No women were writing at these magazines until quite late in the seventies. When I joined Newsweek in the early sixties, women were told that if you want to write, go someplace else. Women don’t write at Newsweek – and they just said that to you straight out. So, women who knew they wanted to be writers like Nora Ephron, Jane Bryant Quinn and Ellen Goodman, left the magazine and had very successful careers.

PS:  Finally, in 1970, the year of the Woman’s March for Equality, you and a small band of women at the magazine took a very bold step in secret. And what was that?

LP:  Well a very good friend of mine, Judy Gingold, who was a Phi Beta Kappa from Smith and a Marshall Scholar, and was a researcher at Newsweek, had lunch with a lawyer who when she described our jobs at Newsweek said “you know this is illegal.” Now this was 1969.  It was five years after the Civil Rights Act, and we had no idea that it had applied to us.  She said call the EEOC and you’ll see. And, the woman at the EEOC said, “Yes it’s illegal to segregate jobs by gender.” And Judy said, “I don’t think the men know; I think we should just tell the men.”  That’s what we thought. We thought that they didn’t know that it was illegal.

But, the woman at the EEOC at the other end of the line said – “Don’t be crazy. If you tell the men, they will appoint two women as writers and that will be the end of it. You have a strong case, and you should file a complaint.” So, we started organizing. I was the fifth woman brought into this group, and one by one we took another woman we trusted – and then she took another woman she trusted – and we got to be about 15 or 20 women.

We finally decided that we needed a lawyer. And the woman that we found to represent us was Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was then the number two person at the ACLU. Eleanor started meeting with us, and we decided that we should file a class action suit against Newsweek. This was in 1970. At the beginning of 1970, when our plans to sue were still secret, the editors of Newsweek decided they would do a cover story on the women’s movement. But they had no women to write it.

They hired a wonderful woman writer from the New York Post to come and freelance the story. And on the day that Newsweek appeared on the newsstands with a cover that said Women in Revolt about the women’s movement, 46 of us announced that we were filing a sex discrimination complaint against Newsweek. Needless to say, the publicity was fantastic.

PS:  And the moment had finally arrived for your group, with your lawyer, to present your charges of sex discrimination in person directly to the Editor of the magazine, Oz Elliot, and to the owner of both Newsweek and the Washington Post, Katherine Graham. How did that meeting go?

LP:  Oz called Kay the morning that the news was announced to tell her that the women at Newsweek had filed this complaint against the magazine. And Katharine Graham, as she says in her book, said to him – “Oz, whose side am I supposed to be on?” She, as one of two women publishers at that time, and Dorothy Schiff being the other, were treated shabbily by the other publishers at the time. So…she also had experienced some discrimination.

PS:  Dorothy Schiff was the New York Post. 

LP:  Yes, Dorothy Schiff was the Publisher of the New York Post and Kay Graham was the owner of both Newsweek Magazine and the Washington Post. So, it was a very interesting time.

We immediately, with Eleanor Holmes Norton, started negotiating with Oz Elliot and the editors of Newsweek. We pretty quickly got to a point where the editors said OK, we agree, and we promise to hire and promote women. And we signed this agreement, the Memorandum of Understanding, on August 26, 1970, the same historic day that fifty thousand women marched down Fifth Avenue in the Women’s Strike for Equality – and we joined them. It was interestingly held at 5pm so that working women could join in this march.

PS:  You all loved that magazine and you greatly admired its editor. How difficult was the decision to file this historic complaint with the EEOC? 

LP:  Well there were some women who wanted to go to Oz and say “you know this is how we’re being treated and it’s not fair.” Some people even wanted to go to Katharine Graham. But we had seen that a group of male writers, some of the top writers in the magazine had some complaints as well, about six months before we did, that had to do with their issues of their writing – their voices in the magazine. They were planning to go to the editors and talk to them about it.

The result was that each of the editors took each of the writers out – one by one – and promised that things would change. And, nothing happened. And so we thought, “Well if they’re not going to do this for the top writers, they’re certainly not going to listen to the bottom of the staff. The only way we can be taken seriously was to file a complaint.”  About this, Eleanor was very strong, and as she said, she had to toughen us up. 

PS:  I understand she’s actually quite scary.

LP:  She was very scary. If you knew Eleanor Holmes Norton she’s fierce. She’s still fierce. She’d say – “Take off your white gloves lady, daddy is not going to save you. You have to be prepared because we don’t know what’s going to happen.” We were the first professional women in the media to sue, and we had no idea what the reaction was going to be.

PS:  Well both sides signed the Memorandum of Understanding as a way of settling the suit. What did that include? What was promised?

LP:  The language was very vague, and this became an issue later on. They promised to hire and promote, but there were no specific numbers. They did promise that women would be sent to the bureaus during the summer when men were on vacation to get training as reporters. And some of the women were sent to bureaus, did very well, and ultimately got promoted. But there really wasn’t enough specific language to make the agreement effective. And after we signed it in August of 1970, the one thing we did include was that there would be a women’s group that would monitor the progress. In other words, we would see how many women were interviewed for jobs, how many women were hired for jobs, and we would get that information from H.R.

The next year we looked at this information and realized that not much was happening. I have to say also that Osborn Elliot moved to the business side right after our agreement and a new editor came in. He just was not as committed to making the changes that I think Oz probably would have been.

PS:  So basically, Newsweek did not really live up to their promise.

LP:  That’s right.

PS:  And two years later?

LP:  We brought in another lawyer a year later to help us negotiate because things were not going well. Eleanor Holmes Norton could no longer represent us because she was the Human Rights Commissioner for the City of New York. We found Harriet Rabb, a wonderful professor at Columbia Law School who was actually teaching employment rights law – which was a brand-new category of law. Harriet talked to management several times with us in negotiations when we realized that they really were not committed to making changes. And so actually, much to my surprise, we voted to file another complaint against Newsweek which was pretty amazing given that some people had been promoted and some people had gotten raises. Yet, we were still angry enough about this injustice that we were willing to go all through it again with all the recriminations and everything else. In May of 1972, we filed two things – an EEOC complaint again, which we also filed with the State Human Rights Commission because Harriet thought that we could get relief from one or the other – and we filed a breach of contract suit with them.

This time Katherine Graham was actually being sued by the black women of the Washington Post, who had been writing letters to her as well saying that they were also facing discrimination. So, this time, Katharine Graham decided to send her corporate lawyer to New York to negotiate. It was Joe Califano, who later became secretary of HEW and who was sent to settle this suit somehow. 

PS:  After the second suit was filed, what positive steps were taken by the magazine this time? And if I remember, you had 46 women the first time, but you had 60 women the second time.

LP:  Actually, the first time we also had 60 because 15 more amended after we filed on that Monday. We were 60 on both actions. What was interesting about the second negotiation and our second agreement was that Harriet knew specifically what to ask for. We had very specific demands.

We asked that a third of the writers and reporters be women by the end of 1974. We asked that a third of the researchers be men. It was very important to integrate the research category and say this was not a woman’s job, this was an entry level job for anybody. And, we demanded a woman senior editor by the end of 1975. They agreed to all those things. And now, we could make real progress and also monitor their progress.

PS:  I was interested in how this protest changed the personal thinking of your editor Oz Elliot, because he did come around.

LP:  He did. He came back after two years, and he was there in the final years after this happened. Oz has three daughters, and I always thought that that had a lot to do with it. He didn’t stay long enough to see it through, but he did hire the first woman columnist – Shana Alexander – so he started to make some changes.

PS:  And Lynn, you were not punished. In fact, you rose through the ranks as did many others. What were your many titles and the final one that you got?

LP:  I was a junior writer in 1970 when we filed this suit because the writer I worked for and the editor I worked for were very kind and had encouraged and mentored me. I was writing fashion and features at the time that we filed the suit, and afterwards I continued as a writer. I was still a writer in 1975 when Oz, who was leaving, hired the new editor – a man named Ed Kosner. He approached me and said he wanted me to try out as a senior editor. There had been a woman in front of me, a wonderful writer much more senior to me and very talented, Elizabeth Peer, who had tried out to be the first woman senior editor. She was a fantastically talented person, but she just wasn’t a manager. So, I was the second person they came to and asked me to try out – and I did. In August of 1975, I was appointed as the first woman senior editor. And you’re right, it was very unusual for anyone who had filed a suit to actually benefit.

PS:  I think it was actually quite amazing.

LP:  Most women on the front lines of these lawsuits did not benefit. They were sidelined. They were punished. Betsy Wade who was the lead plaintiff in the New York Times suit should have become the foreign editor. She was on the foreign desk but ended up writing a travel column at the New York Times. She said to me when I talked to her about it – she said – “Lynn, you know we did a very brave thing, but we knew it would be for the next generation.”

PS:  In 1980 you and your husband Stephan Shepard had your first child, and in 1982 your second. After a short leave you returned to Newsweek. At what title, and for how long?

LP:  I was still a senior editor. I had been a senior editor for five years when I left on maternity leave the first time, and I knew I didn’t want to work those hours anymore. I told them to replace me, not to hold my job, that I would come back in some form as a senior editor, perhaps part-time because I had been there 15 years. They replaced me, and I decided to come back three days a week. So, I worked three days a week for three and a half years, and then I came back working on special projects and filling in as various senior editors went on vacation. I did that pretty much until I left Newsweek in 1991.

PS:  After 25 years at Newsweek you were wooed away to another magazine. What was it and what made it attractive to you?

LP:  Yes, I was. Unbeknownst to me I had met this man who owned a magazine called Working Woman, which was a very well-known magazine that had started in the 70s when women were flooding into the workforce. It was a very smart magazine because it really told women how to make their way in the work world. A lot of service advice, a lot of very smart, interesting information and profiles of other women. In 1991, I got a call one day from Dale Lang, who owned the magazine asking if I would consider becoming the Editor-in-Chief. I thought what a great opportunity. I left Newsweek after twenty-five years.

PS:  And as Editor-in-Chief, you had enormous amounts of control.

LP:  I did.

PS:  After Working Woman you held major roles at MSNBC and NBC News. But in 2012, 42 years after your historic lawsuit, your own book was published. What was it called and why did you write it? 

LP:  I had taken the legal papers about our case home with me when I left Newsweek. I think I was probably the most senior person at the time. They were stored in my basement and I thought I really need to send these papers to Radcliffe. The Radcliffe Schlesinger Library had asked for our papers when we filed suit because it was such a historic suit, but I had never really gotten around to it. Now I had time, and I thought I’ll look through the papers and I’ll send it to them. I realized that they really wouldn’t understand what they meant unless I wrote a history. So, I started writing a history.

We first did this – and then this happened – and they said this…. And I started interviewing my colleagues 40 years later, which I don’t recommend. Memories change. And it got to be about 30,000 words and I thought, “Oh my goodness, I think this is going to be a book.” I decided to write this book about this suit for two reasons. I basically wrote it for my family, my friends and my colleagues saying this is important history and people don’t know it. I also wrote it because most people had heard about the New York Times lawsuit, but they didn’t know that the Newsweek lawsuit was first. I was determined to set history straight and say we were the first. Theirs was four years later, and they hired our lawyer because of our lawsuit. I really did want to correct history. I ended up writing it, and it was published in 2012.

PS:  Amazingly it was also very complimentary and very explanatory about the wonderful women who worked with you, giving their backgrounds and a great deal of credit. This was a real opportunity for you to do that in public. But it also started the idea of a TV series – The Mad Men of its time. What happened there?

LP:  Well it’s interesting. I actually got a lot of requests – queries I should say – from lots of different people in Hollywood right after the book was published, because it got a certain amount of publicity. I was very cautious about it because this was our story, and I knew what Hollywood or television would do to it and I didn’t want to have us up on the screen doing things that I thought would not be accurate.

I didn’t really sell it to anybody or let anybody option it. And then a year later, when the paperback came out, I got a phone call from a woman, a very well-known producer named Linda Obst who produced Sleepless in Seattle and some television – Live in Cleveland. I knew Linda because she had been a journalist at the New York Times Magazine in the 70s. I thought well she’s my age, she had been a journalist and she can get a movie done or a television thing done. And so I optioned it to her on the basis that it be fictionalized because I knew that I can’t control it, as writers and authors don’t control anything; the studios control it. I have no idea what they are going to do with these characters, but I can’t have somebody named Lynn Povich up there doing things that I might not approve of. So, I’ll sell it to you if you fictionalize them first. She said – “No, I want the real story.” I said – “You know we’re not Nora Ephron. The story we have is not because we were famous, it was because we were a group of 25 to 28-year-old young women who were just mad at this injustice. And that’s the point. That’s the point of the story.” She ultimately agreed, and she got it made very quickly and it was on Amazon in 2016.

PS:  And it ran for a whole season.

LP:  It ran for a season.

PS:  It was quite inspired. But talking about inspiration, you had an extraordinary dad, Shirley Povich. How did he inspire your life and your success?

LP:  He was a sports columnist for the Washington Post. He actually wrote for the Washington Post for 75 years. He started when he was 17, and he died when he was almost 93 – and he wrote a column the day before he died.

So, journalism was sort of a hallowed profession in our family, but mainly my father’s values. I mean he wrote about sports. It wasn’t something that I wanted to write about in particular. But, he wrote about the injustices in sports. He wrote about how the Washington Redskins football team was the last team to integrate because it had a very Southern audience, and he would often write critical stories about how the colors of the Redskins were burgundy, gold and Caucasian. He really had these values about what was right and what was wrong. And interestingly I didn’t want to be a journalist because I thought I really couldn’t compete with him. He was a wonderful stylist and I avoided journalism most of my high school and college life. But when I came to Newsweek, I really was a secretary. I started to actually love the reporting, so I decided that’s what I would do.

PS:  And your husband of more than 35 years, Steve Shepard, was he a source of inspiration for you as well?

LP:  Yes, Steve came to Newsweek after I had been there quite a while. He came in 1975. I was a senior editor, and he came as a senior editor first in business and then in national affairs. He, too, is a very moral, highly admired editor and journalist. We’ve had a wonderful life together.

PS:  Looking back, what role did the woman’s movement play in your life, and when did you start to identify yourself as a feminist?

LP:  It’s very interesting because I often wonder if we could have done what we had done without the women’s movement. Everyone says – well everybody accepted the way it was for women. How we were raised? We were raised to be wives and mothers, and nobody ever mentioned career to those of us who were educated in the 60s or 50s. And women accepted it, as well as men.

I mean one of the things that interested me about writing a book was at what moment did you have that click when you suddenly realize this is not the way things should be? And all of the women I interviewed had different moments of that. Some women knew from the beginning this was not the way it should be. They were very conscious of it. For the rest of us it took a while, but I really believe that it was the women’s movement, I mean the feelings in New York – NOW was formed in 1966 and I covered the first Congress to unite women in 1969. That was the beginning of the sense that there was really a movement of sisterhood here. And I think that this idea that women did not have to compete against each other but could join together realizing that we were not the problem. The system was the problem, and that really gave us the courage, all 60 of us – the courage to do this. And I’m just not sure how it would have happened without the women’s movement.

PS:  And many of the books, because I remember reading Betty Friedan’s book and thinking – oh my God.

LP:  Yes, The Feminine Mystique, that was in ’63. I was in college then.

PS:  Who are some of the feminists of the second wave that you particularly admire?

LP:  I certainly admire Eleanor Holmes Norton and I knew her well. She was quite wonderful and also one of the few black women who from the very beginning said black women should be part of the women’s movement, an issue because the civil rights movement was happening at the same time and there was a real struggle among black women about which way to go.

So, Eleanor is a great hero of mine. I certainly knew Gloria at the time, and she was doing amazing things and always speaking with women of color. Yes, it was a white woman’s middle-class movement in the beginning, as many social movements are middle class movements because they are the people who can afford to do it, and they have enough confidence or money or something to make changes. But Gloria never spoke alone. She always worked with women of color and tried to show the diversity of the movement.

PS:  And finally, what are your thoughts about the current status of women in the news business? “Me too” movement, TV, print, online? And especially as a career for young feminists.

LP:  Women are doing quite well in journalism. If you look at television for example, women are covering all the wars where previously they were never allowed to even go. But you cannot cover the Middle East without seeing women journalists there, many of whom are Arab speakers. Women are now covering politics, they’re covering the President, they’re covering business, they’re farm bureau chiefs, they’re in all the areas that we have been kept out of until pretty recently. There are many sub-editors and number twos and number threes. We still are not at the top. There are very few news organizations actually run by women today. You know it kind of ebbs and flows. There was a period where women were running the New York Times, the Chicago Trib, The Oregonian, the Buffalo paper, the Des Moines Register. Now there’s hardly a woman in charge of any major metropolitan newspaper and none of a network news or cable news.

So, we have a glass ceiling in journalism that really still needs to be broken. There are many women qualified to be number one. Many, many women. The pool is huge. But I think we’re facing real obstacles there. Both externally in terms of discrimination, and internally because journalism is a very hard profession for a parent, and for being a boss, as it is so unpredictable and so intense. So that’s another issue that society has to solve – which is how parents can get more help to be able to continue their careers.

PS:  Lynn to close I want to thank you for your support of the Veteran Feminists of America, and especially for the important part you played in bringing lasting change to the workplace for the women of America – hopefully forever. Thank you.

LP:  Thank you. And this is such a wonderful organization because there were so many of us, and none of us did it alone. There are so many women of my generation that really broke barriers. I am awed by them and admire them so much – so I’m happy to be part of the VFA.