Newsweek in the Mad Men Era

'They'd say, "If you want to be a writer, go somewhere else. Women don't write at Newsweek" '

Headshot of Emma Bazilian

In The Good Girls Revolt, Lynn Povich tells the story of how she and 45 of her female colleagues in 1970 sued Newsweek in what would be the first gender discrimination lawsuit. At the time, women in journalism were relegated to fact-checking and research, with little hope of rising in the mostly male editorial ranks. Now, Newsweek has its first female editor in chief, Tina Brown. Povich (who eventually became Newsweek’s first female senior editor and, in 1991, editor in chief of Working Woman) talks about whether life really has improved for women in media.

Adweek: Why did you decide to tell this story now?

Povich: I started looking at the Newsweek legal papers about five years ago, thinking I’d send them to Radcliffe College’s Women’s Archives. I realized I needed to write a history to help people understand what happened. When it got to be about 30,000 words, I thought, “This is a really interesting story; I think this could be a book.”

Some of the details you share about Newsweek in the ’60s—the workplace drunkenness, the culture of sexual harassment—sound like they’re straight out of Mad Men. Has the series over-glamourized that era?

Mad Men really captures this transitional generation of women that were raised with postwar values in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and came of age in the ‘60s when everything changed, which Peggy [Olson] shows very well. If the struggle against discrimination had been overemphasized, Mad Men wouldn’t ring so true.

What were some examples of life at Newsweek then that you find most shocking now?

They’d say, “If you want to be a writer, go somewhere else. Women don’t write at Newsweek.” One of the women in the foreign section covered the U.N. and would file quite long, extensive reports, and yet when a U.N. official was invited to lunch, she wasn’t included. Only the men were allowed. And then there was the sexual harassment. There was a woman whose editor basically stalked her and said that if she didn’t marry him, she would have to leave Newsweek.

What gave you and your colleagues the confidence to sue?

Until the women’s movement came along, every woman was trying to figure things out for herself. When we began to read about women’s issues and go to consciousness-raising events, we realized that the movement really applied to us.

How were you treated right after filing the lawsuit?

Some writers were quite angry. There was definitely a coolness, mostly among the senior editors. We were told that one top editor had said, “Let’s just fire them all.”

Do you consider the suit a success?

There’s no question that the lawsuit made Newsweek a better magazine and better place to work. It brought more diverse voices and story ideas to the table. But it still took until 1988 to get a woman into the top editing ranks.

How have things changed for women at Newsweek and in media?

There aren’t even researchers at Newsweek anymore—everyone is hired as reporters and writers. But women still suffer from some of the same frustrations as we did, like seeing guys get better assignments or higher pay or moving up a little faster. The kinds of sexism that now exist are not as blatant, which makes them harder to combat.

@adweekemma Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.