The Good Girls Revolt, Lynn Povich’s 2012 book about a historic gender-discrimination lawsuit filed by her and her colleagues at Newsweek in 1970, begins with a present-day interlude. In the mid 2000s, a group of female Newsweek staffers began chronicling their own experiences of sexism at the magazine, flummoxed by their inability to get ahead despite their obvious qualifications and abilities. It was only when this new generation started digging in the archives that they discovered another group of women had fought that same battle many decades before, and they reached out to Lynn to share their stories.
“The reason I started the book with women today was to say that, ‘Oh my god, who would have thought 40 years later we’re still coming up with the same kind of barriers — not even brand new ones, but the same old ones?’”
explains Povich, who spoke at length to this new generation of Newsweek women and chronicled their own struggle in the prologue to her book. “I wanted young women to know about what it was like for their mothers, their grandmothers, all these women had been fighting for a long time to lay the foundations of things. I am also aware of what’s happening with young women today. Women do really well in colleges and universities and then they get into the workforce and for the first time they realize that there are real barriers still, that there are things beyond their control and that there’s a system at work.”
Amazon’s Good Girls Revolt, out this Friday, is a show that also straddles past and present. Developed by former journalist Dana Calvo, Good Girls Revolt stars Anna Camp, Erin Darke, and Genevieve Angelson as three women waking up to entrenched discrimination at the magazine where they work. In the show, the magazine is called News of the Week, but the fundamentals of the Newsweek case remain the same. Much as Povich and her peers did, the women on the show serve as “researchers,” who do the bulk of reporting and researching on stories before passing them to the male writers who slap their names on them and get the glory. No matter how talented a female staffer is, she is relegated to “the pit” — a literally sunken area of the office, with little or no possibility for advancement. And, as coworkers become romantically entangled, it gets harder and harder to ignore a power dynamic that positions female employees as a sexual buffet for the men they work for.
In the first episode, Nora Ephron (played by Grace Gummer) wonders why her peers are fighting over research assignments that will just be handed over to the men anyway. “It’s like you guys are fighting about the lower bunk bed in jail,” she observes. Of course, ol’ Nora is on the right side of history; when she eventually quits in a blaze of glory, someone sneers, “Your name is all you have in journalism, so good luck, Nora Ephron!” The dialogue both makes you want to fist-pump and cringe, often simultaneously. (As you may have already twigged, it’s impossible to read reviews of the show which don’t mention Mad Men, which is understandable, if a little unfair: Mad Men is arguably one of the greatest television shows of all time, while Good Girls Revolt is still finding its footing.)
Set against the backdrop of the anti-war movement and the burgeoning civil rights movement, whose developments are inextricable from the internal upheaval at the magazine, the women start to realize that the status quo is untenable. They organize in secret, teaming up with famed ACLU lawyer and now congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant, playing one of the show’s few real characters) to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an event that will go on to have major ripple effects for Newsweek, the journalism industry, and the women’s rights movement at large.
In an election year that has only highlighted how far we have to come when it comes to reaching equality — where the Fox newsroom was unraveled by a horrific sex scandal, where assault is brushed off as “locker-room talk” by a presidential candidate, where female competence is belittled and questioned at every turn, where Eric Trump claims his sister is too “strong” and “powerful” to face sexual harassment, and on and on — it’s hard not to hear echoes between the show and today’s headlines. And just as women have reclaimed Trump’s “nasty women” slur as a feminist badge of honor, Povich and her peers were straining against the “good girl” mantle that most of them wore as a badge of honor throughout their lives. “A lot of us were very much postwar women raised in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” Povich tells me. “That was the culture of the suburban wife and mother, being polite and supporting your man. And so most of us were sort of raised in that culture and I think we believed if we did everything well, we would be rewarded. That was the whole point. So we were very conscientious, we were good at our jobs, we were very nice people and we thought because of all that we would be rewarded because of the merit. And the surprise was — that’s not true.”
In many ways, it’s the interactions between the female characters that are the most compelling. In the book, Povich writes about the internalized sexism that she and her peers grew up with; as former Newsweek researcher Lucy Howard says in a quote, “We didn’t trust women, we didn’t want to talk to women, we didn’t want to sit next to women. It was all about catering to men.” As Povich told me, “What the organizing did for us was that we realized we were competing against each other and actually we should be fighting the system, not each other. It really broke down a lot of those barriers and people started to have each others backs.”
Watching this election unfold — watching misogyny laid bare on a national stage — has forced many young women I know come to embrace a feminist identity they never thought was theirs to own. Across the country, good girls are revolting, saying they will no longer be silent about being second-class citizens, will no longer tolerate sexual abuse disguised as “locker-room talk.” Injustice can be a hard thing to put your finger on, and throughout Good Girls Revolt, we see the characters sense that something is wrong without being able to say its name. Asked why she’s unhappy, one woman bleakly replies, “I don’t know,” echoing Betty Friedan’s allusion in The Feminine Mystique to “the problem that had no name.” Until Holmes Norton prompted them to file their lawsuit, these women didn’t have the language to articulate how sexism was affecting them, just a deep knowledge that something wasn’t right.
“A lot of us older women who are proud feminists didn’t quite understand why there was a whole generation of women who didn’t want to be called feminists,” explains Povich, when I ask her about the show’s contemporary resonance. “I’m sorry it took Donald Trump, but he’s actually done a good thing for women’s consciousness, I think.”