When Newsweek's Women Said 'No'- by Eleanor Clift
On a Monday morning in March 1970, Newsweek’s cover on “Women in Revolt” hit the newsstands. It was the first serious treatment of the women’s movement by a major newsmagazine. Ms. magazine, the bible of the movement, would not be launched until the following year. But any satisfaction the male editors might have enjoyed about their enterprising journalism was dispelled by a press conference held that same morning by the women of Newsweek to announce they were suing the magazine for gender discrimination.
The fallout from that lawsuit, which the women won, chipped away at the “Mad Men” culture that had reigned for so long, bringing women into the conversation and changing the way Newsweek reported on a broad array of issues that would over the decades transform life as I had known it.
Attitudes about women were pretty primitive back then. Before becoming a reporter, I was a girl Friday in the Atlanta bureau; when Katharine Graham, Newsweek’s publisher, visited, we had to take her up the back stairs to the room we had reserved for lunch at the stodgy Commerce Club because women weren’t allowed. We laughed at the absurdity of it even as changing the system didn’t yet seem an option. In New York, Peter Goldman, the magazine’s premiere writer, remembers Mrs. Graham talking about how, after her husband, Phil, died, she was thrust into the leadership of Newsweek and The Washington Post, and the lone woman on numerous corporate boards; when board members were polled on some company policy, he recalls her saying, they would go around the table and skip right over her.
The gender-discrimination suit against Newsweek opened the door for me to become a reporter at a time when the barriers were coming down for women, and the magazine, like the country, was catching up with half the population’s ambitions, talents, and skills. From where I stood, every step forward seemed like a small miracle.
I was a new White House correspondent in the spring of 1977 when Jody Powell, President Carter’s press secretary, tapped me on the shoulder in the press room and said the president wanted to see me. We were doing a cover on Rosalynn Carter, pegged to the president’s decision to send his wife to represent him on a visit to Latin America. A first lady traveling alone in an official capacity proved surprisingly controversial. There were cries of “Who elected her?” and Newsweek commissioned a poll to survey public opinion. As I entered the Oval Office, Carter exclaimed, “You’ve come to talk about my Eleanor.” It was clearly a play on Eleanor Roosevelt, the gold standard for first-lady activism, but it turns out Eleanor is also Rosalynn’s first name. Carter was ahead of his time in declaring his wife an equal partner, and he didn’t back down in the face of public pressure. (As for me, I figured this is what being a White House reporter is about—you get called in to chat with the president every so often. For the record, it never happened again.)
Consciousness raising was needed in the editorial offices of Newsweek, just as it was in Washington, D.C., and in the kitchens and bedrooms of Middle America. When Gloria Steinem, the avatar of the women’s movement, was featured on an August 1971 cover, the text called her “The New Woman: Liberated Despite Beauty, Chic, and Success” (emphasis mine). Mrs. Graham, initially wary of feminism, gave Steinem $20,000 seed money to found Ms. magazine.
In 1975 bylines were added, giving writers and reporters recognition and making it easier to see how many women were rising in the editorial ranks. The magazine was eager to show off the strides that had been made. Merrill McLoughlin, an education writer, remembers being asked if she would use her nickname, Mimi, on a story she had written to run in the National Affairs section about the International Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977. The male editor was proud that the story was reported by women and written by a woman, and felt her name was ambiguous. She declined, explaining Merrill was her professional name. There were awkward moments when editors realized at the last minute they needed a woman to fill out the table at a luncheon at Top of the Week, Newsweek’s dining room. That’s how McLoughlin once found herself seated next to Steve Jobs, “excruciatingly aware I was the only female and I knew nothing about him except what I’d hurriedly read before. I was the wrong person to be seated next to him.”
I don’t think many men would think they were wrongly seated, but these were the growing pains as men and women adjusted to changing roles. In 1978, Lynn Povich—one of the women who spearheaded the Newsweek suit and who became Newsweek’s first female senior editor—suggested a cover on “How Men Are Changing” in a cover conference. The other editors mocked her, saying she must be having difficulty finding a date in her newly single status after a divorce. “I argued how can you change 50 percent of the population without affecting the other 50 percent?” She prevailed, and the cover drawing showed a man wearing an apron stirring a pot on the stove and looking down at a little girl holding a doll. Reflecting on the coverage in those days, Povich wonders, “Were we ahead of the times or just reflecting the times?” Either way, the times were changing.
Medicine and health stories flourished, many of them written by Jeanie Seligmann, who was promoted to writer after the suit, and those stories often broke new ground. Women’s issues were in the news—breast cancer, the pill, the Dalkon Shield and what was wrong with it—and she covered them, prompting a male friend to tell her, “Your beat is from the ovary to the thigh.” Seligmann did the first real story in a major magazine, in the early ’70s, on anorexia and its prevalence. She reviewed Our Bodies, Ourselves for Newsweek, and a top editor had her change the word “rape” to “attack.” But the male editors loved women’s health stories. “Anything with the word ‘breast’ in it,” says Seligmann, “and we got to run pictures, even if it was just drawings.”
There was solidarity among women in those years that crossed political lines. In Congress, Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder co-chaired the Women’s Caucus with Republican Rep. Olympia Snowe, and they counted on the media to neutralize and challenge the hysteria that accompanied the push for the Equal Rights Amendment—which failed largely over concerns about women in combat and unisex bathrooms—and the passage of Title IX, which equalized sports for women and girls. Schroeder recounts being assailed by lawmakers furious that funding for men’s sports could be compromised; one Ohio congressman told her that if he voted for the measure he would never again get complimentary tickets to his favorite sports events.
The experience of sisterhood was powerful. When women who benefited from Title IX won Olympic gold in 1984 and came to Capitol Hill to thank the brave members who had voted for it, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond showed up wanting his picture taken with the young women. “I like you girls,” he said, smiling. They refused, smiling back, saying it would confuse people since he had not supported the legislation. That same year, when Geraldine Ferraro was nominated for vice president, I was on the floor of the Democratic convention, along with a lot of women. Many of the male delegates and journalists had given up their floor passes to women because it was such a special moment; we all had tears in our eyes. In 1992, the Year of the Woman, when a record number of women were elected to Congress, a congressman was quoted saying there were so many women on Capitol Hill, the place reminded him of a shopping mall. “I remember asking him, ‘Where do you shop?’ ” Schroeder recalled, noting that women were still only 10 percent of the lawmakers.
Schroeder, always quick with a quip, found her words frequently featured on Newsweek’s Perspectives page, which made its appearance in the ’80s as part of a redesign. Calling President Reagan “the Teflon president” was one of her most memorable quotes. But when she ran for president in 1988, she couldn’t have been more serious. And when she ended her run, giving in to tears, she was criticized for reinforcing the stereotype of the emotional female. “Newsweek covered it kind of straight up,” she recalled, but others weren’t so kind. One young woman, an editorial writer, said how “ashamed she was and it would set women back for centuries.” For years afterward, Schroeder kept a “crying folder” of all the men who were applauded for tearing up in public, saying if she ran again, “I should get Kleenex as my corporate sponsor.”
When Hillary Clinton came to Washington as first lady, it was as though some switch had been turned. Suddenly covering the president’s wife was a hot beat. Here was a woman who epitomized the cultural battles of the ’70s. She was as educated and ambitious as her husband, and had for a time even kept her own name before surrendering to tradition. “Buy one, get one free,” was the Clinton mantra. Hillary would bring the country health care, a goal that set her at odds with Congress and prompted the same cries of “Who elected her?” that had dogged Rosalynn Carter a generation earlier. As Hillary’s reform efforts stalled on Capitol Hill, I was summoned to an off-the-record session with the first lady in her second floor office in the West Wing. It was just the two of us, no aides. She talked about the private commitments she had from Democrats and Republicans alike, and how lawmakers wouldn’t “dare” vote against health coverage for all Americans. What if she didn’t prevail, I asked. With a wave of her arm, she said, “I can always travel.” And that’s what she did, turning her efforts away from policymaking into making a difference in other ways, declaring at the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, “Women’s rights are human rights.”
By then, after the 1994 election, a whole new breed of lawmakers had taken control of Congress in a backlash to the Clintons. The new female members had cut their teeth in the pro-life movement, and their bringing their conservative ideas to Washington did away with the once easy assumption that if you were a woman, you were pro-choice and liberal when it came to women’s issues. But the women’s movement is not over. A majority of women (55 percent) identified as a feminist in a Ms. magazine exit poll in 2012. And as this election showed, those women are still engaging on issues of abortion, equal pay, violence against women, and access to birth control—with fiery passion. They know that this is about power, and when it’s about power, you can never let up.
Eleanor Clift is a contributor to Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and a panelist on The McLaughlin Group.