I Was There For ‘Good Girls Revolt’

For young women wondering why it’s a big deal to elect a woman president, Amazon has given us a refresher course on the way things were for women not so long ago.

Mad Men got there first, reincarnating the late ’60s from inside an advertising agency. Now a new Amazon Prime series takes us inside a venerable news magazine, News of the Week, during the same time frame, when gender roles were being questioned and women began coming into their own.

The Good Girls Revolt is inspired by the book of the same name by Lynn Povich, one of the main organizers behind the legal challenges brought against Newsweek for gender discrimination, beginning in March 1970. Povich’s father was a legendary sportswriter at the Washington Post and a friend of Katherine Graham, then the publisher of Newsweek and the Post.

“Which side am I supposed to be on?” Graham reportedly asked when 46 women at Newsweek went public as plaintiffs in a press conference timed to coincide with the magazine’s cover on “Women in Revolt” about the broader women’s movement. The omission of any recognition of internal dissent made Newsweek’s male editors a laughing stock.

The Amazon series is a knock-off of Mad Men with its meticulous attention to the artifacts of the time—constantly ringing phones, pencil sharpeners, cars with fins—but it’s important history, too. For those of us who lived through it, it’s a trip down memory lane, and for those who are curious about what it was like in the golden age of news magazines, when print was king and Richard Nixon was in the White House, everything old feels like current events again.

The series highlights the conflicts over covering the Vietnam war, and the confusion over how to interpret the emerging Black Panther movement. One editor savors the story as the “most exciting thing to happen since the Summer of Love.” (That was 1967 when 100,000 hippies converged in Haight-Ashbury.) He envisions a story that is “young and hip, a love letter to the Panthers.”

The story lines, though sometimes caricatured to the point of ridiculousness, reflect a society grappling with major change, and a magazine pulled apart by the very same currents it covers. Editor Evan Phinnaeus “Finn” Wodehouse, to the manor born and played by Chris Diamantopoulos with Don Draper charm, searches for a high concept to sum up the ’60s while composing the editor’s letter that opens each issue of the magazine. He settles on a decade of repression as the country enters the ’70s and moves to what he calls expansion—of expectations and of rights.

Above all, The Good Girls Revolt is a coming of age story for a generation of women, including myself. I started as a secretary at Newsweek, and though I was not part of the lawsuit—I was in the magazine’s Atlanta bureau at the time it was filed—I owe my career to the women who put themselves on the line to right wrongs embedded in our collective psyches about the roles of women and men.

“If the guys find out or the girls rat us out, it’s not worth the risk,” says Cindy Reston, a mousy researcher modeled on the early Peggy Olson in Mad Men and played by Erin Darke. “We’re not treated fairly at work but it’s still the best thing I have,” she says. Her husband gave her a year to write a novel before they would start a family, and she suspects him of poking a hole in her diaphragm.

The women plot their course of action in the ladies' room, and in outside meetings with then ACLU lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton, pregnant at the time and played by Joy Bryant with an enormous Afro, a statement in and of itself about that era. Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress today, told the women they had to stop being good girls, that this was war. “Take off your white gloves, ladies.”

In that era, the women at Newsweek were for the most part daughters of the well connected, and had graduated from the finest women’s colleges. The late, great Nora Ephron, fresh out of Wellesley, was a researcher at Newsweek before the suit was filed, and is played by Grace Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep (who played the wronged wife in Heartburn, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel written by Ephron, who used everything in her personal life as material in her writing). Ephron didn’t lack confidence, and she didn’t last long at Newsweek, where the female researchers were handmaidens to the male writers, functioning much like office wives, getting the men their coffee, sharpening their pencils, and bolstering their egos when deadlines loomed. When the women bicker over who’s assigned to which story to help which writer, Ephron’s character reminds them of what’s at stake in a system that’s all about making the men look good. “You guys are fighting about the lower bunk bed in jail,” she says.

Ephron left Newsweek to write for the New York Post, and to launch a brilliant career that encompassed Hollywood and Broadway. Her role in the Amazon series is understandably inflated—she is a brand name—but has generated some hard feelings among the worker bees who stuck it out with little recognition, the core of the story.

Before the lawsuit, there was lots of fraternization at Newsweek. A favorite trysting place was the office infirmary, which had a door that could be locked. It is featured prominently in the series, as is ample sex. At a meeting in her apartment, Norton asks everyone to close their eyes and then raise their hands if they’re sleeping with a colleague and/or a boss. Many hands go up. Next time, we’ll do it with our eyes open, she says. “You cannot be sleeping with the enemy. It can be used against you in court. Every job given to you is taken away from them.”

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This conflict is central to the on-again, off-again romance between Patti Robinson, played by Genevieve Angelson, and her star reporter boyfriend, Douglas Rhodes, played by Hunter Parrish. He is offered a book contract to write about the Panthers. She did the research for his story, and sold the editor on the angle. “So you want credit?” he asks.

She wants to be what he is, a reporter. The Good Girls Revolt is about that simple idea, revolutionary at the time, that almost 50 years later bears remembering. “I’m a career girl!” head researcher Jane Hollander, played by Anna Camp, shouts from the fire escape of Patti’s apartment, a revelation that transformed her life and journalism too as the barriers came down.

For young women wondering why it’s a big deal to elect a woman president, Amazon has given us a refresher course on the way things were for women not so long ago—and how change got made, slowly, painfully, and by individuals who risked relationships and even their livelihood to challenge the system. The fictional characters may not loom as large as Don Draper and Peggy Olson, but this real-life story is compelling all the same.