05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Daughters, Ourselves

On March 16, 1970, Newsweek published a cover story on the burgeoning women's movement called "Women in Revolt."  That same Monday morning, 46 female Newsweek staffers announced that we, too, were in revolt.  We were filing a complaint against the magazine for gender discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the first women in the media to sue.  There was no question we were on the right side of the law. All of us had been hired into--and rarely got out of--the lowest editorial category on the masthead, "Editorial Assistant," otherwise known as Researcher. Even the then Editor of Newsweek, Osborn Elliott, inadvertently acknowledged the bias when he issued a statement in response saying, "The fact that most researchers at Newsweek are women and virtually all men are writers stems from a newsmagazine tradition going back almost 50 years."

        Last week, three young women staffers wrote a piece in Newsweek entitled "Are We There Yet?" questioning how much has changed in the workplace, including at the magazine. They had pitched a piece about young women in the work force today when the sex scandals broke at the Letterman show and ESPN.  At the time, they knew nothing about the Newsweek suit until they later found a reference to it in a book. They then interviewed several of us and pegged the piece to the 40th anniversary of our lawsuit.

      It says a lot about progress that Newsweek even printed the piece. And women have made enormous advancements in the work world.  Looking at the statistics, the number of women at the top of their companies ebbs and flows--which is fine as long as it flows.  But lately that number seems to be just ebbing. There was a period not long ago, for example, where the top editors of several major newspapers were female.  But there has never been a female Editor of the nation's leading newspapers, including at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times (the exception is The Chicago Tribune). And there has yet to be a female head of a major broadcast or cable news network.

      Were we naïve to think that our case, and the many lawsuits that women journalists brought after ours, would solve the problem?  In some ways, yes.  We thought it was a "pipeline" issue: that with equal access, equal pay and merit women would get ahead.  Also, the injustices we experienced were so blatant.  Some media jobs and departments, not to mention Help Wanted ads, were shamelessly segregated by gender. We also knew that two of the biggest obstacles--a macho corporate culture and the portrayal of women in the news pages--would take time.  But 40 years?

      I am proud of these Newsweek women who continue our legacy in challenging the magazine and persisted in getting their story into print and online.  Yet I am constantly surprised, and disappointed, that many young women don't know their own history, that they refuse to be called feminists (although they subscribe to almost all the goals of the women's movement) and that they haven't joined organizations that support the advancement and equality of women and girls.

      What amazes me more, however, are the stunning similarities to our situation 40 years ago. In the recent Newsweek, writers Jessica Bennett, Jesse Ellison and Sarah Ball wrote, "Each of us has felt frustrated over the years, as if something was amiss. But as products of a system in which we learned that the fight for equality had been won, we didn't identify those feelings as gender-related. It seemed like a cop-out, a weakness, to suggest that the problem was anybody's fault but our own."  How ironic. In 1964, Betty Friedan, in another context, called a similar unease "The problem that had no name"--that "strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States."

      I now realize it's not easy to become a feminist in a so-called post-feminist world or fight sexism when the "War of the Sexes" was declared over (in fact, it was never a war of the sexes: many men have been our biggest supporters and promoters). We were lucky to be part of an activist age, whether the cause was women's liberation, civil rights or the anti-war movement. It's harder today. Like us, young women who excel in school begin to experience discrimination only after they enter the workforce. But the progress women have made has actually masked the fact that the discrimination is far more subtle than any of us could imagine.  While the most egregious sexist behavior has been outlawed in the workplace--if not enforced--you still cannot legislate attitudes.  Women may have higher titles and salaries but they still may not have the power.   Women now may be in the important meetings but their voices may still not be heard. And in a subjective profession like journalism--unlike billable hours and business deals--it's easy to say that one story isn't as good as another.  The Newsweek piece, for example, cites the fact that of the last 49 cover stories that ran in the magazine, only six were written by women (and three of those were co-written with men).

      It's exciting to see that consciousnesses are being raised, that young women are demanding change and that the conversation is once again being put on the public agenda. And just wait.  As Gloria Steinem once said, "Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age."

Lynn Povich, one of the 46 women who originally filed suit, became Newsweek's first woman Senior Editor in 1975.  She is currently writing a book on the 1970 lawsuit.