One of our friends, Judy Gingold, was having conversation with a lawyer, Gladys Kessler, who said, “Tell me about your job at Newsweek.” Judy explained that [virtually] all the women were researchers and all the men were writers and reporters, and the lawyer said, “You know, that’s illegal. Call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington; they’ll tell you.” So she called, and the woman said, “Yes, it’s illegal. You ought to file a complaint.” Judy is the hero of our movement. She started talking to her friends, Lucy Howard, Margaret Montagno, and Pat Lynden, and then they came to me—I was the fifth. This was toward the end of 1969, the beginning of 1970.
Then something serendipitous happened: Newsweek decided it wanted to do a cover story on the new women’s movement. But they had no woman to write it. I had been promoted six months earlier to be a junior writer in fashion—because my boss didn’t want to write fashion anymore—but I clearly was not experienced enough to write the cover. Liz Peer was in the Washington bureau and could have written the story, but they didn’t reach out to her. Instead, they decided to go outside and hire Helen Dudar—a fabulous star writer at the New York Post.
That galvanized us. We decided that on March 16, 1970, the day that Newsweek published a story on the women’s movement, called “Women in Revolt,” 46 of us would announce that we were suing Newsweek for sex discrimination. We were the first women in the media to sue, and as you can imagine, the publicity was so fabulous—having these 46 twentysomething-year-old women suing the magazine on the day they were publishing a cover on the women’s movement. It got picked up all over the world: in Italy in La Stampa, in the London Times, and all over the place. And we knew the publicity would get to the editors, who considered themselves quite progressive, and in fact had been very good on the war and on civil rights. Osborn Elliott, the editor, put out a statement to the press later that day that said: The fact that virtually all the men at Newsweek are writers and all the women are researchers is a newsmagazine tradition that goes back 50 years. Hardly something you might want to say! Simply underscores the institutional sexism of a place like that.
When we were looking for a lawyer, it was very hard to find a woman who had employment-rights experience, because it was brand-new law. We ended up going to the American Civil Liberties Union, where we found Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was the assistant legal director. She grabbed [an issue of] Newsweek from our hands and said, “Well, the fact that there are men from here to here on the masthead, and women only in the bottom category, shows that this is a pattern of discrimination, so I’ll take your case.” What was delicious was that the editors, who were very, very liberal on civil rights, were suddenly faced in negotiations with a five-foot-seven, pregnant African-American female lawyer with a giant Afro. They were totally flummoxed. They had never, ever been questioned about their commitment to equality, and now here they were, being sued by their women, represented by an African-American. It was pretty amazing.
[The day the suit was filed,] we chipped in to fly our youngest researcher on the staff, Sunde Smith—because she could qualify for the student fare on the Eastern Airlines shuttle to Washington—to deliver a letter explaining why we were suing to Katharine Graham, who was the owner of The Washington Post, which owned Newsweek. Unbeknownst to us, Katharine Graham was vacationing in the Bahamas, so later that morning, after we announced our suit, Oz Elliott and the chair of Newsweek, Fritz Beebe, called Kay Graham in the Bahamas to tell her that the women had filed suit. And Kay Graham famously said, as she reported in her own book, “Which side am I supposed to be on?”
It just shows the confusion that was happening with women at that time. Suddenly, women had to challenge everything we had been raised to believe was a woman’s place in the world. And some of us had a hard time really doing it. Some of us were angry enough to be happy to do it. I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t the first to get it, but I did see the injustice of how women were treated at Newsweek.