First Step Toward Equal Pay for Equal Work
Story by Mary Pleshette Willis
Illustration by Tatyana Skarikova
This article is from the April 2014 issue
I was twenty-two when I was hired to be a secretary in the business section of Newsweek magazine. The year was 1968. Richard Nixon was president, the Vietnam War was raging, abortion was illegal and the women’s movement was picking up speed. I knew I wanted to write when I graduated Sarah Lawrence College, but never once did I consider applying to graduate school. My legacy, my parents told me, was my college degree and their and my expectation was to get a job. And though they never said it explicitly, to find a husband.
My starting salary was $112 a week, not much by today’s standards, but my rent was only $104, which meant I could support myself without taking in a roommate or asking for any supplemental help from my parents. I didn’t choose to be a secretary in the business section as I knew nothing about business, and though I could type, I never learned shorthand. But when Olga Barbi, the owlish head of researchers who ran her “girls” like the head mistress of a school, said there were no researcher positions available and I’d be first in line when there was, I was thrilled not to have to work on the mail desk sorting and delivering the mail or clip articles—the usual entry-level jobs for women.
I loved getting up in the morning, putting on a mini skirt and heels (no one wore pants), walking to work and striding into the Newsweek Building on Madison and 50th Street. My job was to answer phones; take messages for the tall, avuncular editor, Bill Brink; type memos, letters, queries; get him coffee and run errands (some of them personal, like picking out a gift for his daughter); and make reservations at the Gloucester House and Ghirardelli’s for lunch.
In the beginning, I never felt discriminated against or questioned that all the secretaries and researchers were women and the writers and editors were men. Nor did I think what I was doing was unimportant. I was working in a serious and glamorous place with interesting people. If our professional roles were segregated, our personal and professional relationships were quite loose. Early on, I asked one of the business reporters if I could accompany him to press conferences, report stories he wasn’t interested in pursuing (for practice), conduct interviews (on the phone) and write an occasional sidebar. I learned how to read (and rate) press releases, check facts in Standard & Poors and take rapid-fire notes.
Then I got bored. Business was never going to be my thing, and being relegated to a desk when what I wanted was to be out in the field reporting and writing stories was frustrating. I started wandering down the hall where the back of the book departments, including theatre, movies, music, science, education, fashion and sports were congregated, to “visit” with my sister researchers and “flirt” with the senior editors. There was a lot of give and take between the sexes in those days, to say the least. The concept of political correctness (or sexual harassment for that matter) didn’t exist and despite the Mad Men stereotype of abusive and predatory men (there were some at Newsweek, too), we had a hell of a good time. I had caught the eye of Jack Kroll, the Arts senior editor, who was both cantankerous and charming, intellectually curious and a brilliant critic. I talked openly about my frustration working in the business section and how I would love nothing more than to work for him. When the researcher in the movies department resigned to get married, Jack offered me the job. Soon after, when he found out that Zero Mostel, the great comedian and star of the original production of Fiddler on the Roof, was my father’s best friend, he asked me out for a drink.
When I think about it now, I’m amazed at how naive I was and at the same time, sophisticated enough to handle the “sexual politics” that opened up the world to me while keeping women down. I shared an office with Joe Morgenstern, the talented movie critic who was also a bit of a prima donna. Although he encouraged me to write, he never once gave me a credit for the interviews I reported and then handed over to him to turn into final copy. That was pretty much the way it worked—as researchers, we not only continued to get coffee and make lunch reservations for our bosses but were in charge of fact-checking stories, and if we were lucky were sent out on interviews, which we wrote up into de facto articles that the writer got to cherry pick or use in toto. If something got into the magazine that wasn’t correct, it was the researcher, not the writer, who was blamed, and if a particularly wonderful quote had been garnered by the researcher, it was the writer who got the credit.
It was this lack of recognition, not the discrepancy in salary (which I would learn about later) that pushed me to freelance for other newspapers and magazines and feel increasingly frustrated that no matter how good a writer I was becoming, I would never advance at Newsweek.
One of my close friends at Newsweek was Lynn Povich, whose recently published book The Good Girls Revolt chronicles the landmark case against Newsweek for sex discrimination. She was not just a colleague—although she was one of the few researchers to be promoted to junior writer—but with her husband double-dated with me and my fiance. One day when almost everyone had gone home, Lynn asked me into her office and closed the door (the other favorite place to recruit was in the ladies room after checking all the stalls), and she asked me if I’d be interested in joining her and some other women who were beginning to organize.
It’s funny how you can be clueless until you’re not. How there are “click” moments in your life when there is no going back. Lynn didn’t have to say anything more. I knew in an instant that all the things I’d rationalized—Newsweek was still a great place to work, and if we couldn’t advance we could leave (like Nora Ephron)—were undeniably wrong, and I couldn’t push them under the rug anymore.
We met in secret over a period of five months, expanding the group to women we trusted not to talk, which meant having to exclude a few “sisters” who were either married to or having an affair with one of the editors. I remember telling my mother what we were doing, and her first response was “could you be fired if you got caught?” The answer was yes, but we were more concerned that if management found out what we were planning, they would try to co-opt the movement by picking us off one by one with token gestures. Our 32-year-old attorney, Eleanor Holmes Norton, assistant legal director of the ACLU, who wore a full Afro and was five months pregnant when she agreed to represent us, assured us we had a very strong case when some of us seemed nervous or questioned filing a legal suit for discrimination against women under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. “All you have to do is look at the mast head,” she assured us, noting that “there were all men from the top category to the second from the bottom and virtually only women in the last category.”
One of the most senior researchers wanted to air our grievances with management first and “give them a chance” to change their ways. She was resoundingly voted down, but expressed a deep-seated fear echoed by my mother’s remark: that a woman didn’t stand up to a superior, be he her boss or her daddy.
We took turns holding meetings in our apartments after work, planning strategy and sharing work experiences. My surprise ranged from learning how much more money men made than women to noticing that the boyfriend of one of the researchers who came home before we’d disbanded was packing a gun (he was an NYC detective). As we organized and opened up about our own lives, we began to trust each other and feel that no matter what happened, suing Newsweek was a risk well worth taking.
One of the classic excuses for not letting women write for the magazine was that they couldn’t master the “Newsweek Style,” a rather formulaic type of writing that was neither male nor female. More accurately, it had nothing to do with style and everything to do with the old boys network that hired male writers with no better qualifications than women except for the fact that they had worked on the Yale Daily News or Harvard Crimson (all male bastions of the Ivy League).
As our ranks (and trust) grew and our research revealed a pattern of widespread (and provable) discrimination, we still didn’t have a “peg” on which to hang (or publicize) our suit. Then we learned that Newsweek had gone outside the magazine to hire a woman to write a major cover story on Women’s Lib. Maybe God was a woman, after all.
Our biggest fear now was not being fired, but filing the lawsuit before management found out. Word was already beginning to leak out. And the weekend before we were to announce our suit, several editors, including Oz Elliot, the patrician and daunting editor-in-chief, actually called the head researcher in the Foreign section (the one who had wanted to give management a chance) to ask her what was going on. Whatever her inner conflict, she held her ground and without denying something was afoot, told him “the train was too far down the track” to stop.
The Sunday evening before we filed our suit, we gathered together to work out the final details. Who would speak at the press conference? What would we say to the editors when we got back to work? What would we wear? We were excited, nervous, terrified and proud. We stared at the March 16th, 1970, Newsweek cover of a naked woman in red silhouette, her head thrown back and her fist thrust through a broken blue female-sex symbol, the disclaimer “women in revolt” written in bold letters. If nothing else, this was the most perfectly timed press event I’d ever be part of. And no matter what happened next, this experience was the most important and exciting happening in my professional life. Like a kid on Christmas Eve, I couldn’t wait until the next morning’s press conference when we would announce to the world that 46 women on the staff of Newsweek had sued the magazine for discrimination against women, the first class-action lawsuit by journalists in the fight against sexism.
I truly believed that what we did would make a difference, but underestimated how long it would take and how hard it would be for institutions and attitudes to change. I had been quoted in the press as saying, “there is a gentleman’s agreement that men are writers and women are researchers and the exceptions are few and far between,” so when my boss, Jack Kroll, cornered me in the corridor and stated angrily and emphatically, “there’s no gentleman’s agreement at Newsweek,” I should have guessed how I’d be treated when I was eventually granted a writer’s tryout. Rather than being mentored or encouraged to succeed, I was ignored, given few assignments and never published. After my fiance was injured in a surfing accident, he and I wrote a book about the experience. When the advance was more than my salary at Newsweek, I quit.
For the women who stayed, several were promoted, but it took the threat of another law suit in 1971 to force management to comply with the memorandum of understanding they’d signed promising to actively seek out women to try out as reporters and writers. Lynn Povich was made a senior editor in 1975, several women were given bureau jobs and between 1975 and 1985 women had pushed their way into every position on the magazine except top management. Which is
why it was a shock to learn in 2009 that history seemed to be repeating itself, only in more subtle and silent ways. Although women composed nearly 40 percent of the Newsweek masthead, several women interns who were about to be hired for permanent jobs were passed over for men. Once hired, the women had to fight to get their articles published while the men with the same or less experience were getting better assignments and faster promotions. And one writer who
was replaced by a man found out he was given a significantly higher salary. When she complained to a male editor who
had been her mentor, he said “the problem is that you’re so pretty you need to figure out a way to use your sexuality to your advantage.”
Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, these women, who’d grown up in the ’80s and had little experience with overt sexism, had no movement to join, no political precedent to follow. More surprising, they had no idea that 46 women had sued Newsweek for sex discrimination in 1970 until one of them happened to read a chapter about our “uprising” in a book, In Our Time by Susan Brownmiller who had been a researcher at the magazine the early sixties.
Just as there had been a “click” moment for me and my colleagues, these young women realized that they, too, were victims of sex discrimination even though like many young professional women today, they never considered themselves “feminists.” What they discovered and wrote about in a 2009 story for Newsweek was that only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women (today it’s 4 percent), but even at the top, female M.B.A.s make $4,600 less per year (note: when Lynn Povich was made a senior editor she was offered a salary of $32,000, but a male writer who’d also been promoted to senior editor at the same time was offered $40,000). Only 18–19 percent of Congress is female and the 16–18 percent of women in the “corporate suite” has been static for ten years! On top of persistent gender discrimination, women who work and have children still do the lion’s share of child care even though men today do three times more than their predecessors, according to Jennifer Senior in her book All Joy and No Fun.
There’s no question that many women (mainly upper and middle class) have made gains in the 40 years since I worked at Newsweek, but there is still a long way to go. Obama’s first act in office was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that promises equal pay for equal work, but he pointedly mentioned in his recent State of the Union that women still earn between 77 to 80 cents on the male dollar. The ERA (equal rights amendment) despite polls that show overwhelming support for its ratification, has still not been made into law. And the recent decision by the Supreme Court against 150,000 women who sued Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the U.S. alleging discrimination in pay and promotion, was a major setback in the fight for equal pay for equal work. But women today can’t afford to be discouraged.
When we organized in 1969-70, there was no internet or cell phones, but in some ways our bond was stronger. Many of us had taken part in marches against the War in Vietnam, fought for Civil Rights in the South and rallied for the legalization of abortion. It’s not that women today aren’t aware of the problem—they are—but it’s harder to bring them together en masse, not just through social media and a click of the mouse (nonetheless, extremely valuable tools), but in person, face to face. At some point, women need not only to be on the same page, they have to be in the same room!
There are hopeful signs. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of the best-selling Lean In recommends forming Circles, small peer groups who meet regularly and privately to learn and share. What she knows and we learned forty years ago is that women can achieve more in groups and that sharing and education, learning how to negotiate and communicate, produce real results—like asking for a raise, which is more difficult for women than for men. But when the stakes are high and women have to risk marginalization, discrimination and losing their jobs, banding together to take political action is essential. At a certain point, they have to be willing to confront management and take legal action. In our case, we did not have to take Newsweek to court because we were able to negotiate a memorandum of understanding, but without the threat of a lawsuit, we never would have gotten what we wanted.
For further information and inspiration, check out the 2013 documentary Women Who Make America, a series of interviews, with the remarkable women who have “asserted their rights to a full and fair share of political power, economic opportunity and personal autonomy.” What their and my story illustrate is how hard it is to keep pushing the rock up the hill, but how, if women are to get equal pay for equal work, better childcare and the same opportunities for their daughters as for their sons, they have to keep pushing. Or in the iconic words of Florynce Kennedy, the flamboyant feminist and one of the founders of the National Organization for Women “Don’t agonize! Organize!”