While it comes as no surprise that Vassar women have historically been on the forefront of the feminist movement, some have done so in particularly distinct ways. Lynn Povich ’65 is one of these women. She made waves as she and a group of women at Newsweek filed the first ever female class action lawsuit for sex discrimination in the workplace.
Povich will recount her role in feminism and the movement for workplace equality in her lecture, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling at Newsweek: A Vassar Grad’s Tale of Second Wave Feminism.” This event will be held on Thursday, April 14, at 5:30 p.m. in Rockefeller Hall, room 300, and will be free and open to the public.
Povich attended college at a time when women were limited to pursuing an “M-R-S” degree. A career— let alone one in a male-dominated field—was not initially part of Povich’s post-graduation plans. “What I’m going to say in my talk is that as much as we were told by our families or by our teachers that we were very bright kids and we were accomplished, the word career was rarely mentioned,” Povich recalled. “It was not a period of time where women were encouraged to have careers, even though Vassar was a place where you got an excellent education, as good as anywhere else in the country, for men or for women, and yet there was no sense of going on to a career.”
As Povich’s book “The Good Girls Revolt” acknowledges, women in the 1950s earned approximately 59 to 64 cents for every dollar earned by a man in the same position. Although the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 aimed to correct wage disparity, gender discrimination continued to thrive in the workplace, as “Help Wanted” ads were gender-centric and news outlets like Newsweek hired one female writer for every 50 or more men.
In spite of this, Povich began work upon graduation in the Paris bureau of Newsweek and became captivated by journalism. She explained, “I started as a secretary, and when I got more involved and started reporting a little bit more, then I realized I really liked it and that’s what I wanted to do.” However, the odds were stacked against her and her fellow women at Newsweek. They quickly realized that the disproportionately male staff was a byproduct of a highly illegal discriminatory workplace and they decided to sue.
Drawing from the Civil Rights Movement’s philosophy of organization, the women of Newsweek formulated a plan for the first ever female class action lawsuit. “With disruption comes enormous opportunity,” Povich emphasized. “It was terrifying because once you file a complaint, you’re protected from being fired. But until you file, if they found out that we were organizing right under their noses, they could have fired us.”
Fortunately, the lawsuit was a success and Povich was soon after appointed the first woman senior editor at Newsweek. She acknowledged, “When I was appointed senior editor, it was quite unusual because most women involved in these lawsuits did not benefit, they were really punished. That was very unusual that I had been in the lawsuit but had also benefited. And like anybody who is the first of their generation or class or race or gender to do something, you feel this enormous responsibility not to fail.”
Producer of a podcast dedicated to Vassar first-year women’s stories, Saskia Globig ’19 commented on the nature of women in editorial positions. “There’s going to be a gender dynamic,” she remarked. “I was thinking about editors, the women that I’ve talked to, and the other component which I didn’t know about at first is that [they] have to fight really hard for [their] author’s content.”
“So much about her story resonates with me,” Director of Women’s Studies Barbara Olsen wrote in an emailed statement. “The shock she and so many of the other women experienced as they came to terms with deep wells of sexism and misogyny in the media, the courage she and the other women exhibited risking their own careers for the greater benefit of women in the workplace, and the ways she connects her experiences with those of contemporary recent graduates.”
Of course, Povich’s crusade for equal opportunity in the workplace is far from over. According a 2015 NPR article, the United States is the only nation among advanced economies that does not mandate paid maternity leave at the federal level (“Lots Of Other Countries Mandate Paid Leave. Why Not The U.S.?,” 07.15.2015). “The crunch comes for women when they want to have children,” she asserted. “It’s very hard to be in certain positions and take care of young children, especially if you’re doing most of it yourself.”
As journalism becomes vastly more media-centric, the nature of reporting itself has changed, as well as increased opportunity for young women in the field. “There’s more journalism than ever before, and more accessible than ever before,” said Povich.
However, with this accessibility brings new opportunity for change–and optimism. “I’m a big believer that the workplace has to be restructured with much more flexibility,” Povich continued. “And I think in most cases, it can happen.”