It’s seems crazy to think of a moment in our history, not too far behind us, when women were forbidden from doing things in society based on gender, and we’re not just talking about voting or owning property. If you’ve been watching Amazon’s new series ‘Good Girls Revolt’ you will be familiar with the story of women being excluded from certain roles in the publishing and media industries, because of their gender.
For those who are yet to watch an episode (RUN, don’t walk, we promise you will love it!) it is based the real life case of women who, for lack of a more apt word, “revolted” against an institution which determined that women “do not write articles”. The publication was Newsweek, and during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a group of women lead by prolific writer Nora Ephron banded together to file a class-action lawsuit against the sexist standards in the company.
It was the first class action by women under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which led to an initial settlement. But a second suit brought on later brought about bigger rewards for the women involved. According to the Julia Klein writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, this monumental case brought about a wave of similar gender-equity lawsuits at venues such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Inc., the television networks, and other media companies.
One of the real-life revolters, Lynn Povich, went on to become senior editor at Newsweek and also published a book about the whole ordeal. The Amazon series is mostly based on the book, but not all characters are real. Nevertheless, the importance of exposing the underbelly of sexism in a powerful industry is by no means lost in the artistic direction of this show. Aside from Grace Gummer’s Nora Ephron, another character who did exist in the real case was Eleanor Holmes Norton, the ACLU lawyer who originally helped the women bring the case against Newsweek. Fun Fact: these days Eleanor is a Congresswoman representing the District of Columbia.
Unlike other TV series’ based on historical accounts that are stylized and made popular by cultural symbols and visual aesthetics, ‘Good Girls Revolt’ appears at a time when there is a new wave of feminism rising up, especially within media. Because women have a much wider space to speak publicly about gender issues, especially thanks to social media and blogs, shows like this serve as a way to bring to light lesser known stories about pivotal women throughout history, and give the current feminist movement an opportunity to build on the activism of the past.
Two interesting, albeit juxtaposed, aspects of the real-life Newsweek case: the revolt was happening at at time when the magazine was set to publish a cover story about the feminist movement, and the magazine’s publisher was a woman who inherited it from her father, but had no interest in the advancement of women’s rights or helping the women demand equality in the office.
Actress Erin Darke plays one of the 3 central characters on the show, Cindy Reston, who goes through a feminist awakening in the shifting culture at her workplace. In an interview with Moviefone.com, she shares how one of the producers, Lynda Obst who was a journalist during the 60’s and 70’s, explained to the cast that they had to tone down some of the sexism that was shown on screen, which astounded her.
“You hear some of the stories about that time, and for me, being a young woman who was raised after that, that has grown up in this era, it’s almost hard to believe sometimes. You’re just like, ‘That can’t be real. That can’t be less than 50 years ago.’ It’s pretty crazy,” she said.
She made comparisons with the recent US presidential election which featured plenty of Donald Trump’s past and present sexism and multiple sexual assault and rape cases, sparking national conversations about how patriarchal power structures are primed to protect assailants and perpetrators of gender violence.
“Those are things that are actually part of everyday life for most women, and, in some horrible way, I think we had all gotten used to it. It was angering and horrible, but you do almost get used to it because it happened so much. I’m so happy that we’re having an actual conversation again. For me coming out of this show, lit me with this fire of like, ‘We can’t be OK with that. We can’t just sit down and take that, and we can’t normalize it’,” said Erin.
Another aspect of the show, which exemplified an important time frame in American history, was how it portrayed the activism of these women. Erin says she was inspired learning about how passionate these women were about the cause and how she sees a similar thing happening with certain issues in society right now with the Native American and solidarity protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and Black Lives Matter, for example.
“I think the only thing that I really responded to in that era was the activism…what’s really inspiring to me about the late 1960s, early 1970s, is how much people were doing things about the issues. And they saw inequality, they protested, they filed lawsuits, they acted to make it better. And we wouldn’t be where we are right now if those same people had just talked about how it was bad and never done anything,” she said.
“It felt very much like a reflection of what’s happening now. You can see the country kind of groaning, and creaking, and needing to change, and try and figure out how that change happens.”
Although there has been plenty of progress made since the 1960’s for women, Julia from CJR also points out just how sexist and stagnant the media still is in many ways.
“Men still hold nearly two-thirds of newspaper supervisory posts, according to a 2015 report by the Women’s Media Center. The first-ever female executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, attributed her 2014 firing in part to deep-seated attitudes about how women in power should behave…At my former workplace, The Philadelphia Inquirer, for which I still freelance the occasional theater review, all seven masthead positions currently are held by men,” she said.
And of course there is the high-profile case of ex Fox News chairman Roger Ailes being forced out of the conservative network due to multiple women accusing him of sexual harassment, spearheaded by journalist Gretchen Carlson who was brave enough to come forward and give courage to many other women who ended up sharing their experiences. It was a chink in the armor of the “boy’s club” that is still Fox News, and potentially sends a signal that women in the industry will not stay silent forever when it comes to injustice, as history and ‘Good Girls Revolt’ tells us.
Julia Klein also draws parallels to what the women of Newsweek started in 1960, and how it was part of the larger contribution of yesterday’s activists who paved the way for the progressive gains we are seeing in national policies.
“‘Good Girls Revolt’ capitalizes on a strain of cultural nostalgia that sees the late 1960s and early ’70s as a time of tectonic perspectival shifts. The decades since have witnessed considerable backlash and retrenchment. But certain recent developments—including the widening acceptance of gay marriage and legal marijuana and the probable election of our first woman president—are undoubtedly fallout from that era, making its battles seem especially germane,” she said. (NOTE: her piece was written before the November 8 election results came out!).
There is so much to be learned and enjoyed from this show and we hope it will serve as a source of inspiration for women today who are on the frontlines battling gender inequality. It’s not just in the media, either. We are seeing a present-day revolt happening in Hollywood, where actresses, writers, directors and more and speaking out and demanding change, industry-wide.
As Alexis Sottile from RollingStone.com explains, “If ‘Mad Men’ was a female-gaze horror movie, then ‘Good Girls’ is the much awaited redemption sequel. If the latter takes a slow pace to deliver it’s payoff, that’s because so does history.”
If you have yet to watch ‘Good Girls Revolt’ good news, Amazon made episode 1 available on Youtube: