Why you should care
Because the battles of today look a lot like those of yesterday.
When Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D–District of Columbia) and Lynn Povich met, it was under tense circumstances for women in the workplace. It was the early 1970s, and most magazines and news agencies only hired male writers — relegating women to support and research roles. But that began to change after Povich and 45 other women at Newsweek magazine filed the first female class-action suit for sex discrimination, with the help of Holmes Norton, then a lawyer at the ACLU, cracking one of many glass ceilings to come.
The pair recently reunited in Washington for the premiere of the Amazon Prime series Good Girls Revolt, based on the landmark discrimination cases chronicled in Povich’s book of the same name. With the results of the presidential election still fresh on our minds, OZY interviewed Holmes Norton and Povich about the fight for female representation in government, the effect of the nearly history-making nature of this cycle and the future of the feminist movement.
IS THIS SERIES A CELEBRATION OF WOMANHOOD?
Holmes Norton: I think it certainly is. It also says, “Hollywood, watch out.” Because you’re seeing the same kind of stirrings about women directors, screenwriters. Women currently are very introspective about their own roles, and this series is about a time when women were trying to discern what their roles were and whether the roles for the millennium, throughout humankind, should be disrupted.
Povich: We women who were competing against each other realized that it wasn’t us that was the problem, but the system. It really bonded us together as a group, where we hadn’t been before. And the other lesson was that because we were able to ultimately get what we demanded, which was promotions for women into reporting and writing, even editing — I became the first woman senior editor in 1975 — we were able to challenge the system from within.
HOW HAS THIS ELECTION EMPHASIZED THE NEED TO ADDRESS THESE ISSUES POLITICALLY?
Povich: With Hillary running, we felt certain issues were finally going to be talked about. The shock was the kind of sexism and misogyny that came up from Donald Trump, and it was shocking because it was so overt. A lot of sexism today is very subtle. Everybody has nondiscriminatory policies, and so you don’t say those things. But he said them. And he did them. And I think that really galvanized a lot of women, particularly young women, who might have thought that was then, and we don’t have those problems anymore — and now it’s like, “Oh, yes, we do.”
Yes, our generation, the second wave of the ’60s and ’70s, did a lot. We were able to get lots of laws on the books and women in positions they were never able to get previously, but there is still a lot more left to be done. And I think this campaign underscored that.
Holmes Norton: People were in the streets for a reason. They were ready for a woman to be president of the United States. We saw a woman get the majority of the popular vote. And it didn’t happen. Instead, they got a man who many think is a cad. His burden is to show that he is not.
CONGRESS IS (SLIGHTLY) MORE DIVERSE AND MORE FEMALE THAN EVER. IS THAT ANY CONSOLATION?
Povich: Yes, we are 21 — as opposed to 20 — and there are three women of color in the Senate, which is great. It’s inching away. But, my goodness, look at how long we have to wait to have any parity for 50 percent of the population. None of us are happy about it.
Holmes Norton: We have more women of color. We are making very slow progress.
HOW DO YOU WIN OVER WOMEN FOR WHOM RHETORIC ISN’T THEIR TOP PRIORITY AND WHO VOTED FOR TRUMP?
Povich: The women’s movement hasn’t been successful enough in underscoring that a lot of issues that are considered cultural are actually economic for women. They see it as women against men, but it’s really about women’s economic stability and freedom. We sympathize with people who lost a lot of income and jobs and dignity in the last couple of years, and we understand why they’re angry. But we have to make a better effort to communicate to them about their own self-interests.
Holmes Norton: There’s an age gap here. The uneducated women are feeling themselves to be victims of the global economy in the same ways their husbands do. The younger women do not always experience discrimination … until they get into the workplace and see the men rise faster than they do. So their feminist consciousness is not what the Newsweek women’s was because they are the beneficiaries of all the progress the Newsweek women made. But they become more feminist as they age and get into the workplace and see the difficulties. It’s a very large group to try to organize around an issue related to their agenda, however. And there are so many other intervening issues.