Jessica Bennett

Jessica Bennett

Journalist

New York, NY

At Newsweek, we found the gender ratio on the masthead had barely improved since the 1970s: Women made up just 34 percent.

We noticed it only superficially, at first. Here and there, we’d spot a story we’d suggested in the pages of the magazine under the byline of a more respected male colleague. Other times, one of us would be asked to rewrite somebody else’s sloppy draft – only to notice how he rose above us exponentially on the masthead. A round of promotions was announced, and we – my two colleagues (and soon to be co-authors) and I – couldn’t help but observe how many women had been passed over, moving at a snail’s pace compared to the male colleagues they’d come up with. Then one day a basketball hoop was erected in the newsroom, and Sarah Palin appeared on the cover of our magazine in a pair of short shorts. We sighed. Just another male byline — in a year when all but six of the magazine’s 49 cover stories were written by men.

We were frustrated, and yet we pressed ahead – proud to work at Newsweek, feeling lucky to have jobs at all. (This isn’t exactly the glory days of journalism.) Surely, we thought, our hard work would ultimately be noticed. We were overachievers, of course; that was how it had always been. We graduated at the top of our classes; we were valedictorians, varsity athletes and merit scholars. Besides, this was the 2000s, not the 1970s – women were ruling the world. Weren’t they?

And then one morning, in the winter, I walked back to my desk to find a feminist history book laid across my keyboard — with a Post-It note from a Newsweek librarian on top. Marked in the center of that book, in just a few short pages, was a story that would transform the way I saw the world, the media landscape, Newsweek magazine – and my role within it.

It was the tale of 46 women, all researchers at Newsweek, who in 1970, sued their bosses for gender discrimination in the first lawsuit of its kind. Called “dollies” by their male editors – and told outright that “women don’t write here” – the women staged a spectacular coup, announcing their uprising in a press conference the day that Newsweek released a cover story on the women’s movement. With a bright fist emblazoned on the cover, the magazine’s headline declared, “Women in Revolt.”

The Newsweek women would pave the way for women writers nation-wide, sparking similar lawsuits at almost every major publication (including a sit-in at Ladies Home Journal). And yet, we’d never heard their story. How, we wondered, had the legacy of these trailblazing women been forgotten, their legacy not passed down? And what could those “dollies” teach us about ourselves?

It was a click moment – followed by a decision to lean in swiftly. With the 40th anniversary of the women’s suit quickly approaching, we knew what we had to do: We started reporting.

With the support of a male editor (we jokingly called him “Charlie”; the three of us his angels), we began to piece together an oral history of our predecessors’ story – in secret. Huddled in conference rooms, around cubicles, or occasionally in the ladies’ room – not unlike the women before us – we dug up old mastheads, headed to the depths of the Newsweek archives, and started to delve into the numbers. At Newsweek, we found the gender ratio on the masthead had barely improved since the 1970s: Women made up just 34 percent. At top magazines as a whole, female bylines were outnumbered by a rate of seven to one. Our pay scale, we discovered, was grossly out of whack.

What better way to hold the industry accountable, we thought, than to write a story about it in our own pages? And so we leaned in for women journalists everywhere – determined, through the narrative of the women before us, to tell the story of the women of today.

It took six months, a dozen edits, an editor recusing himself, a meeting with our parent company (The Washington Post), a whole lot of snide remarks (we were “whiny,” “entitled” and “ungrateful”) and the enduring support of three editors in particular – all men – for our story to see the light of day. But when it did, in March 2010 – exactly 40 years after the women before us had demanded equality – we felt like we’d contributed, ever so slightly, to keeping their story alive.

And when we asked, in a six page spread, and in a line on Newsweek’s cover, “Are We There Yet?” we knew the answer. Not quite – but we hoped that we were closer than ever.

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