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October 30, 2014

When Eleanor Holmes Norton Beat the Press

Newsweek is once again coming under attack from within, with female reporters following in the footsteps of pioneering predecessors who made it possible for women to rise through the ranks of the newsroom. In 1970, then-ACLU Assistant Legal Director Eleanor Holmes Norton, who remembers the case as being about much more than byline jealousy, led those original rabble-rousers into battle.

“This ranks among the great high points because women were just emerging,” she said of the landmark sex-discrimination suit at the heart of ex-Newsweek editor Lynn Povich’s new book, “The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace.”

“For me, it was much more than a court case. It was how do women throw off any sense of intimidation. … It was suing journalism,” the D.C. Delegate tells HOH about her participation in the 1970 standoff.

Although not her first high-profile case — Norton had previously defended a white racist group’s freedom of speech before the Supreme Court and won — she said leading the women of Newsweek against their employer proved to be eye opening.

“These were Phi Beta Kappas, these were Fulbrights … and the stereotypes couldn’t have been clearer. All the women were researchers,” she said of the painfully transparent glass ceiling she encountered at the magazine.

In the runup to the first set of negotiations (the women were obliged to sue a second time after promises to bolster the ranks of female reporters went unfulfilled), Norton recalls scoring two personal victories.

Firstly, she demanded then-Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (the Post owned Newsweek at the time) be present at the negotiating table. She was.

The other win was unintentional but no less delicious.

“I was quite pregnant at the time,” Norton shared. When she walked into one settlement meeting and Newsweek execs began falling all over themselves to offer the clearly showing attorney a seat, Norton knew she was in charge of the situation.

Due to an unexpected job change, Norton did not get to see that case through to fruition. She did, however, carry the fight to her new position, and she kept discrimination against women in her crosshairs during her time as head of the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

Povich will be signing her book at Politics and Prose on Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. Come one, come all.

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