Monday, March 22, 2010

Newsweek And Sexism

Picture from here.

An interesting piece by several women who work at Newsweek discusses the progress of women at the magazine since the early 1970s. They begin:

They were an archetype: independent, determined young graduates of Seven Sisters colleges, fresh-faced, new to the big city, full of aspiration. Privately, they burned with the kind of ambition that New York encourages so well. Yet they were told in job interviews that women could never get to the top, or even the middle. They accepted positions anyway—sorting mail, collecting newspaper clippings, delivering coffee. Clad in short skirts and dark-rimmed glasses, they'd click around in heels, currying favor with the all-male management, smiling softly when the bosses called them "dollies." That's just the way the world worked then. Though each quietly believed she'd be the one to break through, ambition, in any real sense, wasn't something a woman could talk about out loud. But by 1969, as the women's movement gathered force around them, the dollies got restless. They began meeting in secret, whispering in the ladies' room or huddling around a colleague's desk. To talk freely they'd head to the Women's Exchange, a 19th-century relic where they could chat discreetly on their lunch break. At first there were just three, then nine, then ultimately 46—women who would become the first group of media professionals to sue for employment discrimination based on gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Their employer was NEWSWEEK magazine.

What comes then? This:

Until six months ago, when sex- and gender-discrimination scandals hit ESPN, David Letterman's Late Show, and the New York Post, the three of us—all young NEWSWEEK writers—knew virtually nothing of these women's struggle.


In countless small ways, each of us has felt frustrated over the years, as if something was amiss. But as products of a system in which we learned that the fight for equality had been won, we didn't identify those feelings as gender-related.


Yet the more we talked to our friends and colleagues, the more we heard the same stories of disillusionment, regardless of profession. No one would dare say today that "women don't write here," as the NEWSWEEK women were told 40 years ago. But men wrote all but six of NEWSWEEK's 49 cover stories last year—and two of those used the headline "The Thinking Man." In 1970, 25 percent of NEWSWEEK's editorial masthead was female; today that number is 39 percent. Better? Yes. But it's hardly equality. (Overall, 49 percent of the entire company, the business and editorial sides, is female.) "Contemporary young women enter the workplace full of enthusiasm, only to see their hopes dashed," says historian Barbara J. Berg. "Because for the first time they're slammed up against gender bias."


We know what you're thinking: we're young and entitled, whiny and humorless—to use a single, dirty word, feminists!


Somewhere along the road to equality, young women like us lost their voices. So when we marched into the workforce and the fog of subtle gender discrimination, it was baffling and alien. Without a movement behind us, we had neither the language to describe it nor the confidence to call it what it was.

The whole article is important to read. What I wanted to do above was to summarize the very common story of how lots of women view feminism: The old fight was won and everything is perfect now. If it isn't perfect it's most likely you yourself who is at fault. And somehow the history got erased again, oops! Pointing out sexism makes you whiny and humorless, too, and everybody in this world has problems more important than yours.

Mmm. I should point out that the above paragraph is not written with sarcasm but with empathy and understanding. All of that has to do with the past victories, in a twisted way, especially in the area of jobs.

Outside the question of sexuality, the culture now does tell younger women that they can be anything they want if they work hard enough, though this suggestion is made before one enters the labor force or has any children. I suspect that the transition from college to the labor force is when some women hear that feminist alarm clock ringing. And ringing and ringing. It's ringing, because the job of making the world a fairer place was only begun and not finished.

But part of that odd rewriting of the history has always been the idea that all the necessary changes were successfully completed about forty years ago. Done! Old hat! This despite the millennia of gender-based laws and traditions!

Likewise, the history of gender tends to be scrubbed far too clean. Thus, we learn that "women were given the vote" in whatever year a particular country decided to kindly do so with not much on the women who were force-fed in prisons or threw themselves in front of horses for the cause of suffrage. To address those aspects of the history automatically introduces the fact that the vote was won against an opposition. And what did the opposition say? Did they just disappear completely, the way they do from official history? To this day the Ann Coulters of this world suggest that women shouldn't have a vote.

The point is that if the Second Wave of feminism won a few victories it certainly didn't kill all the seeds of sexism in the society. Why are so many writers drawing that corollary?

Enough of that. What IS the sexism these writers are talking about? It's not the obvious kind of being told that you can't be a writer because you are a woman. It looks much more of the "planet of the guys" type or "invisible women" type. Hence the magazine cover about "a thinking man", twice. Both men and women can be oblivious when it comes to the status of women as half of humankind.

Kudos to Newsweek for publishing an article critical of Newsweek.