© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sexual Harassment, Then And Now


In 1965, Lynn Povich was working as a secretary at Newsweek magazine. All of the writers and reporters hired by that magazine were men. And women, like Povich, were barred from even applying for those positions. She and dozens of other women sued for gender discrimination, and they won. She wrote about this experience in her book "Good Girls Revolt," which later became a show on Amazon.

Generations later, another revolt is in progress. Women are going public with their experience of sexual harassment using the hashtag #MeToo. Lynn Povich joins us from Los Angeles. Lynn, thank you for talking to us about this.

LYNN POVICH: Thank you for having me, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, when you see women reporting their experiences today and very powerful men taking a fall, does it feel familiar, or does it feel very different?

POVICH: Well, it feels very different in the sense that women are now willing to come forward with very - both shameful and torturous stories of what happened to them. And that's unusual. Most women would not talk about it if it happened to them. But what is similar is that there's power in numbers.

And like us, we organized at Newsweek because there were so many of us who were kept back from being promoted - that when we got together, and our voices were heard as a group, we had power. And I think what you see in all these cases is that the first woman steps forward, but when all the rest come forward and acknowledge the same things happened to them, that's when things change.

WERTHEIMER: It's interesting to look back at other watershed moments, though, on sexual harassment - looking back to Anita Hill testifying against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Nothing happened there. Watching now as liberals and Democrats grapple with the numerous charges of sexual assault and harassment against Bill Clinton, what do you think? I mean, have things really changed?

POVICH: Well, I do think they've changed, which is why people are looking back and sort of reassessing how they felt about it because, I think, in this atmosphere, women feel empowered to not take it anymore and to say, you know, this is ruining our lives and ruining our careers. And it's illegal. And these laws are not being enforced. I mean, it looks like HR departments are protecting companies and not their employees. So I do think it's a turning point in the history of sexual harassment.

WERTHEIMER: When you talk to younger women right now, what do you hear?

POVICH: I think they feel empowered. I think they feel good that they are helping to lead a movement that's changing public opinion about sexual harassment. And I hope that it spreads not only to the privileged industries that we've been reading about but into the blue-collar industries where this has been going on forever - the waitresses, the health care workers, the hospital workers, the people who have been on the front lines of this and who can't afford to speak up and cannot afford to lose their jobs. That's - hasn't really been discussed and exposed so much yet.

WERTHEIMER: What about a backlash? You know, women of our generation - yours and mine, Lynn - we look at some of these experiences, and we think, well, that's not terrible and that - you know, that we're having a hard time defining what we're talking about and setting limits on what we're talking about.

POVICH: Yes. And many of us just sort of ignored it or, you know, were able to deal with it. But it does raise an interesting issue about the privilege that men feel they have to invade our space, whether it's bodily or otherwise. I mean, why should they feel that they can just put their hands around our shoulder or around our waist or other places? You know, I think men should be more conscious of the fact that they shouldn't be doing things like that. And that's where I think we have to sort of understand - not that we can't push a guy off or just ignore him, but why should they invade our space?

WERTHEIMER: Your efforts helped to change workplace culture for women in terms of hiring and in terms of pay. What is your advice for women who are challenging different - and, I guess, I would have to say much more sort of sensitive - kinds of harassment now and looking to change the workplace culture again?

POVICH: If someone is harassing me in the workforce, then I'm not the only one. That person is probably harassing other women. And I always talk to young women about talking to one another and organizing as a group. It's very difficult to be the single woman out there and exposing yourself because there will be retaliation. And I think it's worth - young women - to understand that if they band together and show a pattern of this, they have a much stronger case. I do think that being the only person to speak up is going to be very dangerous.

WERTHEIMER: Journalist and author Lynn Povich is speaking to us from California. Thank you very much.

POVICH: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 25, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this text stated the year of Lynn Povich's lawsuit against Newsweek as 1965. It was 1970.