The Reader's Digest represented family, values, America and God. It was everywhere. And then eight women sued the media giant for sexual discrimination. Dirty Linen is their story.
What they said about DIrty Linen:
"Like the women at Newsweek and The New York Times who fought for gender equality, now comes the story of the bitter but successful battle by the women at the Reader's Digest. It's a reminder of how far we've come and how far we still have to go."--Lynn Povich, author of The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace
" An inside look at how clinical legal education serves the needs of the community, justice and helped pioneer advances in workplace equality."--Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, Columbia Law School
"What you and your brave female colleagues struggled to overcome back in the 1970s is precisely equal to what today's brave young women must continue to fight against in coming years. You won your battle, but the war goes on." --Peter C. Canning, author of American Dreamers: The Wallaces and Reader's Digest: An Insider Story
This is a truly mythic heroine's journey, intertwining the story of the lawsuit with an intimate account of the author's own early naivete, ongoing hesitations, and her life as a daughter, wife, and mother and above all, communicating that this was a collaborative journey, not a solitary one." --Christine Downing, author of The Goddess, Mythological Images of the Feminine
I couldn't put it down and I read it in 2 sittings. It's a true Disney movie where it starts off happy, goes into the trial and ends with "they lived happily ever after." I would love to see this made into a movie. The book made me smile, it made me cry. It made me angry and outraged that this discrimination was so blatant. I loved it and I hope you love it too. --Priscilla Epstein
It highlights the discrimination women faced at the Reader's Digest during the '70s. It is very striking to think that a company like Reader's Digest, a piece of America, could violate the laws of the United States. It just did not make sense to me until I read this book. It explains both sides in a fair manner and the results. There is a section at the end that ...answers the question "Is Reader's Digest still in existence today," that I found very interesting.--Howard
...about the lawsuit filed in the 1970s against the Reader's Digest by eight women, one of whom was the author. The book successfully weaves together several threads--the legal, the personal, and the historical--leaving the reader with a greater understanding of the complex issues related to achieving gender equality. But mostly, it is a "good read" that held my interest from start to finish.--Claire Sandler
Dirty Linen chronicles the real life story of an everyday woman who saw and experienced vast injustice and decided to do something about it. I cannot imagine the long-term stress these women went through. They are real life heroes. The world needs more people like Elaine (and Harriet Rabb and Patricia Warren and all the others who changed our world for the better). Thank you for the opportunity to know you through this work and to hear your story.--Stephanie Cress
I have raised 5 girls who are now out on their own. I definitely want each of them to read this great book, especially my youngest. She has completed her English Major and aspires to write one day. As a man, I found this book humbling, and it also saddens me even in our world today. --Mike Shackelford
Dirty Linen is an exciting read for all who cherish equality of opportunity. It is both a memoir and an account of the successful five-year battle in the ongoing fight for equal rights. It is also a tribute to the courage, perseverance and sacrifice of numerous men and women. -- Ellen Gertner
If you are looking for a boring history book, prepare to be disappointed. Dirty Linen is an important and well-told story of corporate culture and the challenge of change. It is set in the 1960s and 1970s, but it is as relevant as tomorrow's headlines. --Jim
This is an all inspiring, must read for anyone who cares about equal rights, family needs and social justice! Please share --Barb
Interesting, well told, true story of women struggling to get equal pay and equal promotions at Reader's Digest told by one of the eight women brave enough to challenge the repressive system. --Patricia
Dirty Linen is more than a historical telling of the struggle for woman's equality. It is a very personal account of that struggle, as told by Elaine Auerbach, one of the youngest of the named plaintiffs. The book is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s when the lawsuit was filed. Women are still fighting for gender equality. It is a great, engaging read.--Karen Meislik
Dirty Linen: How Women Sued the Reader’s Digest and Changed History, by Elaine Auerbach
Dirty Linen is an everywoman manifesto and a gentle tutorial on fundamental civil rights activism by the working mom next door. Set in Westchester County, New York in the 1970’s, Reader’s Digest was, at the time, a staple in every household and a formidable publishing powerhouse, portraying itself as having a backbone of righteous, wholesome tradition. As the story unfolds, the author tells of the all-too-common professional experience of assuming all paths were open for her to ascend up the corporate ladder from her entry-level position at Reader’s Digest. However, despite college pedigree, hard work, and talent, she is dismayed and frustrated when her career (and the careers of many of the women around her) did not progress forward.
Entrenched in a conservative and pristine corporate campus of white walls adorned with world-class artwork, a group of women took a courageous step outside the expectation of politeness, determined that their experiences were, in fact, discrimination, and made the brave decision to fight for change by filing a lawsuit. Aided in their litigation efforts by students and lawyers, including Harriet Rabb from the Columbia Law School clinic, as well as through a grassroots, street-level advocacy campaign, these women made civil rights history by achieving a financial recovery and implementing goals with timetables and training.
The Reader’s Digest litigation spawned similar litigation at Newsweek and the New York Times. For the litigation nerds among us, this story will thrill in its steady and familiar telling of the litigation arc and the birth of using regression analyses in civil rights litigation. It also serves as an important reminder that litigation can be very hard for clients and can have very real negative effects on their lives even in the most civil settings, a reality that lawyers can sometimes lose sight of when in the throes of passionately advocating on their behalf. In sum, this book is very readable and a truly uplifting story of civil rights activism. The author does a fantastic job of illustrating the inch-by-inch fight for equality that is the unfortunate reality of civil rights work, and it is recommended reading for everyone standing on the shoulders of those who came before us in fighting for equality today.
Dirty Linen, How Women Sued the Reader's Digest and Changed History by Elaine Auerbach, is available for purchase at Amazon.
Grant & Eisenhofer is not affiliated with the author or publisher of this book and receives no financial benefit from any purchases made through the link above.
For nearly fifty years, I carried an old box with me. It traveled from house to house, from state to state and even from marriage to marriage. Inside were news clippings, memos, drafts, documents and legal papers from the Reader's Digest sexual discrimination lawsuit. I always knew they were an important part of women's fight for equality. I planned to do something with them, someday, hopefully with my co-worker and friend Patricia Nell Warren who was a published writer. Her stereotyping-breaking book "The Front Runner" portraying a gay romance between a runner and his coach was a best-seller and she had followed that up with several other books, several with LGBT themes.
The time never seemed right. I had young kids. I had a job that kept me more than busy. I went back to graduate school. I had a sick mother, a sick husband, I divorced, I remarried, I was sick. Always something. I was shocked and saddened into action one day in 2019 when I read that Patricia had passed away. Now it was up to me.
My husband pulled the box down for me from the high garage shelf where it had been gathering dust. Inside, the piles papers were just as I left them decades ago, just more yellowed and brittle. Carefully, I took each document and scanned each into my computer so it wouldn't fall apart. Then I set about the task of remembering and reconstructing. I used my papers, journals, interviews, the internet and every source I could find.
The result is "Dirty LInen: How Women Sued the Reader's Digest and Changed History." it is memoir, history, legal education, coming of age, and the story of eight women and how we stepped forward to change the workplace and our lives.
The story begins when I joined Reader's Digest as an assistant editor. It explains how I began to believe that women faced sexual discrimination in the publishing empire and were relegated to specific positions. Soon, I was joined by many other women. We tried to work with management. But when all failed, and an opportunity to secure legal help from a new and unique Columbia University Law School program was offered to us, we took legal action. The outcry that followed, the legal tactics the Reader's Digest took to wear us and our lawyers down, the results of the lawsuit and the aftermath are all presented. Along the way you meet each of the eight women who stepped forward to add our names to a lawsuit that woke the communications industry up and possibly changed it forever.
"Dirty Linen" is available on Amazon . Order now https://www.amazon.com/Dirty-Linen-Readers-Changed-History/dp/1735434906/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2260FBRGYRQVO&keywords=Dirty+Linen+by+Elaine+Auerbach&qid=1662346810&s=books&sprefix=dirty+linen+by+elaine+auerbach%2Cstripbooks%2C168&sr=1-2
Writing "Dirty Linen" was a labor of love, research, and difficult memories. It was a book I had to write. It is an honor to spotlight these behind-the-scenes figures of history. It is now available from Amazon.
"i could support you when we were talking about improving things for women, " she said tartly, "when we were dealing with our own problems. But this going to court, this taking it outside, I can't support that. You aren't making it better for us. You're making it worse. You've really messed things up now. I won't have any part of it--you, you girls--airing our dirty linen!"
"Dirty Linen." Is that all we had achieved? Did we simply hang our unsavory business out in the breeze and make things worse for everyone? It had certainly make things worse for me personally. Or, did we make a difference? Did we at least nudge the fight for equality in the right direction?
Her angry words came back to me as I stared at the magazine page. She had spit the words at me in the 1970s. Now it was 2019, decades later, yet I could still see and hear her as if it were yesterday.
I had been browsing the just arrived May/June 2019 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, when I had glanced at the "In Memoriam" feature, a list of writers who had recently passed away. I was looking down the list when the second name from the bottom name jumped out at me: Patricia Nell Warren.
Patricia Nell Warren had achieved fame as a writer of Lesbian Bisexual Gay Transgender (LBGT) fiction, or "gay"fiction. But I had known Patricia Nell Warren as Pat Tarnawsky, condensed book editor for the Reader's Digest, my friend and cohort, a lover of gardens, a curly-headed, kind-hearted dynamo who wouldn't allow herself to be held back.
Sighing, I put the magazine down. I had to do something. I had once thought that Pat and I would write the story together. For too long I had waited and now Pat was gone. How many times had I said "someday?" Now it was time. I didn't feel I had a choice. I owed it to Pat and the other women and, perhaps, to history.
Ex-Reader’s Digest Employee Tells Story of Gender Discrimination Suit in New Book
Elaine Auerbach, one of the eight plaintiffs in a 1970s gender bias suit against Reader’s Digest, holds The New York Times article about the case after the settlement. Auerbach has written a new book about the experience.
When Elaine Auerbach entered the workforce in the 1960s, she didn’t envision herself being a trailblazer. She planned on working hard and furthering her career opportunities with the chance for advancement.
But five years after being hired by Reader’s Digest in Chappaqua, Auerbach was at the center of a firestorm. She was one of eight women plaintiffs to have a lawsuit filed on their behalf against the company in 1972 that alleged gender bias.
At the time, Auerbach was an associate editor, having been hired after graduating Douglas College in New Jersey in 1967. Her job was to condense articles to fit into the magazine’s format.
Despite hoping to have a long career at Reader’s Digest, she soon found upward mobility would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
“I went in to the managing editor to signal to him that I had career ambitions,” Auerbach recalled. “Being a mother also didn’t indicate that I didn’t want to have a career. I asked what are the skills I needed to become a senior editor, and his responses was, ‘Oh, women don’t become senior editors.’”
Nearly 44 years after Reader’s Digest agreed to pay a more than a $1.5 million settlement, Auerbach has written a new book about the experience, “Dirty Linen: How Women Sued the Reader’s Digest.”
This Saturday she will participate in a book signing at Scattered Books, located at 29 King St. in Chappaqua, from 12 to 2 p.m. that coincides with its release.
Auerbach remembered that the jarring response that she received forced her to come to the realization that there were no women senior editors or women department heads, except for the excepts and research departments, which were entirely comprised of women. Her female co-workers never seemed to rise above associate editor.
“We figured maybe management didn’t realize that women wanted to have more of an opportunity, that maybe they don’t realize that many women are self-supporting or supporting families,” Auerbach said. “Maybe they didn’t realize they’re discriminating.”
She and another worker visited personnel and with the company’s permission developed a questionnaire to distribute to the company’s female workers. The results, outlined in a report that they called “the white paper,” revealed many more of the company’s women felt they had limited opportunities.
When their findings were ignored, that’s when they took legal action. Even though Reader’s Digest was a great place to work and DeWitt and Lila Wallace were wonderful people, Auerbach said they needed to take that step because the Wallaces, in their view, were breaking the law.
“It was extremely difficult,” she said of the decision to pursue the suit. “People were loyal to the Wallaces, they were loyal to Reader’s Digest and so were the women who took action.”
Columbia University, which had recently developed its urban affairs and clinical legal education programs, took on the case led by attorney Harriet Rabb. Rabb had just been named the first women dean in Columbia Law School history.
More than 100 women were interested in being part of the suit. However, it was easier to move ahead with fewer plaintiffs. Plus, many women who initially supported the litigation turned against the eight for causing trouble, Auerbach said.
The action was settled in November 1977, with the plaintiffs sharing the settlement money with all women in the company. It had far-reaching impact in the publishing and media industry, Auerbach said. While Newsweek also had staffers sue the company, they were looked upon as radical feminists from New York City.
“Reader’s Digest, however, was middle America, it was believed by everyone, it was family,” she said. “It was in everyone’s homes. It was such a big magazine. It was everywhere and it was about as popular as the Bible, and read just about as much.”
Auerbach had always intended to write the book when she had the time. Her plan was to team up with one of her colleagues at Reader’s Digest and co-complainants in the case, Patricia Nell Warren, who went on to become a noted novelist. In 2019, she learned of Warren’s death.
Nearly a half-century later, women are still earning less than men and have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, another motivation for Auerbach.
“I thought between the two of us, Patricia and I would tell the story,” said Auerbach, who would have a long career at PepsiCo. “But now she was gone and I was left to tell the story, and I figured I owed it to history. I feel that strongly that people today need to know what went into whatever progress had been made and whatever progress we hadn’t made. There’s more to be made.”
1. The author begins the book with coming to the Digest. Do you think this was important and why?
2. What do you think of the way the women proceeded—gathering information by questionnaires, writing the White Paper, talking to management. Given that nothing worked, do you think it was a waste of time?
3. What do you think about the attitude of many women who protested airing the “dirty linen” and who were upset because Reader’s Digest was such a great place to work and that DeWitt and Lila Wallace had created what was then a leader in benefits and who gave millions to charity? Does being generous in some areas mitigate the fact that the company was probably breaking the law in other areas?
4. What do you think of management’s response or lack of response? What should or could they have done?
5. The author was summoned to speak with founder and owner DeWitt Wallace. He told her she looked pretty when she was angry. Did this affect your view of the lawsuit, of Reader’s Digest, of DeWitt Wallace?
6. The women went from being naïve to taking legal action. How is this a theme of the book? And what does it say about taking action in general?
7. The women in the New York city office went to see Lawyer Harriet Rabb at Columbia Law School. The women in Pleasantville were still trying to figure out what to do. Which group do you think you would belong to and why?
8. The Columbia Legal Clinic program had its start as a result of a seemingly unrelated problem at Columbia involving a land grab from the surrounding community. How did this strike you in terms of the unseen relationships between events?
9. There are several areas mentioned in the book where history overlaps or one event impacts another. What are some of these you noticed? What is your view of coincidences and fate?
10. The 1970s saw many lawsuits and actions regarding civil rights. Why do you think this was the case? Do you think the 1960-1970s were a golden age of civil rights and, if so, do you think we will ever make similar progress in the near future?
11. The author gives the history of each of the eight named complainants and later tells what happened to each one. Did you agree that each woman had a good case? What do you think of what happened to each woman after the case was over?
12. The Employment Rights Clinic students working on the case basically received only credit and experience for their work. What do you think of the clinic program and the student workers and the way they worked?
13. The lawyers, Harriet Rabb, Howard Rubin and George Cooper received nothing beyond their normal teaching salaries for all the work they did. What do you think motivated them?
14. What were the tactics the Reader’s Digest lawyers used to fight the lawsuit? Do you think these tactics are still in use today and what did you think of the tactics?
15. The author recounts the many interrogatories, the discovery process and personal testimony. What do you think the Reader’s Digest hoped to do with all the information? What did you think of the process?
16. Why do you think the Reader’s Digest eventually settled? Why do you think it took more than five years for them to agree to settle?
17. What was won and what was lost? Did the women who got what they originally requested in the White Paper but had undergone years of criticism win? Did the Reader's Digest who was able to announce they had not discriminated and were settling to avoid further disruption win? What about the lawyers who received nothing for their work except their normal teacher's salaries? How about the students at Columbia who learned how the legal system worked?
18. What do you think of how the women who sued the company were treated?
19. The author says she felt Reader’s Digest management was looking to build a case to prove she was incompetent and fire her, but she also suggests she had begun to doubt herself and her own skills. Where do you see this happening around us today? What do you think is the psychological effect of this type of criticism on children, on adults? Have you ever experienced someone who cut your wings in a similar manner?
20. The author begins to prepare to make a job/career change even before the lawsuit is over. She begins an MBA, contacts people. What do you think of her preparations and methods? What toll did the process take on the author? Do you think such actions were necessary and what would you do if you were in a similar situation?
21. The author compares the events in the book to a mythic journey and quotes Joseph Campbell. Do you agree? If not why not. If so, what do you see as the parts of the journey?
22. The author explains what happened to the Reader’s Digest after she left the company. How did you feel about what happened at the publishing empire and where the Reader’s Digest is today?
23. The author notes that there were several other legal cases, at Newsweek, The New York Times and others for example. However, she maintains that the case involving the Reader’s Digest brought the issue to the forefront because so many people considered the magazine as representing America. Do you agree this made a difference or do you feel that change was inevitable anyway?
24. There are still many inequalities in the workplace and at home today involving women. What still needs to be done to advance true equality?
25. The author talks about how the pandemic has brought inequality into focus. Do you agree and do you think there will be any longer-term effects on the workplace due to the pandemic?
26. How are things different today than fifty years ago when the events in the book took place? Do you think there has been progress toward equality and, if so, should we trust that progress will continue or is action needed? If you believe action is needed, what can or should we do? What are the areas needing focus?
27. Do you believe in the “butterfly effect” that one small action can have a much bigger effect?
28. What was the "dirty linen" of the title?