The Real Eleanor Holmes Norton Inspires 'Good Girls Revolt' Star Joy Bryant To Keep Fighting For Equality
On the day that Bustle talks to Good Girls Revolt star Joy Bryant, the actor is putting the final touches on her next tattoo idea. "I want get 'veni, vidi, vici,'" Bryant says. "And it’s funny, because someone reminded me it was one of Ja Rule's albums back in the day, and I was like, 'Yeah, but, I was a Latin scholar in school. So, f*ck that.'" The actress translated The Aeneid over two years when she was a student at Yale. And in the early '00s, she transitioned from modeling for designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren to acting in music videos, film, and television. Even so, Bryant admits to feeling some butterflies at the prospect of meeting another accomplished woman: Eleanor Holmes Norton, the real person she plays in Amazon's '60s newsroom series, Good Girls Revolt. "I had one hour with her. I’d prepared. I had my notes like I was a big-ass journalist or something," Bryant says. "And I was very, very nervous."
Now 79 years old, the real Eleanor Holmes Norton is a Congresswoman for the District Of Columbia and a lifelong advocate for civil rights and gender equality. (And she and Bryant go on like a house on fire, FYI.) Good Girls Revolt captures the era when Norton — then a lawyer employed by the American Civil Liberties Union — represented the female employees of Newsweek when they sued their employers for gender discrimination. Bustle reached out to Newsweek for comment on the original lawsuit and the show portraying it now, but has not yet heard back. The lawsuit resulted in a settlement in which Newsweek agreed to provide equal employment opportunities to women.
It's possible that without Norton's help, that lawsuit may never have happened — or certainly would have taken a lot longer. "We know that Eleanor, currently as she exists right now in this time and space, is a badass," Bryant says. "And back then, she was a badass during a time when being a badass who was a woman or being a badass who was a black woman was in itself a revolt." The actor remembers connecting with Norton immediately in the pages of the nonfiction book of the same name that the series is based on. Fortunately, her friend — executive producer Lynda Obst — agreed that Bryant needed to play this part. "She was and will always be a freedom fighter in every sense of the term," Bryant says of Norton. "So to be able to dive into a slice of her life that she was so involved in, that’s a dream right there."
So how does actually playing Eleanor Holmes Norton stack up against her expectations? "It’s awesome when [a part] is something you thought about and envisioned and put it out there. And if that thing comes your way, it’s rarely that it’s better than you could possibly imagine," Bryant says. "She’s this dramatic, brilliant, self-possessed woman. She’s just fascinating."
As a black woman, Norton was in an interesting position during the revolution depicted in the series. In Good Girls Revolt, her services are sought by three white characters: Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson), Jane Hollander (Anna Camp) and Cindy Reston (Erin Darke). According to author Lynn Povich, none of the black women working at Newsweek at the time joined the suit. Bryant has considered that separation and appreciates that Norton was working the long game, for all women. "She was definitely always trying to bridge that gap between the quote unquote 'mainstream feminist movement' and specifically black women," Bryant says. "Many black women found themselves in this position where, 'Do I have to choose between black liberation and women’s liberation? I know what black liberation means — I’m black, I know what that means.' But when the faces of women’s lib don’t reflect yours, or the struggles of women’s lib don’t reflect your struggles... how do you get down with that?" She continues, "A lot of women were getting their minds blown for the first time and realizing who they were and how they fit into the world," Bryant says. "Revolution doesn’t happen overnight."
It's still happening, and the actor hopes that viewers will be encouraged by the evolution that's occurred since the Newsweek suit and motivated by any similarities between the biased attitudes the women face in the show and the struggles women still face in 2016. "It’s frustrating and hopeful at the same time," Bryant says. "As long as white is right and the male prevails and gay is not the way, we're going to be here. Until these things are systematically dismantled, that’s what it is. The fight continues."
You could say that Eleanor Holmes Norton and Joy Bryant are unified not just by the identifiers that they share, but by their parallel goals. While Norton pursues equality through the political arena, Bryant is doing her part to see the entertainment industry get up to speed. "I’ve worked with women here and there, but there is such a need for women to control our narratives, not just in terms of in front of the camera but always behind," Bryant says of the high concentration of female creatives on Good Girls Revolt. "It’s abysmal that women are not represented fairly in the industry. When we talk about women of color in the industry, that’s even worse. So I was definitely bringing all of that sh*t [to the performance]."
The actor is encouraged by the changing vocabulary around feminism and diversity. "We are definitely having these conversations right now, and we should be," she says. "And it’s great that people are starting to hear the word 'intersectional' and understand what that means." According to Bryant, the most important step anyone can take in dismantling oppression is to "reject the bullsh*t." In other words, to recognize "what privilege that you inherently possess," due to gender, race, sexuality, class, and so on. As Bryant puts it, "It starts with just being aware." And, Good Girls Revolt will certainly help ramp up that awareness when it hits Amazon on Oct. 28.
Image: Amazon Studios