NEW YORK—Elisabeth Coleman, a plaintiff in a groundbreaking sex discrimination suit against Newsweek magazine who went on to be California Gov. Jerry Brown's press secretary in the mid-1970s and a vice president of American Express, has died at the age of 68.

Her brother, Francis Coleman, said Wednesday she died on June 20 at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City after a brief illness.

"Elisabeth was a wonderful woman," said Brown, now serving his second stint as governor. "I really enjoyed working with her ... She made and kept many good friends over the years. A lot of people will miss her."

After graduating from Vassar College in 1966, Coleman came to New York and got a job at Newsweek as a researcher.

In the 2012 book "The Good Girls Revolt" by fellow plaintiff Lynn Povich, she said she wanted to work "as an assistant to a smart man" and told her parents she could never be a journalist because "that's for men."

But her boss, Bruce Porter, spotted her talent, took her along on assignments, and trained her to be a journalist.

Still, women at Newsweek, like many magazines at the time, were relegated to being fact-checkers or researchers, not writers. But the women's liberation movement had dawned and there was growing frustration at the magazine over the second-class status of women employees.

On the day that Newsweek ran a cover story on the women's movement—March 16, 1970—46 women at the magazine, including Povich and Coleman, filed a class-action lawsuit against the magazine for discrimination in hiring and promotions, and demanded that they be included in the editor-and-writer track. It was the first lawsuit by women in the media.

"I had this tightly wound feeling that we were changing history," Coleman recalled in the book, "that something was going to happen."

Coleman had been lobbying Newsweek's chief of correspondents, Rod Gander, for a year to go to a bureau for a summer internship but he refused, finally telling her over drinks one day "I don't want to say this but—men don't want to work with women," according to the book.

Just filing the lawsuit, which the women eventually won, made a big difference.

"The Newsweek lawsuit played a huge role in my life," Coleman told Povich. Immediately after it was filed, she was sent to the San Francisco bureau and then given the first reporting job that opened up.

It was a time of social upheaval, of student protests over the Vietnam War, and the rise of the black power movement. Among the many stories, Coleman covered was the trial of black activist and Communist Party member Angela Davis, an academic who had close ties to the Black Panther Party. She was acquitted in 1972 of supplying guns used in a courtroom shootout that killed a judge and others.

Coleman appeared in a recent documentary on Davis' life, "Free Angela."

In 1973, Coleman was hired away by KQED-TV, the public television station for Northern California, and the following year she went to work for ABC News.

While in San Francisco, Coleman was introduced to Brown, who was then California's secretary of state. He was elected governor in November 1974. And in 1976, he chose Coleman to be his press secretary, a job she held until 1978 when she married Rock Brynner, the son of actor Yul Brynner, and returned to New York.

They subsequently divorced and she began a career in public relations and communications, initially with her own company, Coleman Productions, from 1984-88 and then at Ernst & Young as director of public relations from 1988-90. She joined American Express' travel division in 1990 and during her 14 years with the company, rose to be vice president of international public affairs and communications.

She retired in 2004 and was writing a memoir at the time of her death.

Funeral arrangements are private.