“I can assure you no woman will ever be an editor at the New York Times.”
Clifton Daniel, Assistant Managing Editor, 1962
I tend to be wary of writing on topics given to me by friends or family for the same reason I face a personal book recommendation with trepidation — what if I don’t agree the topic is interesting enough to deserve my attention? Nina Sankovitch, author of the fantastic book Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, puts it thus: “The giver of the book is not exactly ripping open her soul for a free look, but when she hands over the book with the comment that it is one of her favorites, such an admission is very close . . .”
But, time and time again, my fear proves to be unfounded. This week, the Reader’s Digest interview of Jill Abramson, the new executive editor of the New York Times, handed to me by my mom, forms the basis for my first installment of “Guess Who?” – a new column highlighting women who, in my humble opinion, deserve your attention.
At 57 years old, Abramson is the first woman to hold the executive editor position (having been promoted recently from managing editor, a job she accepted at the age of forty-nine). The blurb for her spot on Forbes’ 2011 “The World’s Most Powerful People (Ms. Abramson takes the #67 spot for general, and #12 for women in specific) proclaims, “Bloggers come, bloggers go, but the Gray Lady, run for the first time by a lady, still sets the terms of the global debate.”
For a feminist following Abramson’s career, the question becomes, how will a ‘lady’ incorporate gender issues into her performance on the global stage?
Abramson, a unique mix of traditionally male and female traits, has never shied away from telling women’s stories. Her first book, Where They Are Now: The Story of the Women of Harvard Law 1974, co-written with Barbara Franklin, a colleague at The American Lawyer, examined the sexism faced by female lawyers in the professional world.
While working for The Wall Street Journal’s D.C. bureau, Abramson covered the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings (now infamous for their depiction of the way in which our society treats women who dare to accuse powerful men of sexual harassment) and later co-wrote her second book, Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas with childhood friend Jane Mayer. Abramson and Mayer not only concluded that Thomas had lied when he denied the allegations of harassment brought forth by Anita Hill, but interviewed three additional women who reported similar conduct (running contrary to Thomas’ assertion that Hill was “the only person on my staff who has ever made these sorts of allegations about me”).
The tragic truth is that women interested in so-called ‘women’s issues’ such as professional discrimination and sexual harassment often publically subjugate their interests in order to avoid being labeled as a one-trick pony and subsequently written off as the token feminist. Abramson, surely not unaware of this tendency, willfully counters it.
Indeed, Abramson consistently refuses to be bound by conventional gender play.
Admitted to Harvard in 1972, Abramson’s class was the first that had the choice of living at Radcliffe or in Harvard Yard. Abramson and classmate Alison Mitchell (the current Times weekend news editor) chose Harvard Yard and Mitchell remembers that “a lot of women at Radcliffe thought we were sellouts and wanted to be in the male world . . . we felt like pioneers.”
Running into Maureen Dowd, noted Times columnist, at a book party in 1997, Abramson bravely replied, “me!” in response to Dowd’s request for talented female reporters to hire at the Times.
As managing editor, women at the Times looked to Abramson for support, and she frequently hosted parties for women receiving promotions – courting ire from some male correspondents, one of whom claims that she “plays favorites . . . especially for women.”
Co-workers from her tenure at the Times have decried her demeanor as “intimidating, brusque, and remote” – too reminiscent of former executive editor, Howell Raines, who was forced out of the paper. Abramson, noting the criticism, took to becoming more ‘personal’ with the rest of the staff through “meal invitations, small meetings, and brainstorming sessions.” Whether Abramson’s behavior was policed by her peers due to her similarity to an editor who had burned them before or they were simply more intolerant of a woman ‘acting like a man,’ the way in which Abramson’s personality came under scrutiny should prick up a good feminist’s spidey sense.
Likewise, Abramson’s reputation for roughness with underlings precedes her – prompting Sally Singer, current editor of the Times’ magazine T and former co-worker of the famous ‘Devil in Prada,’ Vogue’s Anna Wintour, to defend her with an apt observation of the gender roles at play:
“When women are blunt, maybe it’s seen as ‘tough,’ but actually it’s just efficient. I worked for Anna for eleven years, and you can hem and haw and pretend to like something, but why? You’re just going to end up having six more meetings about it—and you’re going to demoralize someone over days as opposed to in a moment.”
Coinciding with her promotion, the publication Abramson’s new book, The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout, based off her previous online columns for the Times about her dog and her family life, has likewise opened the door to derisive comments exposing the underlying assumption that if a woman is to be in a ‘man’s position,’ she better the hell act like a man so we can all pretend no real changes are being made . . . and that means no soft stuff. Work takes precedent, and if one must talk of domesticity, do so in the manner of a man. Think complaints about weekend day trips to Staten Island where the reception is simply shoddy and tales of the travesty of one’s martini being prepared with two olives instead of three because ‘the Wife’ didn’t have time for a grocery run.
With Abramson’s history, I can’t help but be excited to track her movements at the Times. After all, women in power have an unique burden of responsibility. As Clare Boothe Luce famously remarked, “Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, “She doesn’t have what it takes.” They will say, “Women don’t have what it takes.”