Why Can't a Female Leader Be Celebrated Until She's Bullied?

Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times and the first woman to hold that position, is literally a poster child for Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In mantra. And, yet, that doesn't seem to matter to many of her defenders today, who also happen to dislike Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In movement because it only represents corporate power women just like Abramson.

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A few weeks ago people were complaining that Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In mantra are too elitist to be very valuable. And then today some of those very same people joined the chorus of outrage on behalf of Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of The New York Times and literally a case study for Leaning In, after some anonymous carping in her newsroom was published online.

That outrage was, of course, justified. But it also shows how it's a lot easier for people to muster solidarity with powerful women under duress than women exercising the perks of power.

In response to this Politoco "scoop" by Dylan Byers about a supposed mutiny brewing at the Times because of a testy Abramson who is "very, very unpopular," many journalists have come to the defense of the Times editor, calling the portrayal and the anonymous sources who created it "whiny and sexist."

"Newsroom w/sexist, anonymous criticism of a woman? Wow, that never happens. Gnat on your shoulder @JillAbramson," tweeted Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz. But reviewing Sandberg's Lean In for the Washington Post review, she concluded: "It is impossible to forget that she, like many of the female friends she quotes, is a wealthy, white, married woman with a 'vast support system.'" Yet, it is somehow possible for this moment to forget that Abramson is also a wealthy, white, married woman with a vast support system. Lisa McIntire, a social media specialist who has worked for Emily's List, made a similar argument on Twitter about Sheryl Sandberg. "There is still a universe of difference between Sheryl's situation and that of most women in corporate America," she wrote. But today, she tweeted about Byers' piece, "I struggle to find any specific behavior of Abramson's that is critiqued here other than the tone of her voice."

Ann Friedman, the former executive editor of Good and columnist at The Cut, called Lean In a movement for "corporate-track moms" rather than everyone else in New York, today put up a defense of the Times leader called "If Jill Abramson were a man...." In it, she points out the double standards that men and women face. "She is condescending. He is the boss," she writes. Yet, she dismissed Sandberg's cause because she doesn't think it applies to her. "I know that most women, unlike me, want to become mothers, and that the dual demands of parenting and work have a disproportionately negative effect on them," she writes. "But I’m sick of every conversation about women and work subtly morphing into a conversation about corporate-track moms." Meanwhile, much of Sandberg's book is about getting ahead in the work place without coming off as an evil, agressive woman.

These disparate reactions to Abramson and Sandberg point towards the tendency to celebrate power in general but criticize women in power specifically. Abramson's appointment at the top of The New York Times was roundly recognized as a milestone for women, but never with the kind of emotion as a powerful woman scorned by her underlings and a media reporter. It's far easier to defend a victim, like Abramson, thereby propping them up as a sympathetic character for your cause. But, a powerful person with all the successes of Sheryl Sandberg doesn't have the same appeal. We see the same thing with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, too. She looked like a quasi feminist hero when the pregnant all-star first arrived at Yahoo mainly because of why she was up for the job: she had been passed over for a senior position at Google. But, as she got comfortable in her seat of power, the criticisms have started coming in as she has tried to do her job and remodel her office.

In general, people in power aren't likable. (That's perhaps how Byers got so many anonymous people to complain about their leader: people like to bond by complaining about their bosses.) But feminists should start celebrating the success stories. Abramson overcame a lot of ingrained sexism in journalism to get where she is today, as did Sandberg and Mayer in the notoriously male-dominated tech space. The lesson from today's Politico story is that even women at the top face sexism and the feminists who want change for all women agree that this is a bad thing. These are familiar stances for everyone involved. Left undefined is how to respond to the woman who feels perfectly at home at the top of the corporate ladder.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.