Jill Abramson and the Mainstreaming of Feminism in American Media

Not long ago, some of the key premises in the commentary on this week’s Times drama would have been considered radical.

Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. holds up four fingers representing the four Pulitzer Prizes the Times won last spring. Then-executive editor Jill Abramson applauds. (Reuters)

In the course of the past 24 hours, since learning of the firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, there have been many, many things that left me shaking my head.

There was the "cold glee with which Abramson was tossed on her ass," the masthead changed within the hour.

There was the news, reported by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, that she had been paid "considerably less" than her predecessor, and that her efforts to remedy this had been viewed as "pushy" by "top brass." (Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., today released a statement disputing that account.)

There were the studies I read as I sought to wrap my head around the day's events that described why top women are more likely to get jobs that are for all intents and purposes impossible, and that they're more likely than men to get fired as a result.

There was the fact that the average female editor still makes about $8,000 less than the average male editor.

There was the context that all this was happening in: an industry whose recent months have been characterized by a flood of new and exciting ventures (First Look Media, FiveThirtyEight, Vox, etc.), all of which together feature very few women at the the upper reaches of their mastheads.

And there were, of course, the doubts this brought on about my own career, and whether the "narrow band of acceptable behavior" was really a space I wanted to spend the rest of my life confined to.


But there was one thing that cheered me, and that was the nature of the commentary I read in outlet after outlet this morning. Not too long ago, a reader would have had to head to feminist websites (or, longer ago, zines) to find the sort of thinking now represented at some of America's most mainstream news publications. This is a remarkable shift, one that is easy to take for granted.

There was Rebecca Traister's analysis in The New Republic of the brutal manner of the firing, in which she neatly argued why it was so significant: "But what’s also sad, and important to note, is what it means to have so few women and people of color in these positions. Because the paucity of representation makes each one of the representatives come to mean so much moreboth when they rise and when they fall." (And she even managed to weave in a delightful Bella Abzug quote that the feminist struggle “is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”)

There were two excellent pieces in Slate: Amanda Hess on how much Abramson had meant to young women journalists at the Times and how they were taking the news (hint: not well). Hess filled out her story with telling details:

So they formed the “Old Girls Club,” an occasional after-work happy hour meant to forge relationships between junior women across the paper, which has grown to include some 40 women. They invited Abramson to attend. To their surprise, she turned up at the noisy Manhattan bar, leaned in close, answered every one of their questions, and told dishy anecdotes about how she’s dealt with men who projected their own biases onto her work. “It was awe-inspiring, the way she took that time out of her life to powwow with us, without ever seeming ceremonial about it,” one female staffer in attendance told me.

Also in Slate was Hanna Rosin's smart assessment about "what really stings": "the suspicion that there is something about office politics, salary negotiations, and the theater of charm and charisma that, even after all these years, women just don’t get. We are like Dr. Aziz, the fool in E.M. Forster’sPassage to India, who has convinced himself that he has befriended the British and understood their ways only to be “brusquely” reminded that he’s really an outsider." (Additionally in Slate: Josh Keating—disclosure: a friend—has bestowed upon the world once again his beloved and enlightening trick of covering U.S. news as though it were abroad. This edition: "At an American Media Institution, Uncertain Times.")

New York Magazine also had two wonderful pieces—Gabriel Sherman's top-notch reporting on how things had unraveled between Abramson and Sulzberger and the always-brilliant Ann Friedman on the impossibility of pinpointing sexism. It includes this perfect line that gets at the heart of what I have been trying to wrap my own head around but failed to, until Friedman said it for me: "In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you."

I would be remiss to not mention my colleague Olga Khazan's incisive, elegant, and well researched piece on the catch-22 of being a female boss: Getting to the top requires that a person be "aggressive," but any woman who is "aggressive" will never keep the troops rallied behind her. "People tend to like female leaders best when they lead their organizations not unlike one would lead a casual weekend drum circle—cheerily deferring to others and giving everyone a chance. Meanwhile, people tend to resent female leaders more than their male counterparts when they behave authoritatively. And Abramson, by all accounts, was nothing if not authoritative," Olga writes.

In addition to all this smart commentary, there has been the quick and tough reporting of Ken Auletta at The New Yorker, David Folkenflik of NPR (mostly delivered via Twitter), and from the Times's very own David Carr and Ravi Somaiya, which must not have been an easy task.

I'm sure there are many, many other great pieces out there that I am failing to mention, but that only speaks to the bounty. I'm sure, too, that in the weeks and months ahead, as this story continues to unfold, there will only be more.

Animating all of these essays is a non-superficial understanding of the issues women face in the workplace, many of which are quite complicated. Had these writers not been thinking about and writing about wage gaps, "bossiness," and sexism for years, even decades, these pieces would not have been nearly as good. None of these publications, it should be noted, is explicitly feminist or even geared toward women. These are mainstream magazines and websites, and feminism (perhaps not radical feminism, but feminism nevertheless) has found homes there. This is the sort of coverage you get when men and women who take these issues seriously climb up the mastheads and shout from their heights. 

Let's just hope they were compensated fairly for it.