All too often, women trailblazers are either outright opponents of feminism, like Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher, or hesitant to fully claim the feminist mantle until far too late in the game, like Hillary Clinton and Katie Couric.
Not so for Jill Abramson, the veteran journalist who yesterday was named the first female editor of The New York Times. In an interview with Huffington Post media reporter Mike Calderone, Abramson immediately reflected on the historic nature of her appointment. “I stand on different shoulders,” she said, paying tribute to Times CEO Janet Robinson, Maureen Dowd, former columnist Anna Quindlen and deceased journalists Robin Toner and Nan Robertson. “I just kind of called out their names.”
Abramson is perhaps best known in media circles for her maneuverings, as the Times Washington bureau chief, against former executive editor Howell Raines, whom she believed had a poor feel for political news. Raines retaliated by attempting to move Abramson to the Book Review, which would have taken her out of the daily news cycle and likely out of contention for the top job she finally won. Abramson, of course, ended up looking prescient when Raines was later forced to resign in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.
What’s less often acknowledged is that feminism has always been an explicit part of Abramson’s career. After graduating from Harvard in 1976, the native Manhattanite covered that year’s presidential campaign for Time. Reflecting on the experience this past March, she said, “I remember being in the bar of the Sheraton Wayfarer the night of the New Hampshire primary, so proud of the press credential dangling from my neck. I gazed at all the famous ‘boys on the bus,’ including Jack Germond and Hunter Thompson. But as a very young woman, I didn’t dare belly up to the bar. Those days are over.”
Abramson then worked for two trade publications, American Lawyer and Legal Times, where she developed an expertise on women lawyers. In 1986, she and Barbara Franklin co-authored a book on the women of the Harvard Law class of 1974, the first to be more than 10 percent female. Two years later, Abramson wrote her first major Times feature, a Sunday magazine article about Peggy Kerr and Nancy Lieberman, two of the first women to become partners at the New York law firm Skadden Arps. Abramson found that women were finally being accepting into the partnership ranks just as the total number of partners was drastically expanding, with more and more associates being invited to join up. Were firms accepting female partners only because the distinction itself had been devalued?
It was a theme she would return to in 2006, when Katie Couric became anchor of the CBS Evening News. “It seemed a pretty giant step for womankind, but maybe I was stuck in a retro mindset,” Abramson mused in a Week in Review essay. “With the fragmentation of television audiences and the advent of cable and on-demand services…the prestige of being an anchor is not what it was in the days of Walter Cronkite.”