A FEMINIST IN CHARGE AT THE TIMES: All too often, women trailblazers are either outright opponents of feminism, like Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher, or hesitant to 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 on June 2 was named the first female executive editor of the New York Times. Abramson immediately reflected on the historic nature of her appointment. “I stand on different shoulders,” she told the Huffington Post, paying tribute to Times CEO Janet Robinson, Maureen Dowd, former columnist Anna Quindlen and deceased journalists Robin Toner and Nan Robertson.
Feminism has always been an explicit part of Abramson’s career. Her first major Times feature was a 1988 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. She has written two books, one with Barbara Franklin on the women of the Harvard Law class of 1974, and another with Jane Mayer on the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal. She has covered topics from Monica Lewinsky to Enron with keen insight on the women involved. Reflecting on her career recently, Abramson recalled how she felt as a recent Harvard grad, covering the 1976 presidential campaign for Time magazine. “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,” she said. “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.” DANA GOLDSTEIN
A STEP TOWARD FAIRER SENTENCING: When President Obama signed the historic Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the decades-old disparity between punishments for federal offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine, the new law contained a critical flaw: it failed to apply to the thousands of prisoners already locked up under the unfair sentencing standards of the past twenty years. On June 1, US Attorney General Eric Holder was one of many calling for this flaw to be fixed. Testifying before the US Sentencing Commission, which sets policies for federal courts, Holder urged its members to make the law retroactive, describing the issue as “deeply personal to me.” As a former Superior Court judge in Washington, DC, he said, “I know what it is like to sentence young offenders to long prison terms” in the name of public safety. But he added, “I also saw that our federal crack sentencing laws did not achieve that result.”
Although he invoked the constitutional ideal of “equal treatment under the law,” Holder avoided any overt mention of race in his testimony—a conspicuous omission, given that the crack/powder disparity has long been acknowledged to be racist in its application. Some 85 percent of people convicted of crack offenses are black, even though they make up just 30 percent of crack users. Under the old law, someone caught with as little as five grams of crack would be slapped with a five-year-minimum prison sentence. Meanwhile, it would take 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same punishment. The Fair Sentencing Act did not eliminate this discrepancy but reduced it from a 100-to-1 ratio to 18-to-1.
Holder struck a tough law-and-order tone, boasting that the Obama administration has gone “a step beyond current commission policy” by arguing that drug offenders who had weapons at the time of their crimes should be among those disqualified from receiving reduced sentences. But as Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, testified, such defendants had already been subjected to sentencing “enhancements” that incurred further jail time. “What would be the point of denying a sentence reduction for defendants whose sentence, everyone agrees, was overblown—before the addition of the enhancements?”
Nevertheless, Holder’s testimony was an important step in correcting an unjust legacy of the forty-year “war on drugs.” The commission has argued since the 1990s that the crack/powder disparity needs to be addressed. If members vote this summer to make the law retroactive, some 12,000 prisoners will be eligible for a reduced sentence, another step toward justice. LILIANA SEGURA
VICTORY FOR CONNECTICUT FAMILIES: Millions of Americans go to work sick. Millions more send a sick kid to daycare or school when parent and child should stay home. But sick people don’t show up at work because they want to infect others, and the parents of sick children certainly don’t want to send them to school. Concern over losing a job, especially in these days of high unemployment, makes staying home a risky option for the more than 40 million working Americans who have no sick-leave protection.
To counter this crisis, a consortium of state and national groups are campaigning for guaranteed paid sick days and paid family leave policies, “so that taking care of yourself or a loved one will not cost anyone a paycheck or a job,” according to Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work. On June 4 her coalition won an important victory in Connecticut, when House members passed legislation that will allow workers to earn up to forty hours of paid sick time a year to recover from sickness or injuries, to have access to preventive care or to look after ailing family members. Governor Dan Malloy says he intends to sign the bill into law.
The Connecticut victory is an important state-level win for a movement that has won approval, from elected officials and voters, for paid sick-leave ordinances in cities like San Francisco, Washington and Milwaukee. The movement is spreading rapidly, to cities like Philadelphia and states like Georgia. That does not mean there won’t be pushback; Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his allies recently enacted state legislation overturning the voter-passed Milwaukee ordinance. That’s one reason coalitions are looking with particular interest at state legislation and, ultimately, at crafting a federal policy. Connecticut points the way, and Family Values @ Work has developed smart strategies for coalition-building at the local and state levels, as well as a national network for building on the victories that are being won. JOHN NICHOLS