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.”
Abramson’s second book—again co-authored with a female colleague, Jane Mayer—was 1994’s Strange Justice, about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill scandal. A finalist for the National Book Award, the book not only contained explosive interviews with former Thomas friends and colleagues who attested to his history as a serial sexual harasser but dug deep into the organizing, fundraising and media ties between conservative black ministers, the white Christian right and Republican senators. This network cooperated to cast Thomas’s ascension to the Supreme Court as inevitable. Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden played the sucker. He and other white, male Democrats were terrified of being painted as racist and completely confused and embarrassed by the explicit nature of Hill’s allegations against the nominee. Strange Justice brought this narrative clearly to light, altering how the Thomas-Hill episode would be remembered by history.
Abramson went on to cover the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton’s impeachment, writing a graceful August 1998 piece about Hillary Clinton’s painful role, behind the scenes, in helping to craft her husband’s televised admission of a sexual relationship with the young intern. In 2002 Abramson wrote about the various women in the Enron case, some of whom had been whistle-blowers, others plain-old bad guys. “The change does reflect the rising status of women in the legal and corporate world,” she noted. “They are now high enough on the ladder to drive the action.”
What kind of Times editor will Jill Abramson be? In the wake of a series of embarrassingly Luddite Bill Keller columns complaining about social networking and new media, one can only be encouraged by the fact that Abramson volunteered last year to spend six months working on the digital side, so as to better understand that aspect of the Times’s business. Appearing on CNN last night, Abramson even praised the Huffington Post, which, since its merger with AOL, has poached an impressive cadre of Times talent. “I think the Huffington Post has been inventive and presents what it aggregates well,” Abramson said. “I’ve known Arianna Huffington since the early nineties in Washington, she’s an inventive person, and I certainly don’t want to be in a war with her.”
After yesterday’s announcement, Jen Preston, a Times staff writer and the paper’s former social media editor, tweeted, “For all of you wondering about Jill Abramson and the Web? Jill gets it. And she’s fearless. We’re lucky.”