After Her Firing, Jill Abramson Speaks To Millennials

It’s been one week since Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the “New York Times,” was fired. In the blogosphere, the dust seems to be settling. From the confused and vague early articles to a firestorm of dialogue about gender inequality in the workplace that raged for days, the conversation now resembles an analysis of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, with Dean Banquet’s wall-punching standing in for the Grassy Knoll and the words “brusque” and “pushy” standing in for Lee Harvey Oswalt and the mysterious possibility of a second shooter.

At this point, I’ve read dozens of articles. Many are thoughtful and intriguing; they’ve made me angry, they’ve made me sad. And now the record just seems to be spinning and spinning long after the music has stopped. When I sat down to write this article, I stared at the blank page and wondered what I could say that hasn’t already been thought of, published, quoted, and subsequently beaten to death.

Hoping for some inspiration, I dug up the commencement speech Abramson delivered to the graduating seniors of Wake Forest University on Monday, May 19. (You can find the video and transcript here.) By design, commencement speeches are meant to be inspiringI was in luck! Undoubtedly, when Abramson was invited to speak, her inclusion in the ceremony was a no-brainer. After all, she was a powerful woman at the helm of one of the most influential newspapers in the world. But following her abrupt, cold firing, it suddenly threatened to be a painful speedbump on a long tumble down.

“President Hatch suggested that I speak to you today about resilience, and I’m going to take his wise counsel,” Abramson began. With messy copper-colored hair and minimal makeup, Abramson stood before the rustling sea of black robes and caps and spoke about the parents and adults who offer young people guidance, about resilience, and about opportunities to speak truth to power, all in a distinctive voice that was mercilessly mocked by at least one “New York Times” staffer. In the face of a devastating professional setback, Abramson’s tone remained calm, ironic and even playful. In particularly powerful moment, Abramson looked up from her notes and addressed the audience directly.

“A couple of students I was talking to last night after I arrived, they know that I have some tattoos. One of them asked me, ‘Are you gonna get that ‘Times’ ‘T’ that you have tattooed on your back removed?’” Abramson eyed the audience intensely, leaning up over the podium toward them to emphasize her next statement. “Not a chance!”

Throughout the speech, Abramson spoke highly of The New York Times, calling it an “important and irreplaceable institution,” and spoke with wry humor and empathy, at times drawing laughter from the audience. She distilled all of the complicated unfairness of newsroom personalities and gender politics into the simple experience of rejection, not too unlike being dumped or facing the “last one in, first one out” downsizing practices many companies have resorted to during this recession. “What’s next for me?” she asked. “I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you.”

Abramson’s speech at Wake Forest marked her first public statements following her firing. Although the circumstances undoubtedly dictated what Abramson was able to say, her unruffled remarks were a welcome relief from the frankly depressing (though undoubtedly accurate) depictions of women in the newspaper industry. In an article published in Slate, Amanda Hess wrote,

As Times staffers absorbed Abramson’s speech [about inspiring role models, some female], some younger female reporters looked around and realized that they couldn’t summon a similarly robust list of female compatriots. 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.

The article, which characterizes the uncertainty and loneliness of working in an aggressively male dominated industry, was entitled “Jill Abramson was everything to young women at the ‘New York Times.’” Citing Abramson’s trailblazing efforts to increase the ‘Times’’ coverage of and staff inclusion of women and people of color, Hess (and many others) identify Abramson as a powerhouse woman whose time was cut short by the inevitable, unforgiving, Catch-22 machinations of gender inequality. I think that Hess and others are correct in their assessment of the situation. But I have something to add: Though Jill Abramson might have been a source of strength and a rare female role model for women, she cannot be everything.

If Jill Abramson is everything, then what does that make the countless female reporters, bloggers, and editors who reactedloudly, emphatically, with anger and concernto her firing? If Jill Abramson is everything, then what does that make the next generation of female journalists who are still coming of age? I understand what Hess (or perhaps Slate’s headline writer) meant; Abramson is among a still too-small number of female leaders in the news industry. But surely she can’t be everything. Because if Jill Abramson is everything, then we have lost the war so to speak, and the daily battles in which we push back against gender norms that we didn’t agree to and expectations that we never promised to obey mean nothing. And I don’t think that’s true.

I actually think that the daily battles are everything.

Regardless of workplace disparity and the downright unfairness of gender politics, I have no doubt that I will continue to meet women who will inspire me, challenge me, and help me stay motivated in my pursuit of a writing career. Little by little, change will come. And maybe the next time the New York Times finds itself with a woman at the helm, the paper will provide her with the same courtesy that a man would automatically enjoy.

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