Is Jill Abramson’s Firing a Feminist Issue?

by Brittany Allen


Facts of the Case

Of the mess of articles clamoring to dissect the impact of executive editor Jill-Abramson’s-myserious-departure from The New York Times, I think Rebecca Traister at The New Republic poised the issue best:

“so far, accounts of why Jill Abramson, the first woman executive editor of The New York Times, was abruptly fired on Wednesday, don’t leave us with a firm sense of what happened. What is firm is that her singularity as a woman at the top of a legendary institution means that her firing is freighted with outsized meaning, precisely because there are still so few women and people of color occupying positions that were once the exclusive domain of white men.”

Amanda Hess at Slate also pointed out,

“Abramson’s presence allowed a new generation of women at theTimes to begin to see a possible future in leadership at the paper…The New York Times is a newspaper where mostly male reporters cover industries—politics, media, sports, the military, the courts, the arts—that are also overwhelmingly run by men. With Abramson’s appointment, the Times cemented a female perspective at the top of the masthead for the very first time, and young women on the staff responded instantly.”

Now Traister smartly implies that it’s not so much the circumstances of Abramson’s departure – which, again, we don’t yet know – but the humiliating method of her firing that have left so many readers asking questions. But Hess sharpens the same issue into one involving gender and politics. We are asking questions, in other words, because Abramson isn’t just a powerful person – she was the FIRST powerful WOMAN to hold a PARTICULAR position of power. More from Hess, because the original tinkers tend to say it best: “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 more—both when they rise and when they fall.” So on the nose it hurts. 

The New York Times has already refuted certain very scandalous allegations that Abramson was fired after petitioning for equal pay (meaning, pay on the same scale as her male predecessors in the position), but the blogosphere has run away with this claim anyways. To reiterate some facts: Ms. Abramson was the executive editor of The New York Times, and the year is not 1966. Even if the Times is right in their defense, what’s wrong with this picture?! Clue: a hugely influential figurehead for women in media was possibly petitioning for equal pay?!  

To Summarize…

If the persistent, jabbery skeptics of all American civil equality movements (read: doofuses) require more proof that deep inequality still exists in this country, take this for pudding: do you see how an important position necessarily becomes more important, an important person necessarily becomes MORE important – when that person and position are fraught with issues attendant to being “in the minority”? When that person and position are made into de facto mouthpieces for an entire group of people? Women at the Times toted Abramson as a person to look up to – notably for her tactics and practices, but largely because she was a woman in power. For just as Abramson’s replacement (Dean Baquet, the first black man to be named executive editor at the paper) will be required, in some way, to live up to an all-but-invisible higher standard because he is the “first” of his “group” to occupy this particular “rank,” the media will also be assessing his actions on a level that ye Oldest Boys Club has never been subject to, mark my words. Better put: regardless of how or why Ms. Abramson was terminated, the fact that her termination has drawn us into a conversation about sexism in the reportage and business practices of America’s most important paper says a grim, grim mouthful about where we stand. 

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher and chairman of the Times company, maintains that Abramson’s firing was nothing short of routine. A spokesperson for Sulzberger even allegedly told AdAge that “new leadership would improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom.” And Sulzberger said in finale, “There is nothing more at issue here.”

I, for one, beg to differ. What do you think?

Image via Forbes; Abramson at the time of her promotion. 


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