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Jill Abramson—A Breakthrough at the NY Times, Decades in the Making

| June 8, 2011

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Jill Abramson is tapped as NYTimes executive editor.

 The women who launched the fight for women's advancement at the New York Times enjoy the moment.

The news last week of Jill Abramson’s promotion to executive editor of the New York Times cheered feminists and female journalists alike, perhaps no one more than the women who sued the newspaper in 1974 over sex discrimination in hiring, pay and promotion.

“Finally! I thought I was not going to be able to hold my breath long enough,” said Betsy Wade, a former foreign desk copy chief who under her married name, Elizabeth W. Boylan, was the first named plaintiff in the 1974 lawsuit. “I’m immensely pleased. Just delighted.”

“I was very pleased. I said to myself ‘well, it’s about time!’” added Grace Glueck, a former art critic who was also among the seven named plaintiffs.

Harriet S. Rabb, the lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of the women, now general counsel at The Rockefeller University, said friends have sent her congratulatory notes upon the news of Abramson’s promotion.

Rabb, like the other lawsuit veterans, declined to take credit for the ascension of Abramson to the top position. But she noted that former Times columnist Anna Quindlen, who was hired in the immediate aftermath of the lawsuit, has publicly credited the women who filed the suit with having cut a path with machetes for women who came after. “If Anna thought that was true, it was because of experience she must have had at the time. I trust her as being fair," Rabb said.

“The lawsuit did not have an immediate effect [on Abramson’s promotion],” Glueck said. “But I do think the lawsuit did quite a lot for the future of women at the Times … our suit did improve the male environment there.”

Abramson, 57, publicly recognized the women who preceded and supported her during the announcement of her promotion to the Times newsroom. Some of the names she mentioned included chief executive Janet Robinson, columnist Maureen Dowd, Quindlen and deceased journalists Robin Toner and Nan Robertson, who wrote the best-selling book “Girls in the Balcony” about sex discrimination at the paper.

"I'm extremely conscious that I stand on the shoulders of women—some of whom, because I didn't come to the Times until 1997, I never met," Abramson told NPR.

Seven women sued on behalf of 550 female Times employees after numerous attempts to negotiate privately with management, and two years of trying to settle with the company through local and federal equal employment opportunity complaints. The cases was settled in 1978, with the company committing to an affirmative action program for hiring and promotion of women to the top jobs at the newspaper and back pay for the women in the class action.

The New York Times lawsuit was not the first or last legal complaint about sex discrimination in the nation’s newsrooms. Although women have led many other newsrooms in the past few decades, women hold just 34.6 percent of supervisory roles today, the American Society of Newspaper Editors says. Yet the importance of a woman in the top newsroom spot at the New York Times is a signature marker, simply because the Times still sets the news agenda for countless other news organizations.

“The pipeline is a very long, thin pipeline,” Wade said, noting that in this case, it’s a generation long: Her own son attended high school in the Bronx with Abramson. “She represents the long, steady course of working your way along.”

Cognizant of the double-edged sword that being a “first woman” holds, Abramson sounded careful as she answered AdAge.com’s question, “How important is it that the New York Times finally has its first female executive editor?”

“It’s not important in the news report itself,” she said. “It obviously is an important breakthrough, just from my inbox, that has made a lot of my women colleagues very happy. It’s meaningful to them. But I’ve also gotten fantastic notes from my male colleagues.”

Abramson was already a well-respected investigative reporter when she got a job at the Times, through a new-girls-network. As she told media writer Howard Kurtz, she met Maureen Dowd at a party and Dowd asked if she knew any good women the Times could hire. “I kind of said, ‘What am I, chopped liver?’” Abramson replied, and Dowd got the ball rolling and the pair remain good friends. Is she a feminist, as the Nation magazine says?

Certainly as a journalist who entered the field in the late 1970s, she was aware of lingering discrimination in the field, and she mused in several articles over the years whether women were ascending in fields where the prestige had expired or the challenges were so daunting (such as in the current news industry) that one wonders whether a promotion is actually a step up.

Her first executive decision was to hire Dean Baquet, the Times Washington bureau chief and the former Los Angeles Times editor, as her managing editor. Her own promotion prompted little of the now-expected sniping of media critics and naysayers.

"I wouldn't say that she was chosen because she's a woman," said Baquet, who is the second African American journalist to become managing editor of the Times, "but I still think it's a big deal. It just so happened that the person best positioned to be executive editor of the New York Times is a woman. . . . I believe other women who aspire to jobs in journalism will see this as a statement about how far this profession has changed." 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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