“Every executive editor stands on the shoulders of others,” Jill Abramson told the New York Times newsroom when she was named the newspaper’s executive editor in September 2011. But not all shoulders are the same. At the meeting, Abramson credited more than a dozen women who had paved her path to become the paper’s first top female editor, including groundbreaking Times reporter Nan Robertson, then-Times CEO Janet Robinson, and opinion columnist (and longtime friend of Abramson’s) Maureen Dowd.
As Times staffers absorbed Abramson’s speech, 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. “It was awe-inspiring, the way she took that time out of her life to powwow with us, without ever seeming ceremonial about it,” one female staffer in attendance told me. Later, the staffer watched an interview with Abramson on Current TV, where she recalls Abramson saying “It was awe-inspiring to her that we were getting together in solidarity with each other,” she says. “Jill Abramson was inspired by us? That was a total surprise, and it was incredibly heartening to hear.”
When Abramson was unexpectedly fired from the Times on Wednesday—17 years after joining the paper, and just two-and-a-half years after being tapped to run it—media reporters noted that she had made history as the first female executive editor in the paper’s 160-year history. But shooting off that brief line makes it seem as if her contribution to women was as simple as ticking off a box on the Times’ diversity checklist. According to a half-dozen women who worked with her, though, Abramson’s brief stint as the female leader of a male-dominated institution proved to be a transformative experience. By the time she left, media critics would report that staffers deemed her “polarizing,” “bitchy,” and “not approachable.” But to many women at the New York Times, Jill Abramson was everything.
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. “Among the women here, there was a deep appreciation that another woman was high up at the Times. It symbolically had an impact,” one young female staffer told me. “We felt possessive and proud of Jill, and [appreciated] her stories about [New Yorker reporter] Jane Mayer and her other female friends in journalism,” said another. “We loved that she had all those tattoos,” she continued, referring to the Times’ T on Abramson’s back. “We were curious about her and how she got to where she was in a way that [we weren’t] about senior male editors. This might have been just my imagination, but I felt like I related to and empathized with her in a way I hadn't with male editors.” A third put it this way: “Jill leaned in before everyone else, ever. Before Lean In. She’s pre-Sheryl Sheryl, but with more style and more class.”
The mark Abramson made on her female employees wasn’t just a matter of optics. Abramson was committed to increasing women’s representation at the paper, and she got results. In 2013 alone, Abramson tapped political editor Carolyn Ryan to replace David Leonhardt as Washington bureau chief and replaced national editor Sam Sifton with weekend editor Alison Mitchell. She also handed over the reins at the Sunday Book Review from Sam Tanenhaus to Pamela Paul, who has since made enormous strides in representing women, both female authors and critics, in the review. Abramson created a race and ethnicity beat at the paper, tapping national correspondent Tanzina Vega to cover it, and poached star local D.C. reporter Nikita Stewart from the Washington Post to report on New York’s City Hall. “It’s a point of pride,” Abramson told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan about successfully achieving gender equity among the paper’s highest-ranking editors. (And Sullivan, also appointed during Abramson’s tenure, is the first woman to hold that position at the Times.) Instead of resting on that accomplishment, though, Abramson told Sullivan that her goal for 2014 was to make similar gains in the paper’s racial diversity. (Ironically, her departure will help further this aim: Her replacement, Dean Baquet, is the Times’ first black executive editor.) Meanwhile, over at the opinion page—which falls outside the executive editor’s purview, and is helmed by Andrew Rosenthal—the ratio of male to female columnists is stuck at a dismal 10-to-2.