Jill Abramson's new role as NYT editor: Can we please celebrate a little more?

Scrutinizing culture.
June 24 2011 3:30 PM

New York Women Have Evolved Into a Higher Species

Men should welcome the new Times pick for editor.

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I never experienced that Mad Men culture firsthand. I'm not saying it had disappeared by the time I got to New York in 1970, but it was no longer the accepted norm. Instead I found brave, activist women changing the face of the city, the culture, and the country at large. The movement fought to put anti-discrimination laws in place, allowing women access to the workplace, eventually changing the entire culture of the town from the decade that preceded it.

And I feel privileged to have been even a passive witness to the whole process. Yes, there were struggles, clashes, and conflict. But there was also a sense of real change. Still, looking back on it, I failed to see how genuinely prophetic Gornick's "next great moment in history" proclamation was. It's only in retrospect I can see how the women's movement utterly transformed New York City, doubling (at least) its brainpower and pool of talent. A phenomenon that fed on itself: New York, which had always been a magnet for the happy-go-lucky Holly Golightlys of America, became even more a magnet for her brighter, brainier counterparts, a host of brilliant women whose confluence begat that critical mass of creativity that made New York City not only a thrilling and challenging place to be, but restored once again its status as undisputed capital of the world.

And so I want to use the occasion of the Jill Abramson appointment (she's a native New Yorker who brought New York attitude to the Times D.C. bureau) to advance a conjecture, a speculation, about New York women. It's a conjecture about the result of these struggles, with recalcitrant men, with the exigencies of New York City.

Here's my theory: Women in New York City have evolved into the equivalent of a higher species. Not quite the leap from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon (especially since Neanderthals have recently been getting props from anthropologists for having bigger brains than previously suspected and for not being quite as cave-mannish as they once were seen). Still a step up the ladder, not just from men, but from women elsewhere as well.

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So when I say New York City women have evolved into a higher species I'm not speaking in a strictly biological, genomic way. (Although I call your attention to a recent Scientific American paper called "Urban Birds Boast Big Brains," which posited that the challenges of urban life to avian intelligence have resulted in an increase in the capacity of their brains to cope with the struggle for survival in the city.)

I don't think any similar study has been done on urban birds of the human persuasion. But I think an anecdotal case can be made that if our urban birds aren't smarter than nonurban birds, or other urban birds, New York women are smarter than New York men. Or at least that there are far fewer dumb New York women than dumb New York men. But this is what has always puzzled me: The evolution of women has made them not merely more fiercely intelligent and multitalented, but more sophisticated, witty, charming, and seductive. What's not to like? And yet few were the celebrations of the new realities by New York men, at least in the early years. In fiction, film, nonfiction, and memoirs by New York men, one sees so much crankiness and whiny complaint about the terrible inconvenience the women's movement has caused. Consider Roth, Updike, Mailer, Bellow. Consider, even, the enduring cruel image of the liberated woman in Kramer vs. Kramer. A major portion of the last century's literary history has been written by men unable to deal with the loss of subservience. And by women trying to deal with the inability of men to deal with it. (Even now in the new century, look at all the male literature devoted to whiny men flummoxed by female accomplishment. It's the new whininess. Neo crankiness.)

I will never forget being around the women at the Voice in the first half of the '70s. It was like a preview of the incredible diversity of talent among women, of their self-expression, their self-actualization, of the many paths women were free to take.

There was Sally Kempton, a graceful writer who later decided she wanted to became a guru. Ingrid Benglis wrote a brilliant essay foreshadowing the way sexual politics caused friction, good and bad, in a story titled "Combat in the Erogenous Zone" (super-genius title courtesy of Voice editor Ross Wetzsteon). Blair Sabol blazed an anti-fashionista path through the fashion world. Mary Breasted wrote a best-selling contrarian critique of sex education. Sarah Kernochan, triple threat novelist, songwriter, and filmmaker, won the first of two Oscars for Marjoe. Jill Johnston spun her dance critic column into a Joycean personal journal with a cult following to decipher it. There were too many to name. And then when I first began writing for Harold Hayes' Esquire I made the acquaintance of Nora Ephron, who was writing daring and candidly personal essays that explored the implications of feminism for male/female relationships. Everyone argued about  Erica Jong's Fear of Flying,  Kate Millet's attack on male writers,  and Mailer's reply in The  Prisoner of Sex. The contours of the most basic human relationships were being re-examined from the ground up and in some ways redefined. All of New York City was one big fat consciousness-raising group.

What do we owe to the women whose courage and sacrifice, when they were jeered by many of both sexes, won so much for all of us? What do we owe to the ones who didn't take the easy way out but became rebels in the '70s and paved the way for the way we live now?

This may sound incredibly quixotic. But what about the Equal Rights Amendment? Remember that? Since the amendment, first written in 1923 by Alice Paul, came soooo close to passage in 1982—but fell short—it has virtually dropped off the radar. Why was it so important then, but of negligible interest now?

Here's the text: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."