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.

Jill Abramson. Click image to expand.
The New York Times' new executive editor, Jill Abramson

Can we return for a minute to Jill Abramson's ascension to the top of the Times? I don't think there's been nearly enough serious celebration—much less cerebration—devoted to this transfer of power, real and metaphorical. Especially on the part of men.

I'd say the occasion might even call for a kind of commemoration. Some action to remember the founders of the women's liberation movement in New York City—particularly those responsible for its stunning rebirth in the 1970s—and all the women who made landmarks like this possible. Abramson gave a gracious shout-out during her recent address to the Times newsroom to Nan Robertson, the Times reporter whose courageous 1972 public challenge to—and subsequent lawsuit against—her own paper, paved the way for this moment.

But her ascent marks more than the changing mores of the newspaper biz. The transformation launched back in the early '70s in New York, the transformation that made this moment possible, reached almost every aspect of modern life.

Come on people, I'm not suggesting literal dancing in the streets or ticker-tape parades. But Abramson's ascent deserves more than scattered plaudits in the media and a few privately popped bottles of champagne. It's something we should all celebrate, a genuine historical moment. For the women's movement in general, and for those pioneering New York City women in particular. And I actually have a suggestion on how to commemorate it that I will disclose at the close of this column.

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Look, maybe it's a good thing, a sign of progress, that Abramson's appointment was not solely received as a gendered triumph, wasn't cast exclusively as an achievement of the women's movement. The decision to elevate Abramson has been discussed mainly as a meritocratic one, which, by all accounts, it certainly was. No one deserved the job more, on pure journalistic grounds, as my colleague Jack Shafer has made clear.

By now we've incorporated the goals and sensibility of the women's liberation movement so deeply into the very fabric of our culture, at least here in New York, that it's almost as if we don't notice it, like fish don't notice the water they swim in. We don't notice it until something like the DSK affair reminds us that things are very different elsewhere. Or, for me, when a development like Abramson's promotion reminds us how far we've come.

Perhaps I'm inclined to think about Abramson's new gig through this lens because I first came to New York in 1970, the year the women's movement was reborn. (No causal connection implied.) Yes, I know, there'd been feminist stirrings in the '50s and '60s, but the New York I arrived in was at a moment of metamorphosis. I began my first job, as a staff writer for the Village Voice, less than two months before the Voice published Vivian Gornick's groundbreaking manifesto for the new woman's movement: "The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs."

In it she described the rise of then-radical feminism in various movements, on the streets, in demonstrations, and, equally important, in the mind, in relationships, in the newly evolving "consciousness raising groups" where women told their stories to each other and shared perspectives. The piece marked a moment of self-recognition for the movement.

The Voice was a key outlet for feminist writers, so I knew a lot of them. I also met a lot of activists while covering the antiwar movement, and while living for two years with a member of the radical feminist Redstockings collective. Feminist precepts seemed more the norm than anything else to me. I'm not claiming any special virtue; I was just lucky to get clued into the new rules early. In a way I took the ferment of the era for granted.

One thing that helped throw this period into sharp relief for me, helped remind me of the revolutionary change we've undergone, was recently reading the memoirs of women who came of age just a decade or so before then. I'm talking in particular about Joyce Johnson's classic Minor Characters, and Anne Roiphe's recent Art and Madness,which showhow shockingly different things were in the '50s and '60s, when smart, talented, creative women were relegated to roles as muses and enablers to purportedly genius male writers and artists. They had to keep the home fires burning while the men were out drinking and whoring—and worst of all ignoring that they too had artistic aspirations.

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