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.

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.

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."

Radical stuff. Endorsed by the Republican Party platform as late as 1976, got passed by Congress and then by a two-thirds vote in 35 of the 38 state legislatures needed for final ratification when the initial clock—and a somewhat shaky extension—ran out in 1982, stopped short mainly by a one-woman crusade on the part of Phyllis Schlafly. Now it's become conservative and GOP dogma that the ERA is Satan's No. 1 favorite new amendment.

You might say it's forgotten but not gone. You could make a case that the advancements in women's rights legislation on the federal and state level and consequential changes in the culture have secured the equality the amendment insures, rendering it no longer necessary. But the women whose discrimination case against Wal-Mart got kicked to the curb by the Supreme Court this week might disagree. Legislation can be rolled back far more easily than an amendment. Backlash in subtle forms is more easily combated with an amendment in place.

Since 1982, the ERA hasn't entirely disappeared. Every new Congress, some never-say-die stalwarts introduce a bill to implement the so-called "three state strategy"—which would allow the 35 previous ratifications to stand and give Congress the right to extend the ratification period once more—giving advocates a chance to sway three more states and get the thing ratified.

This year, the bill was co-sponsored by Democratic House leader Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, among others. (As President Obama supposedly said, "Don't mess with Debbie.") Why not contact her office and show your support for continuing the struggle, doomed as it may be in the present House? (By the way, Wasserman's website also indicates support for gay marriage and as I write this, the New York State Legislature is on the brink of passing what would be another victory for the civil rights struggles of the '70s, a moment I wish could be seen by the late Arthur Bell, the Village Voice's pioneering reporter on that movement.)

Whether it succeeded or not, a renewed campaign for the ERA could spotlight the places in business and government that have failed to live up to the spirit of the amendment. The odds are against it; it may be a hopeless cause. But so was the suffragette movement, the anti-slavery and civil rights movements, the gay rights movement. The entire women's liberation movement when it began. It could mean a lot if people took the ERA up once more as a serious cause. It would be a fitting commemoration for the women who made Jill Abramson's rise and triumph possible.

I think it would be great to see a Times editorial advocating it.

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