Jill Abramson's Wake Forest Commencement Speech Revealingly Said Nothing

What Women Really Think
May 19 2014 1:41 PM

Jill Abramson's Wake Forest Commencement Speech Revealingly Said Nothing

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson delivered the commencement address to graduating seniors at Wake Forest University on Monday morning, and the poignancy of the contrast—one institution sending its graduates forth with pride and pageantry, another unceremoniously dumping its top editor—made for a strange scene. Abramson’s introduction by journalist Al Hunt gave a glimpse of how the speech could have gone. “It is said she can be tough, no-nonsense, even pushy, in her passionate commitment to truth,” he told the students. “That's what makes a great editor.” He also used unapologetic, almost combative terms and phrases like “absolutely fearless,” “powerful woman,” and “always demands excellence.”

But when Abramson took the podium, she tempered the flames. Though she repeatedly alluded to losing her job, Abramson spoke as a mother and a daughter who first received the “message of resilience” from her dad. She talked about her firing as one of life’s inevitable setbacks, not a singular instance of injustice. When such things happen, she told the seniors, “you must show what you are made of.”

Advertisement

We’ve tried in the wake of Abramson’s cashiering to decipher the role sexism may have played, but in her speech, at least, Abramson did not publicly lend credence to the theory that gender had much to do with it. Rather than beat a drum, she called the Gray Lady an “important and irreplaceable institution” and said it was “the honor of my life to lead the newsroom.” “Losing a job you love hurts,” she said, “but the work I revere—journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable—is what makes democracy resilient.” Her restraint, swathed in platitudes and gestures of respect, did little to clarify the reasons behind her ouster.

What did we expect, really? That she would send the students of Wake Forest off with a personal attack on her former employer? Instead, she wedged in a random reference to Anita Hill testifying before an all-white, all-male committee; revealed her admiration for female trailblazers—Nan Robertson, Katharine Graham—who contended with “much more unfair gender discrimination” than she had; and closed the address with a pointed metaphor, comparing life (as the poet Robert Frost did) to scraps of knitting that women carry around, “always an unfinished business.”*

As this supercut of Harvard commencement addresses shows, graduation speakers tend to focus on failure as the defining force in a successful life. The difference today is that Abramson’s failure is so fresh, with no upswing to set the narrative to inspire.

“What’s next for me?” she asked at the tail end of the address. “I don’t know, so I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you!” When she joked about setting up an appointment with Wake Forest’s career counselor, the immediacy of the wound throbbed a bit beneath her charm. It was, I guess, a kind of depressing speech.  

*Correction, May 19, 2014: This post originally misspelled the first name of Katharine Graham and the last name of Nan Robertson. 

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?