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.”
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.