WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina -- Jill Abramson’s distinguished skills as a newswoman and editor were on full display during her Wake Forest University commencement address on Monday.
The university's official graduation program listed Abramson's address as "The Importance of a Truly Free Press." The remnants of that initial speech were apparent in the few words she delivered about a recent trip to Beijing and her reflections on colleagues who "risk their lives frequently to bring you the best news reporting in the world."
But Abramson was fully aware that the stage on Wake Forest's picturesque Hearn quad was a platform to have her say about last week's abrupt termination from The New York Times. Although her comments were necessarily somewhat oblique, she chose not to deliver a treatise on the theoretical press, and to instead directly confront the reality that she is the news.
Abramson delivered a funny, gracious and breathtakingly vulnerable reflection on her ouster and the meanings young graduates could glean from it. She earned a spontaneous and genuine standing ovation from the crowd and more than subtly undermined the ubiquitous recent characterizations of her as pushy, harsh, and difficult.
"She earned a spontaneous and genuine standing ovation from the crowd and more than subtly undermined the ubiquitous recent characterizations of her as pushy, harsh, and difficult."'
She didn’t take a parting shot at her erstwhile employer. Indeed, Abramson assured graduates she'd never remove the Times "T" tattoo from her back and somewhat wistfully asserted "it was the honor of my life to lead the newsroom." Sitting among so many young people excited to begin authoring their adult lives, it was uncomfortable to listen to the rawness of Abramson’s disappointment.
After all, just a week ago, Abramson’s career was the kind of thing commencement speeches are made of. She read the Times as a kid, worked her way relentlessly through the ranks of American journalism, and ascended to her dream job by shattering the glass ceiling. Surely, when Wake Forest first secured her as a speaker last spring, they must have expected she would inspire their students as a living symbol of what is possible if you dream big and work hard.
Then, she was fired. Publicly. And it hurt. Bad. It was, she implied, “a soul-scorching loss.” Abramson’s tone was less that of a disgruntled former employee, and more that of the spurned lover who discovers her adoration unrequited.
"I'm talking to anyone who's been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school," she said. "You know the sting of losing. Or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of."
I was surprised that Abramson would display her recent wound so openly. Big girls are told not to cry and dragon ladies are supposedly unable to do so. To speak of her firing as similar to "getting dumped" is to invite troubling gendered analysis, like my sentence above about her unrequited love affair with the Grey Lady. Abramson knows this. She has consciously chosen to level specific claims about sexist practices leading to her firing.
On Monday she chose to discuss the split in what sounds distinctly like the "different voice" theorized more than 30 years ago. In 1982, psychologist Carol Gilligan's "In a Different Voice" proposed that women employ distinct moral reasoning and unique terms of leadership. Girls and women, Gilligan argued, resolve dilemmas with particular attention to maintaining and deepening human relationships.
"Abramson’s tone was less that of a disgruntled former employee, and more that of the spurned lover who discovers her adoration unrequited."'
Gilligan’s work is not unproblematic. It can veer into essentialist gender arguments that don’t pass empirical tests of women’s leadership in the real world. But Gilligan’s work endures in part, because of moments like Abramson’s commencement address. It is hard to imagine a man speaking with such respect, compassion, and broad view about an organization that had unceremoniously fired him only days earlier.
We have evidence that Abramson's leadership may have had a structurally different voice. She is regarded as a woman interested in other women's success. She regularly acknowledges her indebtedness to pioneering women who came before her, as she did in her Wake Forest speech. And she was specifically interested in helping other women traverse the path she cleared.
The New Yorker suggested this week that her aggressive support of women reporters might have earned her the ire of men on staff. Ken Auletta wrote, “But the support that Abramson provides for women makes some men at the Times nervous. One male correspondent says, “She plays favorites, it is said. Especially for women.”
If Abramson’s different voice is evident in her support of women colleagues, it was discursively apparent in the graduation speech when she invoked Anita Hill. While still a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Abramson co-authored a review of David Brock’s attack manifesto “The Real Anita Hill” and went onto co-author her own volume, "Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas.” Abramson told her Wake Forest audience that Hill wrote and expressed pride and support to her last week. Those are fair reasons to mention Hill, but they are sufficient to explain Abramson’s choice to discuss a controversial moment that is more than two decades past.
Abramson is an editor. Editors don't make inclusions lightly. Most of the audience she was addressing is too young to remember the misogynist spectacle of the Thomas confirmation. When Abramson cited that one of Hill’s detractors described her as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," there was an audible intake of breath. Words that provoked a shrug in one era fall on contemporary ears as startlingly biased. Abramson seemed to be suggesting that 20 years hence, the treatment she is now enduring from her beloved New York Times might evoke a similar gasp of despair and disbelief.
I don't know why she was fired. I do know that when the media narrative is about her abrasiveness it suggests there has been less change in American newsroom than we might think. It seems to underscore the need for more, not fewer, Abramsons.
Toward the end of her speech, Abramson joked that she, like many new graduates, is facing an uncertain but exciting future. The students I spoke with after the ceremony reported that they loved this line and found it inspiring to see someone who has achieved so much express genuine empathy and solidarity with them. But Abramson’s self-deprecating observation scared me. I graduated from Wake Forest University exactly 20 years ago this week. Hill’s testimony in the Thomas confirmation hearings and the public shaming she endured as a result was a definitive experience of my college experience. Perhaps more than any other single event, it is the reason I came to think of myself as a feminist.
Hill was among the first guests booked on MHP Show when we launched just over two years ago. I welcomed her with the sense that the media environment that grants a black feminist a national TV show on which she can interview Hill on her own terms is a radically different one than Hill encountered in 1992. It’s not that I believe we are in a post-misogyny era, but the media world that shunted Hill and elevated Thomas felt substantively altered, if not altogether different. Jill Abramson’s leadership of The New York Times was part of that distinct, new landscape.
So I was distressed to hear Abramson mourn the loss of the job she loved in a voice accented by the tribulations of Anita Hill. I am returning to Wake Forest as an endowed full professor this fall. It is my own story of finally being asked to take a leadership role in the organization I hold in uniquely high esteem. It’s brutal to imagine a parting as abrupt, public, and gendered as Abramson’s from the Times. I hope it never happens. I have no reason to believe it would, but I doubt Abramson or Hill quite expected their stories to unfold as they have. And while I appreciate the lessons of resilience, I’d rather feel secure in an environment of fairness.