Barely a week after Jill Abramson was ousted from The New York Times, the former executive editor delivered the commencement speech at Wake Forest University Monday. It was Abramson's first public appearance since she was fired from The Times, and the 60-year-old newspaper stalwart showed no signs of regret as she addressed the graduates, briefly telling them about the firing and her unknown future. The commencement speech also revealed that Anita Hill sent Abramson a note of encouragement, probably because Hill knows a little something about sexism and mistreatment in the workplace.
Abramson first brought up Hill in her speech while describing her three female heroes. She commended the university professor and activist for her resilience:
The senators portrayed [Hill] as being, as one of her detractors so delicately put it, 'a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty. She turned that potential humiliation into a great career teaching at Brandeis University and writing books that tell truth to power. Anita was one of the many people who write me last week to say they are proud of me.
The camaraderie between Abramson and Hill is noteworthy, and not just because Abramson co-authored a book on the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings (Abramson was even interviewed in the documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power). Although the two women have very different tales of workplace sexism and harassment, the parallels of their public fallouts reveal how far women in the workplace haven't gone in the last 20 years.
The conversation around Abramson's abrupt firing, the details of which still remain vague and murky, has been incredibly gendered. Although spokespeople from The New York Times deny that Abramson's termination was over unequal pay, which was first reported by Ken Auletta at the The New Yorker, that hasn't curtailed media speculation. However, the conversation has become less about Abramson's salary and that of her male predecessor, and more focused on her demeanor as both managing and executive editor, which has been characterized as "brusque" and "pushy," to name a few.
“'She confronted the top brass,' one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was 'pushy,' a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect," Auletta wrote.
Auletta is certainly correct in that respect: After news of Abramson's firing broke, the former executive editor and long-time reporter suddenly found her character, rather than her leadership, under assault. While some claimed that her personality made her too difficult to work with, many women in the media saw this as another case of a woman who broke the rules to succeed — and get punished for it.
As Emily Bell writes in The Guardian:
The fury of women journalists who identify with Abramson stems from what we know: that excellent performances are not enough. Women must be completely different from the men they replace (or who replace them), apparently – they must adapt to the power they are briefly allowed to hold without transgressing the gender roles they aren't allowed to escape.
Although it's hard to prove that Abramson's firing — and subsequent fallout — is directly related to her gender, the ongoing character assassinations combined with the disrespect she received from her former place of employment is suspect. As Rebecca Traister writes for The New Republic, Abramson's termination was "among the most harsh and humiliating I’ve ever seen play out in the media's recent history." That humiliation could be why Abramson is finding a special kinship with Hill these days.
When Hill publicly testified in 1991 that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her while she served as his assistant, Hill suddenly found herself on trial. Hill's character was repeatedly questioned and debased by the senators and the media. To this day, the veracity of Hill's testimony is still debated.
Although the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings would become the turning point for sexual harassment in the workplace — a major win for women everywhere — Hill could not join in the victory. With her name publicly ruined, it was tough for her to gain employment in the years that followed, though, as Abramson said, she has overcome the public fallout and created a thriving academic career.
Abramson's tale of reported workplace violations varies greatly from Hill's, but these issues — unequal pay, sexual harassment, being "too pushy" for a woman — still circulate today. Despite Abramson's cheerful demeanor at the Wake Forest commencement, it seems that being a woman in the workplace — especially at the top of the workplace — still comes with a price.