UUWF: Biting Back
I spent just as much if not more time in the newsroom of the campus newspaper as I did attending classes at the University of California in Berkeley. Having discovered it in the first few weeks of my freshman year: an activity, a purpose, a refuge, a community, a training ground for a vocation I have never really given up. The clunky typewriters (yes that ages me), the scarred oak desks, the stacks of cheap brown half sheets we were expected to compose our stories on: stories of Black Power protests, ROTC protests, anti-war protests, People’s Park protests — a lot of unrest — and also the rich cultural offerings of that day, “The Day.”
In the midst of all the tumult and the tear gas volleys, I got to see and write about Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills and Nash, French noir films, Ingrid Bergman movie festivals, the early third wave women poets.
I never rose above the modest but satisfying rank of arts editor, summer editor, weekly magazine editor, but I saw other women do so, women who were placed on the senior editorial board as city, managing, and even senior editors. Women who went on, very quickly, to admirable, career-building positions at the Washington Post and other major publications, but who never quite made it to the top before the print marketplace began to spiral down and Golden Handshakes became common.
The women who went on, the women who in many ways “made it,” had been tough, demanding, intimidating. They held their own on the third floor of Eshelman Hall, going toe to toe with the young men who they dared disagree with, whether beginning reporters or fellow editors.
So it was with great interest and high suspicion that I read about the firing of Jill Abramson as executive editor of The New York Times, being called by some Abramson-gate.
As Jane Eisner, executive editor of The Forward, a superb and venerable newspaper chronicling the Jewish world here and abroad, has said, Abramson’s dismissal and its fall-out is inalterably sad. Sad for me as I read the complaints about her high handed and aggressive style (according to some of her staff). Her sacking came at the same time as that of an editor for Paris Match and seven years after that of Amanda Bennett, the first woman editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who has commented that the difference between the public reaction to her departure and now is “terrible and wonderful.” “Terrible,” she says, “ because whatever the facts of Abramson’s departure it exposed in a raw way the reservoirs of resentment, hurt and distrust that women feel at work.” And wonderful because something fundamental has changed.
Something fundamental like Abramson refusing to resign and revealing her displeasure from the outset that she had earned a lower salary than her male predecessors. Her sharing of this has led to the sharing of disparities in the ranks of other professions — that “20 percent female tax” as Jane Eisner puts it, levied on women just because we are women.
Women as witchy harridans. Females as discount employees.
As Eisner asserts, a lesson that has come out of this unfortunate and discouraging corporate controversy is this: Don’t treat women leaders unfairly. They will bite back.