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Women,Money and Power

(This post originally appeared in The Washington Monthly)

In yesterday’s staff memo by New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., he wrote that in last week’s firing of Abramson “compensation played no part whatsoever in my decision that Jill could not remain as executive editor. Nor did any discussion about compensation.”

I believe that one small part of that memo about this whole brouhaha: the actual monies involved were not the reason she was fired. But in no way does Sulzberger deny that Abramson asking for more money -in effect equal compensation to the past executive editor—wasn’t a factor. Because clearly it was.

I have read everything I can get my hands on about this case because it’s important. It’s important not because it happened at the Times, but because in 2012 Abramson was named one of Forbes five most powerful women in the world. It is important because the only reason we even know her name is because, like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg and Mary Barra, she’s a women.

As the old saw used to go: When a dog bites a man, that’s a story. When a man bites a dog that’s a good story (italics mine). The number of women in power at any business in this country is news enough to make the news.

And here’s the thing. Jill Abramson has been working as a journalist for forty years. She had been at the Times for some years and had seniority as an editor. Not only did her publisher know who she was and how she managed but he also should have understood that her compensation package should have been exactly commensurate with her predecessor’s. All accounts say otherwise. Sulzberger equivocates by saying her compensation was equal and that her pension had to do with the number of years she had been at “the Company.”

By some accounts Abramson was “brusque” and “pushy,” words never used to describe a man, loaded words with the inherent word “bitch” the silent noun which follows. Others saw her as a champion of women and a great editor. She was certainly a far better writer than her predecessor Bill Keller (Abramson’s article about getting hit by a vehicle and the long journey back for herself and other colleagues who had also been so injured was powerful, beautiful stuff.)

Other articles cite Sulzberger being uncomfortable with Abramson’s celebrity status. Too bad about that. When it’s the 21st Century and you name the first woman executive of the most famous newspaper in the world there are going to be interviews.

I think that Abramson’s story and that of Lily Ledbetter, a factory worker and another woman’s name we would not know had she not been instrumental in getting a fair pay law on the books, are similar because their salaries were shrouded in secrecy and inequity.. Ledbetter and Abramson have a lot in common. Each was good at her job, skilled and qualified, with years of experience. Each is assertive and strong. And somewhere along the way each of them pissed off a few people. So what?

But what Abramson’s case also illustrates is a good old-fashioned power struggle.

The Sulzberger memo reads, to me, like a man complaining about the wife he wished he hadn’t married because she simply won’t sit still and do what she is told. Publishers and editors have been having this fight forever. So have men and women. This whole thing makes me think of Betty Draper’s rant to her husband on the last episode of Mad Men, her consciousness rising just a tiny bit with each word. We have come along way but nor far enough.
And power, even power like Abramson’s, doesn’t buy as much for women as it does for men. It doesn’t buy parity. It doesn’t buy equity. And it shouldn’t have to buy keeping quiet.

I liked what Abramson did with the Times. She should be proud of her Pulitzers and very proud of the fact that she championed fewer video news stories rather than more (no one I know reads those stories. We want video, we go somewhere else.) I agree with Salon that the columnist roster needs to be blown up. But I kind of expect she would have done that had she stayed and had those writer’s contracts been within her purview.

Abramson’s story is a big deal outside New York and the Times precisely because she is a woman and was a woman with great power in a profession which doesn’t have many of them. In my days as a journeyman journalist, women still had to fight for the meaty stories and deal with copious amounts of sexual harassment. As a budding feminist I remember the National Organization for Women’s picketing the Times for equal pay and getting rid of the notion that some jobs were for women and others were for men. That picket took place seven years after 1963’s Equal Pay Act.

And while Ledbetter’s Fair Pay Act was passed, Republicans recently blocked the new Paycheck Fairness Act. This is unfortunate because even with two laws already on the books most women are still fighting and losing the paycheck battle.

This battle between Abramson and her publisher is epic: it’s about money, power, control and autonomy. And a lot of us women know full well that being a woman is at the center of it all. Until a woman in power is no longer news, it will be above the fold. It will make headlines. And it is a story that all women need to read.

Women like Abramson have spent their entire lives refighting battles that they and we should have already won. That glass ceiling? It’s falling down, perhaps, but falling right in the path of all the other women who are traveling along it. Each woman still has to find her own route out without being beaned by the debris.