Jill Abramson on the Challenge of Creating a Female 'Voice of Authority'

In 2006, Abramson wrote in More about how women can establish their power and authority, and challenge the "Daddy knows best hierarchies" of government, business and media. And click here for More's March 2012 profile of Abramson.

By Jill Abramson
jill abramson new york times image
Jill Abramson
Photograph: Fred Conrad, New York Times

Clearly, any woman giving orders and making tough calls needs to be deeply knowledgeable, even as she displays humor and shows her human side. Getting the right calibration, though, isn’t easy. And qualities admired in men are still sometimes seen differently when exhibited by a woman. A man can be decisive and aggressive; with similar traits, a woman may be deemed a control freak. My pal and colleague Maureen Dowd once brilliantly described the Elizabeth Dole campaign as “Nurse Ratched for president.” In private settings, I’ve been on the receiving end of Condoleezza Rice’s blasts of certitude, which are in keeping with the Bush administration’s “we know best” tone of authority. It’s no wonder that the secretary of state’s Matrix look on a trip to Wiesbaden, Germany, last year—especially those black stiletto boots (nailed by Dowd as “dominatrix” in style)—got so much attention.

Even when people compliment women, some seem to have only one point of reference. “She has balls like cast-iron cantaloupes,’’ one of my male bosses said about me in a Village Voice article in the late 1980s. (Or did he mean that I acted too much like a guy?)

I’ll never forget the call I got from Washington power broker Robert Strauss, one of the most high-powered names in my Rolodex, when I first skewered one of his pals in a story in the Wall Street Journal. Starting in the mid-1980s, Strauss had helped me on some stories and invited me to events that gave me my first glimpses of the rarefied, extremely male society of top lobbyists and politicians. But when this particular story appeared, he called to warn me that I had become “too mean.’’

Raising the ire of powerful sources is an honorable activity among journalists. When my colleague David Shribman, then the Wall Street Journal’s national political correspondent, heard about Strauss’s call, he pasted the caption of a New Yorker cartoon above my computer screen. It read: “You’ll never have lunch in this universe again.” But I wondered then, and still do, if Strauss would have made such a call to any of my male colleagues, or used just those words.

Just by doing their jobs, women pose a challenge to the Daddy Knows Best hierarchies of Washington, media and business. But our gender gives those who feel discomfited an apparently easy way to dismiss or undermine us: It’s a feline scratch-fest; we’re “mean”; “we’re something that rhymes with rich,’’ to quote Barbara Bush. Or we have hidden motives. “Is there something personal going on here?” the subject of one of my articles once asked me.

Wielding authority isn’t necessarily easier inside the newsroom, even among journalists whose job it is to chronicle women’s increasing power. When I was named the Times’s Washington bureau chief in 2000, my first boss, Sandra Burton, then in China for Time magazine, sent me a telegram saying that she could hear the glass shattering all the way to Hong Kong. That delighted me, as it would any woman in the same situation. But it wasn’t a point I would highlight in my first talk to the bureau. Whatever we struggle with, most of us want to be known for our work, not for being a gender pioneer.

When I was named to my current job in 2003, I was something of an outsider. I had been at the Times only since 1997 and had worked only in Washington; the paper had recently been through a lot of tumult. Some of my new colleagues were men in their sixties who had been at the paper since they were clerks, tearing off wire copy and rushing it to the senior editors on the vaunted Times masthead. That masthead had included only two women from the news department. Now I was not only joining the masthead but also outranking veteran editors who, a day earlier, had been my superiors.

First Published June 3, 2011

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