Today from the C-SPAN vault, we have an interview that shows just how significant it is that Jill Abramson has been appointed Executive Editor of the New York Times.
In a 1994 interview, Eileen Shanahan, who was the first female reporter in the paper's Washington bureau to report on something other than first ladies, recalled a sexist comment from Managing Editor Clifton Daniel during her 1961 job interview. She says:
He asked me at one point in the interview what my ultimate goal was. Well, I had wanted to be an editor ever since i was an editor at my college paper. …But I had sense enough not to say it.
I said, "Oh, Mr. Daniels, all I want to be is the best reporter and you can't be the best reporter unless you're at the best newspaper, and that's the New York Times."
He replied, "That's good, because I can assure you that no woman will ever be an editor at the New York Times." The year is 1961. It wasn't illegal. People said things like that in those days. The law of course that made it illegal to say things like that was passed in '64, but it didn't begin to be litigated until the early '70s. So that's the way it was.
Shanahan died in 2001 and Romenesko notes that according to her Times obituary she,
"left The Times in anger in 1977 after she found that, although she was regarded as one of the leading reporters in the Washington bureau, her salary ranked halfway down the list …Every reporter who was paid more was a man."
According to the Women's Media Center, Shanahan was one of seven women who sued the paper in 1974 over sex discrimination. After many attempts to negotiate with management, they filed the case on behalf of the 550 female employees at the time. It was settled in 1978, and led to the company giving the women back pay and implementing affirmative action programs for hiring and promoting women.
Following the announcement that Abramson will lead the Times, she named Dean Baquet, the paper's Washington bureau chief, to replace her as managing editor. He'll be the second African-American journalist to hold the position. Baquet told the Washington Post:
"I wouldn't say that she was chosen because she's a woman, but I still think it's a big deal. It just so happened that the person best positioned to be executive editor of the New York Times is a woman ... I believe other women who aspire to jobs in journalism will see this as a statement about how far this profession has changed."
As for Abramson, she's said, "I'm extremely conscious that I stand on the shoulders of women - some of whom, because I didn't come to the Times until 1997, I never met." She added in an interview with The Guardian,
"I know I didn't get this job because I'm a woman; I got it because I'm the best qualified person. But nonetheless what it means to me is that the executive editor of the New York Times is such an important position in our society, the Times itself is indispensable to society, and a woman gets to run the newsroom, which is meaningful."
However, we haven't come so far that Abramson couldn't be accused of dumbing down the paper, and she seems very aware of that too. When asked how her gender might affect the paper's direction, she said:
"I think everybody here knows what kind of stories excite me most: hard-edged, deeply reported investigative stories, rich on-the-ground international stories, so I don't think anyone is fearful that I'm going to bring soft news on to the front page."
Or at least they shouldn't be. Now we mainly hear remarks like Clifton Daniel's on Mad Men, but being the first female in job traditionally held by men usually presents some challenges, even if people keep the sexist comments to themselves.
Eileen Shanahan Oral History Interview, Part 1 [C-SPAN]
EXCLUSIVE: Jill Abramson-A Breakthrough at the NY Times, Decades in the Making [Women's Media Center]
‘No Woman Will Ever Be An Editor At The New York Times' [Poynter]
Jill Abramson To Be First Woman To Lead New York Times [Washington Post]
Jill Abramson: 'I'm A Battle-Scarred Veteran' [The Guardian]