“I’m talking to anyone who has been dumped,” Jill Abramson told the crowd. Clearly, the elephant in the room was going to get a mention, and the dumped were going to get a lesson from a very high-profile recent dumpee.
Until quite recently, Abramson was one of the most powerful individuals in journalism. But all that changed last week when she was, as she might put it, abruptly “dumped” as editor of the New York Times. What followed was a media frenzy, and a barrage of speculation about what the dismissal said about sexism, women in the workplace and pay equity — and some fascinatingly self-aware dispatches from within the belly of the beast itself. But on Monday, Abramson — a woman who has been described as “brusque,” “stubborn” and, mostly notoriously, “pushy,” told the new graduates of Wake Forest University what she has learned, and what she’s continuing to learn in the midst of a defining moment in her career.
It was most certainly not exactly the speech she’d originally envisioned when she agreed to give the commencement speech. Her original version reportedly focused more on media freedom, a topic she barely touched on in her 11-minute address. Last week, university president Nathan Hatch affirmed his support for her appearance, noting, “I cannot think of a better message for the Class of 2014 than that of resilience. Jill Abramson’s accomplishments speak for themselves, and I am confident she will have an inspiring and timely message for our graduates.”
It was indeed timely, as she addressed a crowd facing a difficult and uncertain job market. She acknowledged, “What’s next for me? I don’t know. So I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. Like you, I’m a little scared, but also excited.” And while she kept mostly away from the subject of the most recent turn of events in her career, she acknowledged other female leaders including Nan Robertson, Katharine Graham and Anita Hill, and admitted, “Sure, losing a job you love hurts.”
It was a high-road performance, one in which Abramson tried to acknowledge the crowd and not the speaker, graciously stating, “I think the only real news here today is your graduation from this great university.” USA Today called the speech “a bravura performance,” but not everyone was entirely convinced. Writer and student Danielle K. Nelson, who was in attendance, wrote Monday on Twitter that she was “underwhelmed by Abramson’s speech,” adding, “Is resilience rly the lesson to learn here? Are women supposed to be resilient in face of sexist discrim?” As one who graduated a long time ago and has two daughters I will one day send into the workforce, I don’t know how to reply to that except maybe, yeah. I’m truly sorry, but I think it is. I wish to God that all these years later, there could be a different message to tell, but not yet. Maybe you will be a great worker or maybe you will find yourself canned one day because you suck, but the obstacles are going to be there. They will be there for everyone of every color and gender and class and orientation, but there will be many more of them along the way for some of us than others and that’s just the way the deck is stacked. And the more obstacles there are in your particular path, the more resilient you are going to have to be. That’s not an observation someone like Abramson makes flippantly. That’s one that comes in the wake of a lot of epic disappointments.
In her speech, Abramson spoke of her dad, saying that “It meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and try to bounce back than to watch how we handled our successes.” For those of us who are female, the lesson of Abramson is that we will likely always experience more of those setbacks. Our careers may be defined by our triumphs, but our characters will be defined largely by our challenges and defeats. Abramson’s message Monday was to use them, to learn from them and to be proud of them. That’s no doubt why, when she was asked a day earlier if she was planning on removing the tattoo of the Times’ “T” on her back she retorted, “Not a chance.”