The Myth of the Female Savior

Why many are reluctant to accept the pitfalls of powerful women like Jill Abramson and Amy Klobuchar.

Side-by-side photo illustrations of Jill Abramson and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Jill Abramson; Amy Klobuchar Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images and Donald Bowers/Getty Images for GLG.

In 2014, when Jill Abramson was fired from her job as executive editor of the New York Times, it wasn’t hard to summon feminist rage over how she was treated. When her “management style” and personality were criticized as “brusque” and “pushy,” those seemed like code words, and considered alongside her salary (less than her predecessor’s) and how she was fired (in “singularly humiliating” fashion”), it all seemed to tell a story: Though it would be misguided, as Rebecca Traister argued at the time, to attribute Abramson’s ouster to sexism alone, gender was a clear factor.

Abramson’s dismissal stung at the time not just because it meant one fewer female journalist in charge in an industry hardly flush with female leaders but also because of all the women’s careers Abramson had been positioned to help blossom as executive editor. As Amanda Hess wrote in Slate in 2014, “Abramson was committed to increasing women’s representation at the paper, and she got results.” Young women looked up to her. Politico reported that when top Times editors found out about Abramson’s firing two of them protested, suggesting “that Abramson’s firing wouldn’t sit well with a broad swath of female Times journalists who saw her as a role model.” The reported response from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was hardly reassuring: “When women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are.”

In her post-Times life, Abramson didn’t exactly re-fashion herself as the poster woman for female leadership. She taught, she wrote for the Guardian, and she got a big book deal. But there were signs that she embraced her second act as a feminist cause célèbre. There was her daughter’s much-discussed Instagram post of Abramson taking up boxing (appended with the hashtag #pushy). Abramson followed that up by wearing a “Pushy” necklace onstage at a conference later in the year—she had become a regular on the feminist speaking circuit. By 2017, Abramson gave an interview to Lenny, Lena Dunham’s erstwhile newsletter, in which she wore a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” sweatshirt, referred to a brass plate beside her front door that reads “Push” (a gift from Maureen Dowd), and spoke like someone any young female journalist would be excited to work for: “I identified a lot with younger women who were just trying to make their mark in journalism and at the Times. They’re fun. They’re fun to talk to and brainstorm with.”

So when Abramson’s book, Merchants of Truth, was published earlier this year, this is where many twenty- and thirtysomething women in journalism had the former editor slotted: as a low-key journalistic hero. And it’s because of this heroine status that the accusations of plagiarism surrounding Abramson’s book—and her response—have been especially crushing. During her tenure as executive editor, Abramson may at times have been considered difficult to work with and bad at office politics, which could in theory be explained away by the sexism she faced, but no one ever questioned that she was a hard-charging editor who was devoted to the principles of journalism. That seems pretty ridiculous right now, because as Hmm Daily put it, there is “no ambiguity about it: Abramson clearly and obviously committed textbook plagiarism.” She stole entire passages, barely edited, an error that seems indefensible. And then she went on to defend it, trying to minimize it as messy citation work rather than actual plagiarism. She has also accused Vice, an outlet she writes about in the book, of running a smear campaign against her.

This is all embarrassing enough, but it’s even more disheartening to watch Abramson prove herself, at least in part, to not be who we imagined her to be. A representative tweet from journalist Rebecca Schoenkopf read, “I’ve been on Team Jill Abramson Would Never Have Let The Times Become This Clusterfuck It Is Today, for a long time. And she’s really, really let me down. The plagiarism here is undeniable.” To the female journalists who looked up to Abramson, who got angry on her behalf when she was fired, it feels like a betrayal, as if she rode goodwill from her mythic status to sell an unethical book—like she never deserved our faith all along. Did we reflexively defend Abramson when we never should have? If these are her standards, were we also wrong to chalk her firing from the Times up to sexism?

This week, some of us find ourselves confronting a different version of the same problem. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been among a small minority of women in the Senate for more than a decade. She courted feminist goodwill for her direct, deliberate questioning of then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his sexual assault hearings, despite his petulant sneers at her questions. Her staff captured the moment on Twitter, with one post about a self-defeating quote by Kavanaugh collecting 25,000 retweets. In the months after, she sponsored high-profile legislation to reform procedures for responding to sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. “Sexual harassment goes far beyond the cases you read in the headlines—it’s not just about the rich and famous, but also the nurse, or the teacher, or the line worker at the factory,” she said at the time.

But as Klobuchar kicked off her campaign for president, long-swirling rumors about her abuse of staffers began to surface in reports, credible accusations of her berating, humiliating, and even throwing things at the people who work for her. And the rumor mill suggests there may be more to come. The day after Klobuchar officially announced her campaign, she appeared on Good Morning America, where she attempted to spin the workplace abuse allegations into a strength: What some people call abuse, she implied, is just her being “tough.” As she put it, “I am tough. I push people. That is true. But my point is I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectation for the people that work for me, and I have high expectations for this country.”

Plenty of people agreed with her: They saw the accusations as a veiled way to attack a powerful woman, not unlike the language used around Abramson’s dismissal a few years back. Was she a bad boss, or was this just sexists trying to tear a woman down? On Twitter, the (female) reporters who broke the Klobuchar news defended themselves against charges of double standards in their reporting, and one felt she had to affirm that, yes, she would write the same story about a male senator facing similar claims. It seemed hard for many to accept that Klobuchar could be both a progressive woman in power and a workplace abuser.

Klobuchar and Abramson work in different fields, and their mistakes are of different scales. If the allegations are true, Klobuchar hurt people she had a responsibility to treat with respect and in some cases actively made their lives difficult. In contrast, Abramson was accused of being a poor boss, which is very different from an abusive one. In passing other people’s work off as her own, she mostly hurt herself and, in some cases, the reputations of her subjects. But the queasy reactions to their public reckonings among many women (and men) arise from the same reflex: Many of us with liberal feminist leanings don’t really know how to process the news that some powerful women are not who we mythologize them to be.

Our desperate need for female leaders is how we ended up transforming two flawed women into saviors: Klobuchar, our “best hope” for a female president (if the three other options also don’t work out—gotta hedge our bets), and Abramson, champion of female journalists and feminist martyr. Both instances show how the double standards women face, and the liberal thirst for women to make it, can also lead us to the temptation to wave away inexcusable behavior.

Any hesitance to believe the allegations, too, is a trap: That she’s a woman doesn’t make Klobuchar more innocent than anyone else or incapable of mistreating her employees. That Abramson was the one woman “good enough” to nab the top job in journalism doesn’t mean she can’t also be a bad manager and an occasionally boneheaded journalist. Expecting women to be better than male leaders can seem like a practical response when women still get so many fewer chances than men. But women do still stumble, and when that happens, it’s all too freighted: Female leaders are still such a relative novelty that any time one of them makes a misstep, it can feel catastrophic, as if women everywhere should brace themselves for the glass ceiling to instantly reconstitute itself.

A woman can pass legislation that helps surface abusive behavior while, behind closed doors, she personally makes the lives of her own staffers worse. A prominent female journalist can produce some fine journalism and uplift women while being an overall divisive manager, and she can also royally screw up and mangle her profession’s ethics. All these things don’t contradict each other. Expecting female leaders to be these shining heroes is a setup for disappointment. An understandable one, to be sure: This is a world where, for a long time, one high-achieving woman has often been put in a position to represent her entire gender.

The strange thing about getting to a place as a society where women are finally serving in significant numbers in government and breaking long-entrenched barriers in other fields is that we’re in for a lot more women disappointing us in the coming years. Klobuchar and Abramson doubling down on their mistakes and trying to ride out these scandals and hope they blow over represents a grim kind of progress too, then: Until very recently, only men attempted this particular flavor of bluster. Klobuchar and Abramson are proving that, for better or worse, women can be blowhards too.