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Powerful women in the public eye deserve better treatment

By Tom Allon

There is no doubt women are finally, rightfully starting to become more powerful in the backrooms (politics), newsrooms (media) and boardrooms (business).

But there is still lots of progress to be made. We have some men in power — such as Karl Rove, the headline writers at the tabloid newspapers and others — who think it is provocative and appropriate to perpetuate some old-fashioned and damaging female stereotypes.

There were three important women in the news these past few weeks, and their different stories are instructive about how far women have come and the sexist speed bumps that still stand in their way.

Presidential nominee-in-waiting Hillary Clinton, former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson and New York’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, all had interesting narratives swirling around them.

Clinton, who by now is so battle-tested by public scrutiny that her scars are probably growing scars, was unfairly smeared by Republican political operative Karl Rove.

He odiously questioned her physical health when he inaccurately characterized her concussion last year as a long-term brain injury. Planting this seed of doubt about the former U.S. secretary of state’s physical fitness to serve as president is the lowest and oldest form of political warfare.

Clinton’s camp, led by her politically shrewd husband, shot down this calumny quite effectively, but it is going to be an ugly two years until Election Day 2016 if they are starting with this line of attack now.

The case against Abramson has become an almost two-week media frenzy, with initial reports claiming that her abrupt dismissal resulted from her hiring a lawyer to inquire why she wasn’t paid as much as her male predecessor.

But then it became about her managerial style and her clash with her deputy, Dean Baquet, over the potential hiring of a new digital managing editor without consulting him.

Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who should know better, spoke publicly and too often that her managerial style (“pushy women?”) rankled her colleagues and that he was offended that anyone could think that the Times would do anything sexist like fire an editor who inquired about her pay equity with male colleagues.

Lost in all this is that in a pure power play between Baquet, now the first black executive editor of the Times, and Abramson, the first female editor of the Times, Baquet won. He was livid that his boss didn’t properly consult with him on a major personnel decision, went above her head and did the classic “it’s her or me” play with the publisher. It worked and Baquet emerged victorious.

That’s the story, plain and simple. Abramson, like one of her male predecessors, Howell Raines, ruffled one too many feathers in an extremely political newsroom, and did not have enough allies in high places when the owner needed to pick sides. It all turned out rather messy and did not make the Times look good.

But on the bright side, it did shine a bright light on the sharp elbows that both women and men use in the upper echelons of big media organizations like the Times.

And then, of course, there was the long and interesting profile of New York’s new first lady, Chirlane McCray, that ran in New York Magazine. McCray is a unique and interesting political spouse, and much like Hillary her husband wisely looks to her for counsel in many areas of governing.

I had the pleasure of meeting her a few times during the campaign last year — generally before debates — and found McCray to be thoughtful, warm and admirably loyal to her spouse. She has been a huge asset in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s climb up the political ladder, and she deserves tremendous admiration for staying true to her beliefs and now being in a great position to act on them.

She was unfairly maligned by the tabloid headline writers of the New York dailies, who took a comment she made out of context and followed that old canard about working women being bad mothers. In fact, McCray and de Blasio have raised two strong and thoughtful children, Chiara and Dante, and as a parent of three teenagers I tip my hat to both of them.

Actually, what struck me as one of the most impressive things about McCray in the magazine piece is the section which mentions that she and Bill took in both of their ailing mothers to live near them in Brooklyn and that McCray single-handedly cared for them while also raising two kids and supporting an active political spouse.

That is what the headline writers could have played up: a “sandwich generation” mother who took care of both her mother and mother-in-law.

Now that is news in this era of fragmented families.

So while women in power make gains on many fronts — except in Northeast statehouses, as the Times pointed out last week — there are still too many speed bumps of sexism that needlessly gets in their way.

I say to the three of them:

• Run, Hillary, Run.

• Jill: go to the Wall Street Journal or Vox and give the Times a run for its money.

• And to Chirlane: kudos for not only being a great mother, but also for setting a great example as a devoted daughter and daughter-in-law.

Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallon@cityandstateny.com.

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