Call them Jillary: as in Jill Abramson plus Hillary Clinton, two women of an age, of a kind, and of a political genre, the reigning queens of modern identity politics, each rising high and becoming a model for generations of feminists who admired their guts and brashness and gall. And call him Pinch: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the Prince Charles of the house of New York Times, heir to the throne of one of the few modern-day institutions that still runs on the monarchical principle in which the first son of the reigning family is given great power (deserved or not), a backer of Hillary and employer of Jill—at least until May 14, when he tossed her under the bus and then backed up and ran over her, breaking the rules set for gender-relations and setting off rows in the gender-identity complex not seen in its annals before.
Was she fired for cause? Fired for being a woman in power. Or, as the Times had often insisted when a powerful woman was under discussion, could “cause” be an issue at all? Thus in the same week when Hillary’s backers were claiming it was out of bounds for her to be questioned by men about anything that could be said to have gone wrong in her tenure as secretary of state, two units of her team were engaged in a cage match, breaking an alliance of 20 years’ standing, and putting them and their project at risk.
In the beginning, it all seemed much simpler. The early 1990s were the critical years for them all. Hillary went from being the lawyer-wife of an unknown southern governor to being first lady and feminist icon. Jill was at work on the book which would make her a player, Strange Justice, which she wrote with Jane Mayer, about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas war of words in the course of his Supreme Court nomination. Pinch took over the Times. He hated the concept of white male privilege as only a millionaire who inherited a job passed from his great-grandfather down through the generations could do. “He was like a silversmith, noisily banging the New York Times into a shape that reflected his own values, beliefs, and personality,” wrote Alex S. Jones and Susan E. Tifft in The Trust, their 1999 book about the New York Times Company, quoting a colleague who said Pinch was “not nearly as fully formed as he appeared to be.”
Declaring diversity to be the most critical challenge facing the paper, Pinch embraced the cause of gay and lesbian rights, hired blacks as editors, critics, and columnists, promoted women, and like his employees resolutely took Anita Hill’s side in the Hill-Thomas sexual harassment showdown. This made him a good fit for Abramson, whom he would hire away from the Wall Street Journal in 1997 and whose views seemed to mirror his own: While treating liberal blacks with kid gloves and much reverence, the Times would make a practice of profiling conservatives such as Clarence Thomas and quota foe Ward Connerly as disturbed personalities whose judgment was wanting.
In 1992, the Clintons used the raw emotions from the Hill-Thomas battle to fuel their campaign, hitching their wagon to “The Year of the Woman” and working in tandem with feminist candidates, whose campaigns would feed into their own. Once in, Bill filled his cabinet with diversity hires, passing seats out on the basis of gender and color, and, on his wife’s insistence, demanding the attorney general’s seat go to a woman, which in the light of experience turned out to be a mistake. Hearings were held in which male nominees were derailed upon charges of insensitivity. Laws were drawn up to stop what was referred to as workplace harassment, determining that a man could be fired for inappropriate speech and/or actions, and that all romantic entanglements between male bosses and female employees were to be defined as exploitative, owing to the unequal balance of power therein.
Feminists had had a great run and looked forward to even brighter days ahead, until charges of harassment were brought by several women against President Clinton, and an affair he had had with an intern was thereby brought to light.