Girl Fight

The marginalized debate over female opinion writers.

Dowd: Can we talk?

Everyone here at Slate kept hoping that the dustup over the number of female opinion writers on the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers would just go away—none of us really wanted to dignify Susan Estrich’s ad hominem attacks on Mike Kinsley, our former boss, with a response, for one thing, or felt that her charges would lead to a truly fruitful debate. But the controversy has mushroomed yet again this week, as the country’s foremost female columnists began to speak out on the issue. What’s emerged is hardly a consistent point of view or—in some cases—the dispassionate analysis for which these women are usually known: A surprisingly vulnerable Maureen Dowd made the very nice point last Sunday that women opinion journalists are often lambasted as emasculating bitches for savaging male subjects; and the wonderful Anne Applebaum is so utterly annoyed by others’ claims that she is a “token” woman over at the Washington Post that she considers today’s column on the subject to be both necessary and a waste of her time. Yesterday saw Deborah Tannen making the important observation that perhaps “attack journalism” shouldn’t be the only mode of opinion-writing featured on editorial pages. (I don’t believe she’s correct in suggesting that all opinion writing is of the attack-dog variety, by the way; I take Slate as an alternate example of smart, non-vicious, opinion journalism.)

The fact that all these brilliant female opinion writers feel compelled to come forward whether or not they want to (Applebaum went so far as to tell us about the political column she didn’t write today) speaks volumes about the real problem. And while both Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post and James Rainey at the Los Angeles Times have done fine reported pieces about the dearth of women opinion-writers, I can’t seem to find—beyond a short blurb by Slate’s Jack Shafer—a single opinion column by a single male columnist on the subject. (I don’t count Jonathan Turley’s scathing column  on the personal nature of Estrich’s attack, since he does not get to the merits of her claims.) In fact, the most rigorous and systematic thinking by men and women about the apparent underrepresentation of female voices on the editorial pages is taking place in the blogosphere. Really great posts by both sexes on the debate can be found here, and here, and here, and here, just for starters.

What do they conclude? Many bloggers point to the gender disparity among the nation’s top political bloggers to illustrate the point that even where there are no barriers to entry—no consciously or unconsciously prejudiced gatekeepers barring the doors—women may simply choose to stay away from certain types of media. And just as women may not be producing opinion journalism at the same rates as men, they may not be consuming it all that much either. In short, there may be an interesting market problem at work here: I know an awful lot of smart, accomplished women who avoid both the op-ed pages and the Crossfire-style “screaming shows” because that is simply not the type of discourse they seek out or value.

I can also swear to the fact that as an editor, the number of pitches I receive from men outnumbers the pitches I see from women by several orders of magnitude. I can add, again purely anecdotally, that women largely send in pitches for reported pieces, and are far less inclined to frame a piece as an “argument”—which may prove Tannen’s point that argument is not necessarily a comfortable or natural mode of communication for women (a phenomenon I observed in law school as well). This is, in short, an insanely interesting thought problem to which we are applying very little interesting thought.

There are at least a dozen ways to parse and think through the acknowledged underrepresentation of women opinion writers, and yet—to the extent that we are having a national conversation on the topic—it is a conversation so far almost wholly lacking the voices of men. (I insert here the obligatory disclaimer that but for Michael Kinsley I would probably not have a job in opinion writing today.) The smartest male columnists in the country—people willing to reconfigure the Social Security system in 800 words and able to dissect the Middle East peace process in a single afternoon with their laptops—are not willing to turn that massive store of their brainpower to the equally hard issue of what an opinion page is meant to represent; whether the gender discrepancy here is due to prejudice, socialization, or innate differences between men and women, or some combination thereof; and whether, beyond the crude tools of affirmative action, there is any useful remedy.

Perhaps male columnists are just not interested in this issue because it doesn’t represent the sort of “hard news” they’re used to commenting on. More likely, they are terrified to opine on the debate because the inquiry is so fraught with the possibility of career-terminating levels of politically correct blowback—à la Larry Summers—that they deem it better to hold their tongues and wait for the storm to pass. Imagine a man writing, as Dowd just did, that women want to be “liked” whereas men don’t care. I can already smell their scorched Dockers. … Imagine a man writing, as did Applebaum, that this is all a storm in a teacup; the sort of trivial bean-counting that is insulting and degrading to women. (Clarence Thomas is routinely characterized as beyond loathsome for making that argument against affirmative action.)

And so a clutch of women are left on the pink margins of the page, to wring our hands and, well, discuss among ourselves. The subtext will thus remain that anyone choosing to speak out on this is somehow hysterical or overemotional; that this is not a “serious” problem since serious people (i.e., men) aren’t addressing it. All of which practically guarantees that nothing will be done about defining, measuring, or redressing the issue in the long term. Claims that no man wants to step on the landmine of political correctness, gender stereotyping, and identity politics should not justify bowing out of the conversation. Maureen Dowd, Deborah Tannen, and Anne Applebaum are smart, serious people. They have taken the time to initiate a conversation. They deserve serious responses from men and women alike.