The Way of The Woman
The continuing debate over the female commentariat.


Add this to the failings of former New York Times editor Howell Raines: Maureen Dowd gave him the chance to drop her from the op-ed pages in 1996, six months after she started the job, and he didn’t take it. “As a woman,” Dowd recounted in her Sunday column, about the problems newspapers have attracting female pundits, “I told Howell, I wanted to be liked–not attacked. He said I could go back to the Metro section…”

But evidently Raines didn’t say this very forcefully, so here we are. A decade later, Dowd’s girlish twittering at the Times continues to sully the reputation of women opinion writers everywhere. The tacit and condescending message is: If the country’s paper of record expects no more from its lone female op-ed columnist than strained wordplay and suggestive visuals–Dowd began her latest column by imagining herself as Emma Peel in a black leather catsuit–then the bar for women on the op-ed pages at newspapers generally must be set awfully low.

And yet these pages still are mostly male. The continuing fallout from Susan Estrich’s hysterical attack on Los Angeles Times op-ed editor Michael Kinsley last month has at least served to highlight that inconvenient fact. And Dowd, in an uncharacteristically revealing mood this week, was honest in speculating why. “This job has not come easily to me,” she admitted. “But I have no doubt there are plenty of brilliant women who would bring grace and guts to our nation’s op-ed pages…. We just need to find and nurture them.”

I happen to think that while kittens and children and houseplants should be nurtured, women are a different matter. But at least Dowd came close to owning up to the hard truth here–that like many women, she’s really not cut out to be an opinon writer. The uncomfortable fact is that women just seem less interested in politics than men. No one’s preventing women from subscribing to policy-wonk magazines, for instance, but the readership of these is still mostly male. Even the Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum, not usually unsympathetic to lefty claims of discrimination, had to admit in a post last month about the dearth of female political bloggers that “there are still no formal barriers to entry [in the blogosphere], no old boys club in the usual meaning of the word,” so you really can’t blame the mean old sexist establishment.

And yet, as Drum pointed out, of the top 30 political bloggers, only three (Michelle Malkin, Michele Catalano and La Shawn Barber) are women. He speculated why in a follow-up post: “Men are so routinely dismissive of women and so fundamentally dedicated to playground dominance games that many women decide they just don’t want to play.” I disagree with that. Many of my readers are the sort of old-fashioned, hard-headed guys feminists assume are in need of enlightenment (military men, cops, prosecutors, engineers, etc.), and I get all sorts of reactions from them, but one that I’ve never encountered is any whiff of that patronizing, “Now-see-here-little-lady…” attitude.

I have run into this occasionally, but only from harrumphing old lefty types like the Los Angeles Times’s Robert Scheer or the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam, who once told me that my questions were so idiotic they made me sound about 14 years old. (I must sound much younger than I am on the phone, but I’m far too old to find that even faintly insulting.)

In any case, I think what’s really missing from the op-ed pages is not more women writers but more real diversity among those writers. I can’t think of any major female columnist who brings the perspective of raising children without the safety net of a full-time staff job and/or a comfortably employed husband–in other words, someone with firsthand knowledge of life beyond the small, privileged circles of the media elite. But then I suppose that’s what I would say, since that describes me. Still, I don’t think I’m the only one to notice that the problem with the mainstream media is less that it’s liberal and more that it’s just plain elite.

The big names among the XX-chromosome set of opinion writers (Ellen Goodman, Anna Quindlen, Molly Ivins, Maureen Dowd, et al) are all employed by major media corporations and haven’t had to worry about where their next dollar is coming from for years. Or, like Ann Crittenden (who used to be on staff at the New York Times and Fortune before writing The Price of Motherhood) and Naomi Wolf, they could afford to live off their husband’s earnings while raising children and working on books. Only Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal has any recent memory of the freelance struggle sans a man’s income–or at least, she’s the only female pundit at a big American newspaper who comes to mind.

Anne Lamott and my friend Sandra Tsing Loh do live the Free Agent Nation life and are mothers, and I think their work benefits from it. But like most women commentators, they’re concerned with personal and cultural issues rather than political ones. (Lamott, naturally, is “devastated” by Bush’s reelection, but there’s more to political commentary than just saying you feel bad about something–that typically female emotional-reaction-as-argument is one big reason why the op-ed pages are still mostly male, although so far everyone but City Journal’s fearless Heather MacDonald has been too polite to even hint at it.)

Jill Stewart, who writes a syndicated column about California politics, and former Reason editor Virginia Postrel are self-employed as well as coolly analytical about politics and business, but (like MacDonald, Rabinowitz, and many of their fellow female brainiacs) have no children and so don’t bring personal experience to topics like schools, for instance, or dealing with kids’ exposure to sex and violence in the media.

I happen to think that women generally make better reporters than men, because here being an aggressive go-getter is less important than (a) having a talent for observation, which isn’t gender-specific, and (b) being willing to shut up and listen, which is far more difficult for men than for women.

I can hear the protests now about this from scoffing men, but guys, shut up for a minute and listen: I’m not talking here about, for instance, picking apart the what-did-he-mean-by-that? aspects of a relationship; granted, women are champs in that tiresome arena. I’m talking about the aggressive confidence to get up on a soapbox and hold forth, sometimes before anyone else in the room is even fully awake.

Perhaps the most difficult, painful thing for a reporter to learn (and some never do) is that an interview is not a conversation. You should develop enough technique for your subject to be lulled into thinking it is, but you must never lose sight of the fact yourself that it isn’t. If you often find yourself impatiently thinking, “Hey, now it’s my turn to talk!” or saying, “Oh, that reminds me…” and then galloping off into the kind of blathering anecdote you’d have with a friend, you’re not doing your job, at least not particularly well.

Which brings us back to Maureen Dowd. She was a terrific reporter, and now is a terrible columnist, with all the stereotypical girl-columnist faults. Unlike men, who often have a baseball-card-collecting obsession for finding out all they can about some rather dry subjects, Dowd is (to put it mildly) not even basically informed about topics like military history–which doesn’t keep her from airily commenting on military matters. (She often sounds like Scarlett O’Hara complaining about “War, war, war.”)

Nor is she an original thinker. And yet there she is, week after week, still tittering and twinkling her thoughts about “Rummy” et al, ad nauseum. That’s one big advantage the Los Angeles Times op-ed page has over the New York Times: At least it’s a Dowd-free zone.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.