Ever since my friend the estimable Catherine Seipp alerted us to Susan Estrich’s over-the-top hissyfit at Michael Kinsley and the Los Angeles Times about the lack of female op-ed writers on that paper, I’ve been watching the ebb and flow, the yin and yang, the is-so, is-not of the various arguments and counterarguments about why there are so few women writing op-ed pieces. And as the Great Durante long ago used to declaim, it now seems “everybody, but everybody, wants to get into the act.”
Sure, Estrich, best noted for her crackly voice, strident pitch and perpetual sneer whenever she appeared on Fox during the presidential campaign (her astute analysis usually went something like:” Nah-nah-nah, Sean, you’ll get yours when you learn how smart my friend John Kerry is— ” ) started it all, of course, with her vicious e-mail attack and her outraged and outrageous call for a jihad against the L.A. Times and its advertisers.
That was followed by some reporting by Editor and Publisher about the real paucity of female voices on editorial pages, a report that everyone picked up. Wrote Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, “In the first two months of this year, about 19.5 percent of op-ed pieces at the California paper were by women, 16.9 percent at the New York Times and 10.4 percent at the Washington Post. Only a handful of female columnists–Maureen Dowd, Ellen Goodman, Molly Ivins–are nationally known.” Of course, Kurtz didn’t bother to mention what we all know–that three out of three of those nationally known columnists are liberals and two out of three had, during the past year, written Bush-bashing best-sellers.
Kurtz asked Gail Collins, the first woman to run the editorial page of the New York Times, who in her spare time used to write for women’s magazines, why this was so. Her answer: “There are probably fewer women, in the great cosmic scheme of things, who feel comfortable writing very straight opinion stuff.” Exactly the kind of answer that would have got a man running an editorial page into big trouble.
The theme of Collins’s argument was then taken up by Maureen Dowd, who told the world that when she first wrote her column in the New York Times she was a bundle “of frayed nerves” because she wanted to be “liked” not attacked. That’s a bit surprising because Dowd previously had been a very “Mean Girl” reporter who had managed to bring snarkiness as a journalistic style to the first section of the Times, long before she started writing her column.
Then Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown, got into it in the Los Angeles Times, and agreed that girls are different. (Oh, where were Maureen and Deborah and Gail when Larry Summers needed them?) Tannen thought the trouble was the attack-dog style of op-ed discourse. It’s a style women just aren’t comfortable with, she believes. By the way, the last time we heard from Tannen was when she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times during the campaign about how George W. Bush should learn to say “I’m sorry” for his many mistakes or he would lose the votes of women. I guess the millions of women who voted for him didn’t think he had anything to apologize for.
Meanwhile conservative women writers like Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle and Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal, along, of course, with our Miss Seipp have also chimed in. Saunders thinks the problem is not whether there are too few women, but rather that there are still too few conservative editorial writers. Anne Applebaum and Melanie Kirkpatrick both say it’s not the gender of the writer that matters, but the intellectual content of the piece.
So what do I think? Unlike that shy flower Maureen Dowd, I’m not afraid to shoot out my opinion, even if women I admire may disagree with me. First of all, of course, there are far too few conservative women op-ed writers around. Maureen and Ellen and Molly along with Anna Quindlen at Newsweek are the ones with the big reps, and they all have the annoying underpinning to their commentary that their views are the views that all women have. Or, at least, should have just because they’re women. It would have been brilliant if Gail Collins had replaced the retiring William Safire with a conservative woman writer. That would have given New York’s chattering classes something to chatter about for months, maybe years. But she didn’t.
And here’s one other group that has been totally ignored in this pundit-to-pundit debate. What about the readers? Especially the female readers? Women check out bylines and like to read opinions by other women. Sure, we can debate the whys and wherefores, but, believe me, they do.
Wouldn’t it be smart for editors to try to attract more women to the op-ed pages with more women writing about issues that women tend to find interesting? Yes, I know it could sound like I am hankering back to the days of women’s pages but, come to think of it, isn’t the New York Times going to dump its Circuits section about technology in favor of a new stand-alone Style section? Guess whom that’s aimed at? You guessed it. Personally, I think it’s truly insulting to women for the Times to add yet another section devoted to “fashion, fitness, beauty, shopping and lifestyle trends and products,” to their paper before they add a conservative woman’s voice to their op-ed page.
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.