Women don't shout. Women don't like politics. Women shrink from intellectual debate. Women don't try. It's time for another round of "What's Wrong with Women?" Last month's category was science. This month it's punditry, sparked by a testy (well, nasty) letter from syndicated columnist and FOX-TV commentator Susan Estrich to Michael Kinsley, the courtly editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times, pointing out the lack of female talent on his op-ed pages: In nine weeks, only 20 percent of pieces were written by women. Now everybody's jumping in: "Feminists Get Hysterical" (Heather MacDonald in City Journal) is a typical sentiment.
"There ought to be more women on op-ed pages in general. Over time, I intend to make that happen," said Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, which counts one woman, Anne Applebaum, among its nineteen pundits; in the first two months of 2005 one in ten op-ed pieces were by women. Take your time, Mr. Hiatt! As Applebaum warns, you don't want to hire untalented women who'll just write about "women's issues." Her friends got their bylines by "having clear views, knowing their subjects, writing well and learning to ignore the ad hominem attacks that go with the job." And you know how few women meet those lofty criteria! "The pool of available people doing opinion writing is still tilted toward men," said New York Times editorial page editor Gail Collins. "There are probably fewer women, in the great cosmic scheme of things, who feel comfortable writing very straight opinion stuff, and they're less comfortable hearing something on the news and batting something out." Come April, the Times will have seven male op-ed columnists, plus Maureen Dowd. Not to worry though, Dowd writes, there are "plenty of brilliant women.... We just need to find and nurture them."
Oh, nurture my eye. It may be true that more men than women like to bloviate and "bat things out"--socialization does count for something. So do social rewards: I have seen men advance professionally on levels of aggression, self-promotion and hostility that would have a woman carted off to a loony bin--unless, of course, she happens to be Ann Coulter. But feminine psychology doesn't explain why all five of USA Today's political columnists are male, or why Time's eleven columnists are male--down to the four in Arts and Entertainment--or why at Newsweek it's one out of six in print and two out of thirteen on the Web. According to Editor and Publisher, the proportion of female syndicated columnists (one in four) hasn't budged since 1999. The tiny universe of political-opinion writers includes plenty of women who hold their own with men, who do not wilt at the prospect of an angry e-mail, who have written cover stories and bestsellers and won prizes--and whose phone numbers are likely already in the Rolodexes of the editors who wonder where the women are. How hard could it be to "find" Barbara Ehrenreich, who filled in for Thomas Friedman for one month last summer and wrote nine of the best columns the Times has seen in a decade? Or Dahlia Lithwick, legal correspondent for Slate, another Friedman fill-in, who actually possesses a deep grasp of the field she covers--which cannot always be said for John Tierney, who begins his Times column in April? What about Susan Faludi? The Village Voice's Sharon Lerner? Debra Dickerson? Wendy Kaminer? The Progressive's Ruth Conniff? Laura Flanders? Debbie Nathan? Ruth Rosen, veteran of the LA Times and the San Francisco Chronicle? Our own Patricia Williams and Naomi Klein? Natalie Angier, bestselling author and top New York Times science writer, would be a fabulous op-ed columnist. And, not to be one of those shrinking violets everyone's suddenly so down on, What about me? Am I a potted plant?
You'll note I've mostly named liberals and feminists--I'm sure there are good women writers on the right out there, too, and their job prospects are probably a lot rosier. A conservative woman who endlessly attacks feminists, like The New Yorker's Caitlin Flanagan or the Los Angeles Times's departed Norah Vincent or the Boston Globe's Cathy Young--what could be hotter than that?
Besides being false and insulting, all this fuss about women not having the cojones for no-holds-barred debate overlooks the fact that, as Deborah Tannen pointed out in the LA Times, there are many ways to write political commentary. Not every male columnist is a fire-breather, an instant expert, a tub-thumper, an obnox. Think of the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne Jr. or USA Today's Walter Shapiro, both mannerly and sweet-natured to a fault. Some columnists use their perch to do crusading reporting--Bob Herbert's great strength--to tell stories, to analyze ideas and policies, to ask questions, to skewer received opinion with wit and humor. And then there are the ones who just drone boringly on. Surely there are women capable of that!
That opinion writing is a kind of testosterone-powered food fight is a popular idea in the blogosphere. Male bloggers are always wondering where the women are and why women can't/don't/won't throw bananas. After all, anyone can have a blog, right? In the wake of the Estrich-Kinsley contretemps, the Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum mused upon the absence of women bloggers and got a major earful from women bloggers, who are understandably sick of hearing that they don't exist. "I'm staring you right in the face, Kevin," wrote Avedon Carol (sideshow.me.uk), "and even though you've said you read me every day you don't have me on your blogroll. It's things like this that make me tear out my hair when people wonder why women are underrepresented...." There are actually lots of women political bloggers out there--spend half an hour reading them and you will never again say women aren't as argumentative as men! But what makes a blog visible is links, and male bloggers tend not to link to women (to his credit, Kevin Drum has added nineteen to his blogroll). Perhaps they sense it might interfere with the circle jerk in cyberspace--the endless mutual self-infatuation that is one of the less attractive aspects of the blogging phenom.
Or maybe, like so many op-ed editors, they just don't see women, even when the women are right in front of them.
Katha Pollitt has written for The Nation since 1980. Pollitt's writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Ms. and the New York Times. In 2001, her Nation essays were published as a collection, Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.
© 2005 The Nation