A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from a colleague who was furious about a local political issue - one that touched on gender. I had to write about it, she insisted, because I was a female columnist.
Until then I hadn't really thought much about column-writing and gender, but her call made me angry. Was I a good columnist or a good female columnist? Was she using the word "female" as a qualifier? What did my genital organs have to do with my writing, anyway? And why did having a vagina make it essential that I comment on that particular issue?
As it turns out, it's one of the conundrums of feminism - the conflict that lies at the crossroads of experience and theory. For example, think of a woman's film festival. Why should we need one in 2005? Doesn't it just ghettoize women and their experiences? Films tell stories about people, and aren't women included in the term "people?"
This reasoning makes perfect sense until we notice that most Hollywood films are centered around men. Then we see women's festival films as rare and wonderful; we're thrilled to have the chance to see them. See how easily a fine, righteous theory can get trumped?
I was still mulling over gender and column-writing when gender hell broke out in the world of big-time journalism. A female syndicated columnist publicly raked over the coals a big-paper male Op-ed editor because he wouldn't run her column. She accused him of gender bias and pointed to the huge imbalance in the number of male and female opinion writers in his - and every other large newspaper's - editorial sections.
Having a vagina and an opinion at the same time suddenly mattered. A number of powerful editors jumped into the fray, and - lo and behold - almost all of them turned out to be women. Most started their own columns by listing the few amazing women who write widely-read opinion columns today - women like Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe, Katha Pollit of The Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich and the ever-great Molly Ivins. Some of them even mentioned the batty right-wingers like Ann Coulter and Maggie Gallagher.
The discussion was fascinating. Zofia Smardz, editor of The Washington Post's Sunday Outlook section, said that men are willing to jump into print while women are much more careful. "Think of a man as carrying a quiverful of arrows," she said. "When he spies a target, he lets fly with the whole caboodle. Most of his arrows will miss the bulls-eye, but one is likely to hit. And that's the one people will remember -- and applaud. A woman, though, proceeds slowly and considers carefully. Only when she's pretty sure she has a perfect shot does she sent off a single arrow.. And she hits the mark! Amazing! But... too bad. The guy's already walked off with the prize."
Goodman gave us the traditional view when she wrote, "In this case the question is whether fewer women jump into the pool because they fear the sharks? ... Are women more uncomfortable with confrontation? Do they prefer to mediate rather than heighten conflict?"
Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post warned that after this controversy, "every woman who gets her article accepted will have to wonder whether it was her knowledge, willingness to court controversy or just her gender that won the editor over."
In my experience, men and women can be equally opinionated. They can also be equally cautious about expressing their opinions. We don't, after all, live in a society that encourages original thinking. Every year we grow more like the Japanese, who are taught that the nail which sticks up attracts the hammer.
All of us form our world views out of our experiences: our parents and their teachings, our gender, our race, our economic status, our childhood, our reading and education, our friends, our work, our sports, our art, our loves, our lives. In time, if we're lucky, all these experiences integrate, we achieve some kind of wisdom, and we become a whole, a full person.
Then it may seem like a step backwards to consider things from one point of view - race, say, or gender. That's why I became angry when my colleague identified me as a "female columnist."
However, until we get the world in balance - and aren't we all, one way or another, working for that? - gender and other issues must be considered. But in journalism, as in life, they should never be the only issues considered. We must also think about intelligence, life experience, heart and talent.
As Lakshmi Chaudhry, senior editor at the on-line news service AlterNet, said, "True diversity is not about getting the right mix of partisanship, or gender, or race. It's about good journalism. A newspaper staffed by different kinds of people with different life experiences can offer a vastly richer and more complex perspective on the world."
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.