Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WOMEN AND BLOGGING....On a lazy Sunday several weeks ago I wrote about the dearth of women among the ranks of the most highly trafficked political bloggers. I suggested the reason was partly because high-traffic men don't link much to women and partly because fewer women than men write political blogs in the first place. But why do fewer women blog about politics than men?

In my initial post I wrote this: "My guess...is that men are more comfortable with the food fight nature of opinion writing both writing it and reading it....I imagine that the fundamental viciousness and self aggrandizement inherent in opinion writing turns off a lot of women."

Two days later I added this: "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."

In the past few days this topic has suddenly gotten a renewed round of attention, and it turns out that a fair number of women agree with me but only partly. So read on.

Gail Collins, who runs the New York Times editorial page, told Howard Kurtz, "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." Maureen Dowd described her first few months of column writing like this: "I was a bundle of frayed nerves....Men enjoy verbal dueling. As a woman...I wanted to be liked not attacked." Dahlia Lithwick agrees: "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."

Linguist Deborah Tannen: "Many men find that their adrenaline gets going when someone challenges them, and it sharpens their minds: They think more clearly and get better ideas. But those who are not used to this mode of exploring ideas, including many women, react differently: They back off, feeling attacked, and they don't do their best thinking under those circumstances." Trish Wilson responded with tempered agreement: "I don't like the combative nature of talk radio and TV talk shows. I don't think it's very productive, I don't like being attacked." And Ann Althouse adds this: "There may be a lot of men clamoring to speak first, easily finding a way to talk over the women who have just as much to say. It may take a little something more to unleash what women can say."

But there's more to the story. First, plenty of women don't agree that the food fight nature of blogging and opinion journalism is an issue. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum says the whole thing is "a storm in the media teacup." Joanne Jacobs says: "I was an op-ed columnist for the Merc and Knight Ridder for more than 16 years....I have to say I never trembled about expressing my opinion." Chris Nolan offers ten reasons for the low representation of women in the political blogosphere, and confirms via email that she didn't leave off the rancorous nature of blogging by accident. She doesn't think it's an issue.

Second, even the women who agree that the argumentative nature of opinion writing is a problem brought up plenty of other issues too. Maureen Dowd thinks women who fight as hard as men are stereotyped as "castrating" instead of authoritative. Deborah Tannen thinks the real problem is that we accept the "attack-dog" definition of opinion writing in the first place, and Ann Althouse agrees. Trish Wilson may not like the confrontational nature of radio or TV, but doesn't have a problem with it in print. Dahlia Lithwick reports that as an editor, she gets more op-ed submissions from men by "several orders of magnitude." (This is an issue in talk radio too. Male callers outnumber female callers so heavily that call screeners have to work hard to get anything close to even representation.)

When we turn to the men, however, we mostly get either silence or stubborn denial. Manan Ahmed: "Huh?! There never should be a reason to link to anyone besides your appreciation for their content." Jeff Jarvis: " I'm white. I'm male. I blog. You got a problem with that? Tough." The Deacon over at Power Line: "The notion that [successful] bloggers are making decisions about linking based on gender, or race for that matter, seems quite far-fetched." Dave Winer mocks the whole idea that there's any kind of problem in the first place.

Right. No problem at all. No wonder so many women got pissed off at what I thought was a fairly unexceptional post last month. If this is the crowd I'm part of, I don't blame them.

So why bring it up again? This really wasn't a blog post I wanted to write, especially since I don't have any magic solution to the problem aside from a personal attempt to broaden my reading and linking habits. I got my fill of it back in February. However, the old boys' reaction to this prompted me to think about it further, and then two women wrote things today that convinced me to go ahead and poke my head out again.

First, Jeanne d'Arc notes that the blogosphere has a lot more skew than just that between men and women. "It wouldn't surprise me if it ranged from center-left to center-right, but does Atrios to Little Green Footballs really span the range of political thought in this country?" That's something that doesn't get enough attention, and she raises some other good points as well. Read the whole thing.

And then there was Dahlia Lithwick's piece, in which she pretty much read my mind about why more men haven't addressed this issue: "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 la Larry Summersthat they deem it better to hold their tongues and wait for the storm to pass." Yep, that's me. Who needs the grief? But as she says:

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.

Yes they do. And the men who do respond deserve serious responses in turn. There's no time like the present.

Kevin Drum 8:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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