Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 22, 2005
By: Katha Pollitt

Terrific Women Already Exist....Before launching into this big and fascinating topic, I'd like to thank Kevin Drum for opening up Political Animal to this conversation. Lots of male bloggers have written their "where are the women?" piece, but so far as I know Kevin is the only one to follow up by inviting women writers and editors over to discuss it.

Why are there so few women op-ed writers? Amy Sullivan thinks it's because women are socialized out of the requisite personality traits: confidence verging on arrogance, thick skin, love of combat. At every step, from kindergarten on, girls are rewarded for being docile, quiet, unadventurous and alert to the feelings of others, and boys are rewarded for being the opposite. The end result is that political magazines like the Washington Monthly get lots more pitches from men. Women just don't come knocking.

I've been an editor at The Nation, where I now write a column (my column on this topic is here.) I would certainly agree that men send in more unsolicited articles almost none of which are usable, by the way, so I'm not sure what that example is supposed to prove. But ultimately it's the editors, not the slush pile or the volume of queries from freelancers, that determine what goes in a magazine. The phone works both ways! From what I have seen, editors are much more open to men and men flourish accordingly. Older editors, who are mostly men, mentor younger men in whom they see their younger selves, and these young men richly pay them back in admiration, even (surely not!) flattery and sycophancy.

Editors socialize with these acolytes, form friendships with them, offer them important career-making assignments (how often have you seen a "think piece" by a woman that wasn't about a "woman's issue"?), encourage them to take risks and give them more chances if they screw up. Marty Peretz at The New Republic was famous for this kind of mentorship, as was the Washington Monthly's Charles Peters. It wouldn't have occurred to me to approach the Washington Monthly when I was a freelancer partly because my politics were further to the left, but also because it was such a notoriously masculine preserve. Everything about it suggested that I had as much chance of appearing in its pages as in Popular Mechanics. I'm not saying no woman could get the odd assignment at the magazines that mostly publish men, but to make a career you need to be part of the family, you need to be the person to whom the magazine offers plum assignments and sudden opportunities, that gives you a kind of carte blanche (what's on your mind? what's on your plate? when are we going to see that piece on Outer Mongolia?), and that lets you develop as a voice and a personality. Women rarely get that kind of opportunity and the thing is, they know that. So what looks to you, Amy, like being easily discouraged or not trying is actually women assessing, fairly accurately, their chances.

To understand the absence of women's opinions, I look at the gatekeepers. Because the women are already there! As I argue in my column, there are actually quite a few fabulous women opinion writers who are more than ready for prime time, but who seem mysteriously invisible to the editors who are now saying they will try to "find" women. Barbara Ehrenreich is a hugely best selling writer whose been hard at work and famous for decades. She wrote great columns on the New York Times op-ed page when filling in for Tom Friedman so why isn't she at The Times (soon to be seven men plus Maureen Dowd) or the Washington Post (18 male pundits plus Anne Applebaum)? Other names off the top of my head: Debra Dickerson, Ruth Rosen, Dahlia Lithwick, Nina Totenberg, Rebecca Traister, Joan Walsh, Sharon Lerner, Wendy Kaminer, Ruth Conniff, Laura Flanders, Natalie Angier, etc. etc. etc! Why doesn't Time (11 columnists, no women, even in Arts and entertainment) give Molly Ivins a slot?

If women's fear of the fray were the crucial factor, we would expect to find women writers dominating in fields that suited their socialization. For example, book reviewing. After all, women read more fiction and poetry than men, disproportionately study and excel in the humanities, and are even granted, by the Larry Summerses of the world, a genetic edge in verbal and "people" skills. The ability to enter empathetically into the mind of a writer to respond to the ideas of another now there's a stereotypically feminine trait!

Furthermore, you can review books in the privacy of your own home when the kids are asleep, and it's a fairly leisurely and polite corner of the magazine world, with no scary office testosterone fiestas like those Amy describes. Certainly there is no dearth of women who would love to review books! Yet men dominate in this field also, even in fiction, poetry, literary biography. Women have criticized The New York Times Book Review for favoring male reviewers for decades (just lately they've improved a lot), to say nothing of The New York Review of Books it's like Plato's Academy over there. This is not because women aren't knocking on the door, aren't good enough, or can't stand the heat. In my own experience and with respect to many different magazines, I've just seen too many times when a woman friend can't get an answer on a query and a man friend gets an assignment within minutes.

Sexism, which is what we are discussing here, often justifies itself by assuming that women don't want the thing that is being denied them. Before Title IX, which opened up high school and college athletics to women, the common wisdom was that girls didn't like sports girls weren't competitive, they were weak (remember girls basketball?), they didn't like to get sweaty and dirty, they feared being hurt, they were always getting their periods. Once the opportunities were there thanks to the women's movement, not to gym teachers promising to keep an eye out for talented female players girls turned out in droves. Now we see girls even in quintessentially masculine sports like soccer and rugby. Today nobody says girls are shrinking violets on the playing field.

Build that woman-friendly magazine, and they will come!

Katha Pollitt 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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