Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 22, 2005
By: Amy Sullivan

A RESPONSE TO KATHA POLLITT....Many thanks to Katha Pollitt for sharing her insight and thoughts on this topic. This promises to be a good week for discussion. And I think she and I mostly agree, although you wouldn't necessarily take that away from the flavor of her post.

There are indeed many terrific, talented women who write. And all too often, they don't get a fair shake in the boys' club of opinion journalism. Men who wring their hands and worry about the absence of women from their pages keep women's names off the cover because "they're not big enough names," begging the question of how all of those men who get promoted on covers got to be known in the first place. When assigning stories, they think first of the ten or twelve writers they know best almost always men instead of taking a few extra minutes to think outside the gender box and come up with a woman who could do the story just as well. They say, you're too quiet in meetings, you need to speak up, when if they maybe shut the hell up sometimes, they would hear us.

But naming all the smart, opinionated women we know doesn't help, beyond the essential point of getting those names in editors' Rolodexes. I didn't say those women didn't exist. I said they were outliers, that the average woman is less likely to get into this field than the average man. If that's because they don't feel welcome at publications, then let's look at why that is. I'm primarily interested in the women who never get to the point of wanting to have a career in opinion journalism. Maybe it's just a tiny field overall, but it's not SO tiny that these few names represent all of the women interested in breaking in.

While it's easy to get cheers from the girls choir by pointing the finger of blame at male discrimination, that critique is neither entirely accurate nor productive. I don't want a bunch of guys telling me why they're not really biased and a bunch of women telling me that everything would be so much easier if only the guys didn't get to bond by playing softball on Saturdays. I want a solution to the problem, and that means looking at everything from how boys and girls are raised differently, to gender bias in education, to the fact that women usually do not mentor each other the same way that men do, to why women are more generally more tentative about offering opinions.

This last point relates to the example Pollitt raised of book reviewers. I have no doubt that many book sections are still weighted unfairly toward men. But reviewing is not an opinion-neutral activity. You are expected to offer your personal take on a book. And that, again, can be a difficult thing for women conditioned to hold back their own opinions. When you write an article and someone doesn't like it, they'll tell you your facts are wrong or the story was wrong. When someone doesn't like your opinion, suddenly you are wrong. Jodie Allen, who used to be an editorial page editor at the Washington Post, told me how much more comfortable she used to be penning anonymous editorials that gave her a feeling of freedom, and she wasn't the only woman to share that thought.

Back with more thoughts in a while....

Amy Sullivan 7:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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