How hard is it, Katha Pollitt asked in The Nation last month, to hire female columnists? “How hard can it be to ‘find’ Barbara Ehrenreich … Dahlia Lithwick … Sharon Lerner … Debra Dickerson?”
“Here’s the monkey wrench,” said Ms. Dickerson, author of The End of Blackness. “The New York Times had me in contention for a spot on the editorial board, and The Washington Post offered me a column a couple of years ago that I turned down. And I turned it down for typically ‘female’ reasons.”
Ms. Pollitt was responding to a column by Maureen Dowd, who was responding to Susan Estrich, who had accused Los Angeles Times editorial and opinion editor Michael Kinsley of not publishing enough women because he had declined to publish her, setting off a wave of analysis and hand-wringing. Ms. Pollitt listed 14 women writers-herself included-and asked why none of them had the most prominent op-ed jobs. The ongoing debate has covered complicated territory: whether editors are sexist, whether women writers are a bunch of wimps terrified of angry letters, whether they prefer writing about their sex lives to Social Security. But the question still remains: Why aren’t the women on Ms. Pollitt’s list showing up in the Sunday papers?
“I’m amazed at the way people list me-’Why don’t they talk to Debra Dickerson?’ Well, they did! Everybody’s offered me a job,” said Ms. Dickerson, who has written freelance opinion pieces for The Washington Post and The New York Times. “But I was sort of hiding my light under a bushel basket, waiting for my husband to catch up. But I think nowadays, if you’ve got the stuff, you can write your own ticket.”
That was one point of view. Another perspective came in a startling column by Ms. Dowd, the “Emma Peel” of The New York Times (as she said she thought of herself when writing a tough column), a polarizing figure on a par with Hillary Clinton-a role model and a lightning rod. Ms. Dowd seemingly carries the entire weight of the sisterhood on her delicate shoulders. And there are big shoes to fill: Dorothy Thompson, whose New York Herald Tribune column was eventually syndicated to almost 200 publications; Anne O’Hare McCormick, who covered foreign affairs for the Times; Mary McGrory, who penned fiery liberal political pieces from the 1950′s on, until her death last year; Meg Greenfield, the longtime Newsweek columnist who became an editorial page editor at The Washington Post.
In her column, Ms. Dowd revealed that six months into the job, she had begged Howell Raines to let her quit because she hated being attacked and, as a woman, she “wanted to be liked,” adding that men were born to yell and that perhaps women weren’t.
“I’ve always wished I had more women colleagues on the page,” said Ms. Dowd in a phone interview. “I was talking to my brother Michael about this recently, and he said I should like being the only woman, that it makes me special. But it just feels stressful.” In response to the piece, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. requested a meeting with her to discuss the subject, although Ms. Dowd declined to talk about the contents of their conversation. (During the same period, The Times hired neo-libertarian John Tierney to fill its one open columnist slot and Ms. Dowd went on book leave, temporarily replaced by Matt Miller, creating a veritable pickle party.)
Anne Applebaum, currently the only woman op-ed writer at The Washington Post, wrote in response to Ms. Dowd’s column that she resented being regarded as a “token,” and that none of the women she knew liked to think of themselves as “female journalists” who wasted their time writing about “women’s issues.” “Most of them got where they are by having clear views, knowing their subjects, writing well and learning to ignore the ad hominem attacks that go with the job,” she wrote. Billie Stanton of the Tucson Citizen called gender imbalance on editorial pages “an incredibly insignificant issue” in a ditty titled “Female op-ed columnists should opine, not whine.”
In an informal survey, some of the women mentioned in Ms. Pollitt’s piece touched on some roots of the problem. For one thing, liberal women are more apt to see a “problem” at all, while some conservative women don’t acknowledge one. Some women actually don’t want pundit jobs; others simply don’t believe that editors are looking hard enough.
“I don’t exactly know why, but being a columnist is a very weird kind of particular talent,” said Gail Collins, who used to write op-eds for The New York Times before she became its editorial-page editor. “You have to have a very distinct voice, but you have to be a person who’s prepared to deliver that voice twice a week on deadline in 700 words. It’s a really stressful and an exhausting job, which obviously doesn’t mean women can’t do it as well as men.”
She said that seven of the 16 editors on The Times’ editorial board were women, which is not exactly a shortage of female mentors. Ms. Collins said they had to “do better” on diversity, and that it was an issue they thought about “all the time.” The Times, of course, has eight bylined columnists but only one woman, Ms. Dowd. (The Times’ only female columnist also recently saw her column moved to Saturday from Sunday to make room for a man’s.)
“My family just thinks it’s hilarious that I’m in this line of work, because when I was little, I just thought ‘sensitivity’ was a disease you could die from, like leukemia,” said Ms. Dowd of her position on the hotseat at the newspaper of record.
In addition to the fully employed Ms. Dowd (who is currently on leave writing her next book, Are Men Necessary?) and Ms. Dickerson, who said she’s now considering another op-ed position (and whose previous job offers couldn’t be confirmed with The Times or The Washington Post; both said they don’t comment on such matters), the other woman writer who appears to have been in some demand at the nation’s leading papers is Barbara Ehrenreich, who filled in for Thomas Friedman at The Times last summer.
Ms. Ehrenreich turned down a twice-weekly column at the Los Angeles Times a couple of months ago because she was focused on other things, she said. Mr. Kinsley confirmed that he’d tried in vain to hire her. Ms. Ehrenreich also said that she wasn’t asked to stay on permanently at The New York Times after her stint there.
“I would consider doing something like that for maybe six months,” she said. “I don’t know if I would want to be in the position where that was my life.”
Ms. Ehrenreich said that her other experience writing opinion for mainstream publications was at Time magazine in the late 1990′s, where she contributed one piece a month until eventually the magazine started rejecting everything she wrote unless it was on “so-called women’s topics.” (She said her contract wasn’t renewed by mutual agreement.)
“Now, I often do [write on women's issues],” Ms. Ehrenreich continued, “but when that means that they’re going to turn down a piece I do about foreign policy, then I get pissed off.” But Ms. Dowd’s point about cowering from attack didn’t ring true to Ms. Ehrenreich. “Some of us love fights,” she said. “I think that’s complete bullshit.”
Ms. Dowd said she thought editors could be making a greater effort, but she also suggested that men are more into “trash talking” and verbal dueling. (“Basically, these blogs and columns and being on those screaming shows are trash talking,” she said.) She recounted two speeches she gave at recent commencement addresses at the School of Visual Arts in New York and U.C. Berkeley’s journalism school, where she told the students that for “the first couple years of the column, I was just curled up on the floor of my house, crying a lot. It was just hard. It was not easy to take on the President of the United States.” She said she doesn’t look at the “really nasty letters.”
Ms. Applebaum of The Washington Post said that she’d felt compelled to respond to Ms. Dowd’s where-are-the-women piece with her own, even though she really wanted to be writing about Irish politics. “I felt like there had to be another point of view,” said Ms. Applebaum. “[Ms. Dowd] wrote a column saying there aren’t many women because whenever we have opinions, people hate us. I just don’t think it’s true. People hate Maureen Dowd for other reasons beside the fact that she’s a woman. She has a style that inspires angry response.”
But Dahlia Lithwick, a columnist at Slate who also filled in for Thomas Friedman at The Times, noted the vitriolic letters that she has received as well. “When people attack my writing, not only are they ad hominem-like, ‘Who is this little girl?’-but they also use my first name. Many of my colleagues at Slate are addressed by their last name,” she said. “There is a tendency with women columnists to attack the writer rather than the argument.”
Then does this mean that women might shrink from such pointed criticism? Ms. Collins said that the New York Times editorial pages received “tons and tons” of unsolicited mail, around 1,000 letters a day and approximately 1,200 Op-Ed submissions a week, and that very rough counts revealed that approximately 15 to 20 percent of them came from women. Fred Hiatt, the editorial-page editor at The Washington Post, said: “When I look at the op-ed submissions that come in, six or nine of 10 of them-at least-are from men.”
Mr. Kinsley said he didn’t buy that argument. “That’s like an employer saying, ‘Well, we only get applications from men,’” he said. “The weakest form of affirmative action-the one that even conservatives say they’re for-is going out and beating the bushes.”
Mr. Kinsley said that most of the slots on the L.A. Times’ opinion page were part-time positions and that the page was full, although he said the section would be undergoing a change in format in the next few months that would hopefully free up some space.
“Look, these jobs are tremendous plums,” said Ms. Pollitt. “And the people who are in the position to decide who gets these plums are men-that’s just the way it is. Their idea of looking for a woman is, they make one phone call, and if that woman isn’t available they’ve done their job, and they go on to the next 20 people, who are going to be men.”
Indeed, no matter the complex reasons why many a female journalist might turn down such a stressful post, it turns out a good number of other women on Ms. Pollitt’s list, such as Ms. Lithwick, Sharon Lerner, Laura Flanders and Natalie Angier, also said that they’d never even been approached for op-ed slots at major papers.
“I have won numerous awards for writing about women,” said Ms. Lerner, who writes for The Village Voice. “There have been several junctures where light shined on my work for some reason or another, and I kept thinking that that would be the moment the calls would pour in … but no.”
Follow Sheelah Kolhatkar via RSS.