Are Opinions Male?

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Thursday, Julian linked to one of the better columns (it was by Anne Applebaum) to emerge from the long-running Susan Estrich-Michael Kinsley argument about op-eds and women. But nobody has topped the contribution of former reason editor Virginia Postrel, who has actually operated in an Estrich-like op-ed universe.

That universe was literally pink and blue. "I remember visiting Bob Berger," Virginia writes, "the [Los Angeles Times] op-ed editor, back in the early '90s. An old-style newspaperman, Bob didn't like the paper's demands that he demonstrate 'diversity' on the op-ed pages. I especially remember his complaint that he not only had to find gay writers but gay writers who would mention that they were gay."

Turns out that the irritated editor "posted a chart on his door to prove what a good job he was doing. It showed each day's op-ed page as a line of five boxes, one for each article slot. The boxes were colored either blue or pink."

Actually, opinion journalism has been lost on this very same exit to nowhere before. In 1993, author Naomi Wolf published an essay in The New Republic that addressed the issue in truly grand terms. "[A]re opinions themselves somehow gendered male," Wolf asked, or "does female socialization conspire against many women's ability or desire to generate a strong public voice?" Wolf, who famously was to disguise Al Gore as an earth-toned Alpha Male in the 2000 election, decided that, among other things, there was "institutionalized discrimination" against women's opinions. In 1992, only "13 percent of the op-ed pieces published in The Washington Post were written by women," she'd noted in setting up her argument; a particularly low percentage of the pages she reviewed. Wolf even quoted Jodie Allen, whom she ID'ed as "an editor at The Washington Post," on the issue of women and opinion writing.

That was a little coy. Jodie Allen, as Wolf knew very well, was the Post's Sunday opinion editor. Furthermore, every WaPo opinion piece not edited by Allen was edited by then-Editorial Page Editor Meg Greenfield, who went unmentioned. (Among those who noted the omission in letters to TNR: Virginia Postrel and [I think] reason's Cathy Young.)

I've been an opinion editor for a long time. The situation in 2005 is the same as it was in 1993: The overwhelming majority of submissions for these pages come from men (as NYT opinion editor Gail Collins has pointed out), and the make-up of the pages reflect that. There's no point in blaming Michael Kinsley for it (or in hiding Jodie Allen's title). On the other hand, women now have a statistically better chance of having a given piece published, because many editors want women's bylines in the mix.

Dept of Pointless Disclosure: Three of the people mentioned here have been bosses of mine: Michael Kinsley (to whom I answered as a weekly TNR contributor), Jodie Allen, and (obviously) Virginia Postrel.

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  1. Does Kinsley have any opinions that don’t sound like a woman’s?

  2. I never cared for Kinsley’s opinions, but Slate has not been as good since he left.

  3. Did Maureen Dowd really begin this thread? I want a yes or no before commenting, because she deserves credit (if I’m right), and I love her.

  4. At the root of this brouhaha is the generally false assumption that a statistical disparity proves discrimination. Ironically, the people most likely to use this as a basis for complaint are the same people who insist the under-represented fraction has deep differences that make them unique. (“You can’t understand because you’re not a ______.”) So they end up making the self-contradictory argument that these differently-thinking, differently-acting folks must have been discriminated against if they don’t show up in activity X in census-matching proportion.

    I once worked for a small, very special interest magazine. A major headache for the editor was finding good material. When he got the inevitable letter complaining about underrepresentation of women, he took the time to reply that he wasn’t discriminating against anybody, he just published the stuff that made the cut. He got far more submissions from male writers, and also rejected far more male writers.

  5. The essential difference is that women write under girls’ rules, which doesn’t fit the slam-bang op-ed genre.

  6. PapayaSF, how about people who reject “the generally false assumption that a statistical disparity proves discrimination” but who believe that a signficant statistical disparity is a good reason to ponder whether it results from discrimination?

    It may well be that, in your anecdotal example, the editor “just published the stuff that made the cut.” My own anecdotal experience is that editors often find it easier to see the value in work by writers who share a common cultural background, which can easily result in discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and a host of other factors. I think the same dynamic operates in lots of decisions granting employment or other similar opportunities.

    I don’t have a problem with people pointing out the statistical disparities and demanding that the decision makers rebut the assumption of discrimination with some reasonable alternative explanation.

  7. Setting aside the fascinating causality issue Papaya brings up (for example, do children universally do better in joint custody or do children in joint custody do better because joint custodians come from better standing) the sexes are essential different.

    Women have different motivations then men and nobody wants to admit it. Summers just proved why.

    http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=43354

  8. This entire brouhaha should have died a slow and ignoble death. I can’t really see anything useful or anything coming from this controversy. No editorial policy will change (regardless of whether or not it should), and, as Applebaum’s column pointed out, words will be wasted on it that could have been better spent on other topics. She could have just made that point at the end of her original (or originally intended) column.

    Anon

  9. “The overwhelming majority of submissions for these pages come from men (as NYT opinion editor Gail Collins has pointed out), and the make-up of the pages reflect that. There’s no point in blaming Michael Kinsley for it (or in hiding Jodie Allen’s title). On the other hand, women now have a statistically better chance of having a given piece published, because many editors want women’s bylines in the mix.”

    The problem with this theory being, as Estrich pointed out, there are plenty to quality women op ed writers in LA who are trying to get published, and Kinsley, gosh darnit, just never seems to get anything good submitted.

    If Estrich was bitching because columns by women don’t make up 51% of the paper’s editorial page, I’d agree that she can take a hike. But the really remarkable disparity she points out just cannot be explained away. We’re not talking about a “small, very special interest magazine” here, that has a shortage of material to choose from.

    PapyaSF: is was “Worker’s World” right? 😉

  10. Ron Hardin: “The essential difference is that women write under girls’ rules, which doesn’t fit the slam-bang op-ed genre.”

    For a different view:

    Katha Pollitt http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050404&s=pollitt

    “Besides being false and insulting, all this fuss about women not having the cojones for no-holds-barred debate overlooks the fact that, as Deborah Tannen pointed out in the LA Times, there are many ways to write political commentary. Not every male columnist is a fire-breather, an instant expert, a tub-thumper, an obnox. Think of the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. or USA Today’s Walter Shapiro, both mannerly and sweet-natured to a fault. Some columnists use their perch to do crusading reporting–Bob Herbert’s great strength–to tell stories, to analyze ideas and policies, to ask questions, to skewer received opinion with wit and humor. And then there are the ones who just drone boringly on. Surely there are women capable of that!

    “That opinion writing is a kind of testosterone-powered food fight is a popular idea in the blogosphere. Male bloggers are always wondering where the women are and why women can’t/don’t/won’t throw bananas. After all, anyone can have a blog, right? In the wake of the Estrich-Kinsley contretemps, the Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum mused upon the absence of women bloggers and got a major earful from women bloggers, who are understandably sick of hearing that they don’t exist. “I’m staring you right in the face, Kevin,” wrote Avedon Carol (sideshow.me.uk), “and even though you’ve said you read me every day you don’t have me on your blogroll. It’s things like this that make me tear out my hair when people wonder why women are underrepresented….” There are actually lots of women political bloggers out there–spend half an hour reading them and you will never again say women aren’t as argumentative as men! But what makes a blog visible is links, and male bloggers tend not to link to women (to his credit, Kevin Drum has added nineteen to his blogroll). Perhaps they sense it might interfere with the circle jerk in cyberspace–the endless mutual self-infatuation that is one of the less attractive aspects of the blogging phenom.”

  11. Parse: Sure, a statistical disparity might point to discrimination, but too many people think it’s sufficient proof on its own.

    And you seem to say that such a disparity means that people must prove themselves innocent of discrimination. Obviously I don’t agree with that.

    In the case I mentioned, the editor was absolutely not a sexist, and I’m sure there was no subconscious discrimination going on. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a greater percentage of female submissions were accepted compared to male submissions, but the submission ratio was so skewed that it still ended up less than 51% women.

    Joe: Far more obscure than that.

  12. I have yet to meet a woman who didn’t have an opinion. Moreover the majority have no problem making this opinion known whether it is asked for or not!

  13. Yeah, I’d be kind of inclined to doubt that guys who say women don’t like to venture confrontational opions every actually interact with women.

  14. I think woman are probably socially less inclined to be confrontational and instead to smooth over disagreements. But to state the obvious, it depends on the woman.

  15. So here’s a thought: publish by first initial and last name only. Submit in the same way. Don’t say whether you are male/female/gay/trans/whatever. Just state your opinions. No pictures for bylines.

    Demanding representation from a given group seems to me to be as ignoble as demanding a given group not be represented. Isn’t it the opinion, not the opiner, that is the point? Does anyone read op-ed to find out what ‘women’ or ‘men’ or ‘they’ think? And if so, how on earth do they think that one individual adequately give you an idea of what the whole {set} thinks?

  16. “Demanding representation from a given group seems to me to be as ignoble as demanding a given group not be represented.”

    In this case, there appears to be a pattern of avoiding publishing pieces by women. I think it’s quite noble to demand that somebody stop doing that.

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