Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Maureen Dowd on Women Opinion Columnists

This is a few days old, but I have been stewing it slowly in my head. Maureen Dowd wrote a column on the lack of women who write opinion columns and then gave her own diagnosis of the problem:

In 1996, after six months on the job, I went to Howell Raines, the editorial page editor, to try to get out of the column. I was a bundle of frayed nerves. I felt as though I were in a "Godfather" movie, shooting and getting shot at. Men enjoy verbal dueling. As a woman, I told Howell, I wanted to be liked - not attacked. He said I could go back to The Metro Section; I decided to give it another try. Bill Safire told me I needed Punzac, Prozac for pundits.

Guys don't appreciate being lectured by a woman. It taps into myths of carping Harpies and hounding Furies, and distaste for nagging by wives and mothers. The word "harridan" derives from the French word "haridelle" - a worn-out horse or nag.

Men take professional criticism more personally when it comes from a woman. When I wrote columns about the Clinton impeachment opéra bouffe, Chris Matthews said that for poor Bill, it must feel as though he had another wife hectoring him.

While a man writing a column taking on the powerful may be seen as authoritative, a woman doing the same thing may be seen as castrating. If a man writes a scathing piece about men in power, it's seen as his job; a woman can be cast as an emasculating man-hater. I'm often asked how I can be so "mean" - a question that Tom Friedman, who writes plenty of tough columns, doesn't get.

For a good writer Dowd is astonishingly thick on psychology and women's issues. I sometimes think that she writes these columns in a cab and asks the cabdriver for some expert opinions on why women do the things they do. I have even wondered if she could possibly be a woman, given how little she seems to know of the Life of the Female.

Take these ideas in the quote I gave from her: that women want to be liked and that men don't want to be criticized by a woman. These are stereotypes, and Maureen doesn't actually ask if there is any truth in them. She just uses them as if they were the Truth. In the same article in which she writes:

The kerfuffle over female columnists started when Susan Estrich launched a crazed and nasty smear campaign against Michael Kinsley, the L.A. Times editorial page editor, trying to force him to run her humdrum syndicated column.

I have news for you, Maureen. Susan is not going to like you now. But maybe it doesn't matter as she is not a man so is safe to criticize?

My point is that Dowd doesn't dive deep under the facile explanations she uses, doesn't look for any other reasons for the dearth of female columnists than her stereotypical views of human psychology, and doesn't differentiate between the use of valid criticism and just plain nastiness (calling Estrich's column "humdrum" without explaining why) as an explanation why some dislike her writing style.

It is such an odd article. Dowd tells us how horrible it is to be a woman who writes political opinion columns and then urges all talented women to join her. Is this her intention? Probably not. It's something her columns seem to do pretty often, leave me hanging despondent at the end of reading them, wondering if there is any other hope for me but a quick and painless death. Though this might be something in me and not Maureen's fault at all.

I would like to read more women opinion columnists. I love Molly Ivins and Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt and many others. These are some writers! And they know their politics inside and out. They don't seem to mind arguing or the fear of being seen as castrating bitches, either.

More generally, women often have a different pattern of life from those of men and this gives them a different angle to events. Seeing political events from different angles would be good for us. It would also make political opinion columns more varied and interesting.

Why is it, by the way, that the wingnuts seem to promote most any woman who is wingnutty enough to her opinion column while truly great writers on the left slog away almost unnoticed? I have in mind the list I noted earlier and many others that I could add to it. Why does Ann Coulter sit on a high perch over all creation while Molly Ivins is hidden away in Texas? Hmh?