Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Where The Wild Girls Are

Not in political commenting. Jane Hamsher noticed this today and reproduced a comment to an earlier post by Garance Franke-Ruta:

I was going to add this as an update to the previous post on the importance of women in the punditocracy but decided it deserved its own space. From Garance Franke-Ruta of The American Prospect, in the comments:

[O]nce Amy Sullivan leaves the Washington Monthly toward the end of the month, I will have the peculiar honor of being the only female more than half-time political writer left at any of the liberal magazines in Washington. (Michelle Cottle at TNR being the other one, and part-time.) Sigh.

No women staff writers but me and Michelle in Washington at: TNR, TAP, WaMo, MoJo, The Nation, or Salon.

Plenty of women in middle-management, though.

The problem of women being shut out of opinion media, even progressive opinion media, is related to the one you describe of women not voting. Anna Greenberg has done research into this and discovered that a major reason these women don't vote is they feel like they're not well-informed and therefore aren't qualified to vote. One reason they probably don't feel well-informed is that they don't keep up with political media as much as men, and I'd wager that one reason they don't do that is when they turn to it they don't see anyone who looks like they do or is talking about their concerns in a way they can relate to.

To her critcs I'd just say that Jane is not addressing a problem of identity politics; she's addressing a problem of politics, period. Joe Trippi said after the last election that if Kerry had been able to get 3 million more single moms to vote he would have won. But good luck trying to get an 85 percent male progressive punditocracy to recognize the importance of such voters to their favored candidate's electoral success or failure. Men prefer what they prefer and overlook what does not interest them.

This is a problem.

The discussion of this post notes that things aren't quite so dismal when one looks at the political media outside Washington, D.C.. But Garance is certainly correct in pointing out that the political commenting game is largely a male game, and especially so on our side. The wingnuts fund the women whose task is to tear the rest of us gals down and to keep us in our places. The left doesn't seem to fund women writers in the same way.

I'm sure that you have heard or read the received wisdom that tries to explain the dearth of women in political commenting in general : That women just don't care about politics, that the game is fully open to anyone who has access to a computer and the rudiments of knowledge, that the political issues of our day (war, poverty, health care) are unisex. It's just one of those things that IS. Nothing to worry about, as women choose not to get involved in the vicious give-and-take of the political game.

But what if I rewrote that last sentence slightly, to read like this: "Nothing to worry about, as women choose not to get involved in deciding on how to govern our shared concerns." There are two definitions of politics floating about. One sees it as a game, focuses on strategies and winning and scandalous rumors and uses sports and war metaphors. The other focuses on the political allocation of scarce resources and focuses on what the political system produces: those who have a lot and those who have a little, concerns ignored and concerns over-rewarded. The former definition is almost guaranteed to keep lots of women out of political commenting. The latter definition? It seems a shame to think that women's absence from the governance of our shared tasks is just one of the things that is.

Of course politics can be explained by both of these definitions at the same time, and if there were more women in it the game would look a little different. In places such as the Nordic countries the game of politics has many more women players. It would be interesting to study how the game is affected by this. But note that the number of politically involved women is not some fixed constant that we can't affect.

Two topics in the comments to Jane's post drew my attention. One was the idea that politics is unisex and the other one the idea that women have the same access to the blogging game as men do. Nothing to worry about, in other words. We guys have got your concerns covered, and as you have no special concerns there is no need for the female voice in political blogging. And if you don't agree with this, well, come and chat with us. We'll listen to you.

The old feminist saw about the personal being the political seems to apply here. Women's lives differ from men's lives in some ways and men may not see the same problems as women do. Men have families, too, don't they? But we still talk about issues to do with eldercare or childcare as women's issues, and somehow this labels them as less important, less real, less political. Or think about the abortion debate. If you were an alien from outer space you'd think that women get pregnant by eating something they found on the roadside, so absent is the man's role as a participant in the abortion-ending events in these discussions.

Even Caitlin Flanagan argues that her book about sexual politics is not at all political! Politics is about hard matters, about international diplomacy, corruption and war. Politics is also about education, health care and the care of the needy, but that's soft stuff, lower level stuff, female stuff. And sexual politics is not politics at all! It's culture or tradition or whatever but not politics.

But of course it is politics. Political decisions affect the rights of women and men, political decisions trigger down into the everyday lives of men and women. Political decisions determine whether women live under the Taliban or fairly freely, and I at least believe that the viewpoints of women on such questions are as needed as the viewpoints of men.

And what about the political commenting game being every bit as open to women as it is to men? Well, there is first the meta-answer: If women are to be in charge of the children and the families and if most women also have paying jobs, women as a group are not going to have much time to participate in any games whatsoever. And then there is the more microlevel answer: Even on the internet the game of political blogging is not ungendered. It's true that nobody really knows what gender a person is. But it's also true that what is being said in the comments threads and blog posts can affect men and women quite differently, and can even make some women feel that they don't want to participate. Let me give you some examples of what I mean by this, not the obvious examples of calling women cunts or calling anyone you dislike a cunt, but the more invisible examples, the kinds that don't get responded to in the threads. The following are picked from comments threads on political blogs:

Listening to the radio and I hear, "Tom DeLay surrendered to authorities..."

What a pussy though.

He surrendered in Houston in order to avoid the press.
Letterman: W hammers like a girl!
We lefty bloggers are nothing if not silly schoolgirls who don't know how the world really works
Karen Carpenter was a damn good drummer, for a girl

And then an example from the famous Stephen Colbert rant. I bet that this one passed you by:

"Let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The president makes decisions, he's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction.

Do all the members of the press have a wife to make love to? See how the journalist is a man in this story? Yes, the stuff is trivial in a sense, but it's so prevalent that it's not going to be trivial in its effect on us of the female persuasion. We are somehow invisible to many in the media, and that's the main reason why more women should write political commentary.