Friday, March 16, 2007

Women And Op-Ed Pieces

Patricia Cohen has written an interesting article on the scarcity of women op-ed writers and on one woman, Catherine Orenstein, who plans to fix that scarcity problem. Cohen begins by summarizing the problem and Orenstein's solution to it:

Whatever other reasons may explain the lack of women's voices on the nation's op-ed pages, the lack of women asking to be there is clearly part of the problem. Many opinion page editors at major newspapers across the country say that 65 or 75 percent of unsolicited manuscripts, or more, come from men.

The obvious solution, at least to Catherine Orenstein, an author, activist and occasional op-ed page contributor herself, was to get more women to submit essays. To that end Ms. Orenstein has been training women at universities, foundations and corporations to write essays and get them published.

Uproars over the sparse numbers of women in newspapers, or on news programs, in magazines, and on best-seller lists regularly erupt every couple of years. A doozy occurred in 2005, after the liberal commentator Susan Estrich and Michael Kinsley, then editor of The Los Angeles Times's opinion pages, got into a nasty scuffle over the lack of female columnists. That dustup is what motivated Ms. Orenstein to take her op-ed show on the road, which she has done with support from the Woodhull Institute, an ethics and leadership group for women.

Orenstein teaches the basic rules of op-ed writing in her courses, and that is a good thing, of course. But I'm not sure that the reason for fewer female op-ed writers is that obvious. Do men know those rules so much better? I doubt it.

Do you know what would be fun? A study which looks at all those submissions, the ones which are predominantly male. Such a study could analyze the submissions for how well they are written, for the rules that Orenstein refers to, and for the topic of the submission. This would be fun and also informative, because some of Cohen's arguments in the NYT article suggest that women are more careful about what they might send in, and if this is true then it just could be that the average quality of the female-penned op-ed submissions is better than the average of the male-penned pieces. Or it could be that women really don't know the rules and that therefore the average female-written submission is of lower quality. Or the average qualities could be identical. My point is that we don't really know that they are.

My guess is that women, on average, write about somewhat different political and social topics and that there may be a biased filter at the other end, a filter which traps more of those submissions as uninteresting, because they have been traditionally underrepresented in the media.

I have written about these questions before, usually around the time when there is one of those waves of asking where all the women bloggers are and why they are no good, but a short way of explaining my opinion is that this might be one of those questions in which we need to apply both prongs of my feminist definition fork:

We need to make sure that women have an equal opportunity to participate in the public debate AND we need to value the traditionally female fields of activity as much as the traditionally male fields of activity. The latter means that the definition of politics and the view of What Is Really Important may have to change, to allow for equal treatment of the so-called "women's issues" on op-ed pages.