Opining Women?

Katha Pollitt a closet Star Tribune reader?


You'd never know it reading the Newspaper of the Twin Cities, but there's a simmering debate over newspapers' seeming inability to come up with female opinion columnists. This tiresome debate has waged the two decades I've been in journalism, for a variety of reasons never taking on even the mock-urgency of the equally long-simmering despair over newspapers' inability to come up with writers of color. The latest explanation--for the women part, anyhow? Women aren't comfortable expressing strong opinions.

Gag me.

Although I don't doubt the still mostly male leadership of the nation's largest newsrooms wishes it were so.

I think the malaise is better explained by Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, who weighed in today with a letter posted on Jim Romanesko's journalism industry blog.

Another fiesta of handwringing and blaming the dearth of women columnists on women's lack of moxie. I can't stand it! Women now make up half of all med students (Blood! Gore! every day you could kill someone with a tiny mistake!), half of all law students (arguments! crazy clients! people being really mean to you all day long!). Women are increasing their numbers in virtually every male-dominated profession from engineering to politics -- except opinion journalism. For this, and this only, women are just too shy and nice. I don't believe it. The truth is, women are still perceived as a special interest on the op-ed page -- one is enough, just the way one person of color is enough. Women don't get equal mentoring, the same chances to prove themselves, are shifted over toward editing and toward writing for style and culture sections, writing "from home" and writing those b-s stories about how feminism is dead and women just want to hang out at Starbucks with the other moms. Even so, there are plenty of women RIGHT NOW who could take on a column and do brilliantly. Where are the job offers for them? It's not like every man with a column is a pundit of genius, either.

One point that is rarely raised is that women writers are disproportionately liberal and feminist in an era in which the media is rather conservative. These days, conservative papers less often bother with having a resident liberal (can you believe the Wall Street Journal used to run Alex Cockburn?). At the same time, liberal or centrist papers bend over backwards to prove they're neutral (look at the NYT's last two op-ed hires, Brooks and Tierney, at the LAT's firing Robert Scheer and hiring Jonah Goldberg). The big irony will be that if women writers and readers ever succeed in pressuring papers to hire more women columnists, the jobs will go to women who will write, endlessly, about the evils of working mothers and the usefulness of torture as a foreign-policy tool.

Memo to Strib editorial strategy-makers: Before you go waving Katherine Kersten around in a defensive display, reread Pollitt's last sentence. Describe anyone hereabouts? Okay, just checking...

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