Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On Hen's Teeth and Women Political Columnists

They are about equally common, it seems. Dana Goldstein has written an interesting piece on the rare sightings of that unusual breed: the argumentative political woman writer. She hooks the story with the recent changes in the New York Times:

Gail Collins stepped down earlier this month as editor of the New York Times opinion pages. If you're concerned about the lack of women in American political discourse, this seems like bad news: Women are losing their representative in what is, arguably, the most powerful post in opinion journalism. What's more, Collins' successor is the consummate male insider, current deputy editor Andrew Rosenthal, son of late Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal. The generally sorry state of women in the realm of elite opining is evidenced by the fact that when Collins returns to her old columnist's post after a six-month book leave, it will be the first time since her 2001 promotion that the nation's pre-eminent op-ed page will have more than one regular female contributor.

Across the board, women continue to account for only one-quarter of syndicated columnists. Editors say up to 80 percent of submissions to newspaper op-ed pages are penned by men, and the gender disparity worsens when the topic is politics. At four major liberal political magazines (The American Prospect, The Nation, The New Republic, and the Washington Monthly), a cursory survey of mastheads shows that only about one in every five editorial staffers are women, and just a single top editor, The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel.

So although Collins' tenure has been eulogized in the pages of her own newspaper and elsewhere as a feminist watershed, when it comes to increasing the gender diversity in serious American political journalism, Collins' ascension up the masthead amounted to mere symbolism. The two empty columnist spots that opened up during her five year tenure were filled by men, David Brooks and John Tierney. To be sure, it's worth lauding Collins' fine work in arraying a stable of truly diverse and interesting Times Select contributors, from the graphic artist Maira Kalman to the contrarian scholar Stanley Fish -- in fact, it was through the guest columns and blogs behind the Times Select subscription wall that Collins truly did bring more women into the fold, including Slate legal expert Dalia Lithwick; the class-conscious Barabara Ehrenreich; Perfect Madness author Judith Warner; and Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff. But even these women seem to be tokens. Most of the time, they haven't covered horserace electoral politics, the Iraq War, weapons proliferation, the anti-immigration fence, or any of the other hardball national political topics that op-ed pages prioritize in this time of wars and midterms. (Lithwick is an important exception. Someone offer that woman a higher profile job, pronto.)

Pardon me while I go and gag a little. I'm ever so slightly allergic to any mention of the brothers-under-the-skin Brooks and Tierney, you may know. Did Collins really shift through an enormous slush pile at the Times, in desperate search for good female voices, only to end up happily clutching a piece by one of these guys to her chest instead? Did she run around the office, shouting "Heureka! I've spotted the Great Columnists of this generation!" That would make a good opening scene for a movie.

To return to Goldstein's article, I'm fascinated by the statement that up to eighty percent of all submissions to op-ed pages are by men and that this is why there are so few women printed on those same pages. Rarer than hen's teeth, we are. Except that most major op-ed pages don't accept uninvited submissions. Or that's what they tell me right after the bit about my piece having obvious merit. And in general I would question that eighty percent figure, because I alone am responsible for roughly forty percent of all uninvited (and unwanted) submissions to op-ed pages. Not to mention all those letters-to-the-editor which were refused because I have no last name. What is Ofthesnakes, then, if not a last name?

But it's most likely true that women don't send in as many manuscripts. Many women are far too objective and self-critical, and a certain hubris is necessary to get published. It helps to think of yourself as a divine creature, for example. Or a man if being divine is a little too much self-promotion. Just joking, here. About the man part. Still, to learn to accept rejections is the first rule in the game of getting published.

The second one appears to be to write about Real Politics, not girl stuff:

Most of the time, they haven't covered horserace electoral politics, the Iraq War, weapons proliferation, the anti-immigration fence, or any of the other hardball national political topics that op-ed pages prioritize in this time of wars and midterms.

Hardballs... Fascinating how political topics become sexed. Some are important and hard and require sports terms and pictures about killing. Others are less important and soft and gooey and suitable for women to write about. None of this is an attack against Goldstein. She's writing as she sees it, and she sees it correctly. But there is nothing inherently more important about anti-immigration fences than education or health care. Now I really want to write a woman's eye article on one of these hard-testicled topics, a funny one...

But nobody would read that one. That's the impression I draw from this quote:

But then how can we account for Collins' failure to recruit more serious female political writers? Here was a female editor with all the necessary power and the inclination to do so. But as she explained to Sullivan, her hands were tied because she received so few op-ed submissions from women. "The pool is weighted toward men. … Within that, the number of people who are capable of writing 700 words twice a week and making it sound fresh and interesting … that's a very tiny pool."

A tiny, tiny pool and Brooks and Tierney take up most of it already. Besides, it's hard to sound fresh and interesting, twice a week, unless you make up stuff and go all wingnutty. And then there is the toothless hen problem. We should get hens implants.