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Archive for Sunday, March 20, 2005

Women with opinions must toughen up

March 20, 2005

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— And now we reach once more into our e-mail bag. We begin with one reader's invocation: "When God created you, hopefully she broke the mold." We go on to names we are called: "jackass" and "goofball," and "muddle-headed liberal." We conclude with the dated dittohead who calls us a "little feminazi."

We start this column with some of our non-fan letters because this is what happens when you tell people what you think for a living. They tell you what they think of what you think. As Virginia Woolf put it much more gracefully, "I look upon disregard or abuse as part of my bargain. I'm to write what I like and they're to say what they like." Amen.

While the world is focused on Larry Summers and the dearth of women in science faculties, there has been a micro-flap about the dearth of women on the op-ed pages. Not to mention other places -- from talk radio to the political blogosphere -- where being opinionated is an admissions test.

This began with a public and pissy e-mail exchange between Susan Estrich and Michael Kinsley. Estrich, law professor, columnist and Fox News commentator, protested the lack of women on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page. Kinsley, columnist, "Crossfire" veteran and editorial page editor, took umbrage at her umbrage.

Their spat was followed by the number-crunchers. Yes, there are more women on op-ed pages than in tenured science positions at Harvard. But the current op-ed percentage is as low as 10.4 percent in The Washington Post and 16.9 percent in The New York Times. The number of syndicated columns written by women is less than one in four and holding.

After the bean counting came the analysis. Gail Collins, a wise and witty columnist promoted away to head The New York Times editorial page, said "the pool of available people doing opinion writing is still tilted toward men." Then came the debate with a familiar subtext: Is the slow pace of change due to external or internal hurdles? Is it us or them? Or both?

In this case, the question is whether fewer women jump into the pool because they fear the sharks. Are women more uncomfortable with confrontation? Do they prefer to mediate rather than heighten conflict?

As one of the beans counted, I'm wary of building a case out of gender differences. Have we forgotten all those tests showing that little girls are more verbal than little boys? Under the Summers standard, shouldn't women rule the opinion roost?

Op-ed pages are, of course, a pretty small piece of property. And diversity is measured by subject as well as author. But many pages that have room for five men writing about politics still find that two women are one too many.

Without dismissing a double standard, this flap has made me ask whether more women are still reluctant to raise their hands in the most public of classrooms.

First, Collins said that there are "probably fewer women, in the great cosmic scheme of things, who feel comfortable writing very straight opinion stuff." Then New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd confessed that she once nearly quit because "I wanted to be liked -- not attacked."

Finally, what got to me was a talented young reporter who phoned me about this story. In our conversation, it became clear that she too was skittish about putting her strong opinions out on the street.

Well, I do not think that women should train in the Ann Coulter School of Opinion-Hurling. I avoid leaving teeth marks on innocent ankles. We don't need more women -- or men -- in the Strunk and Food Fight Stylebook. There are many ways to be heard. But writing out loud, saying what you think on the op-ed page or in the blogosphere, on talk radio or in politics, requires a little hide-toughening.

When I was first writing in my hometown, my mother would meet people who said, "she used to be such a nice child." Sooner or later, you have to worry more about being right than being nice. You don't worry about making someone mad. You know you are.

As for keeping the attack dogs from nibbling away your courage? My theory, after decades in this business, is that you only give a few people the right to make you feel rotten. You have a handful of chits to give out, penuriously, to those you trust and respect. You don't give them to just anyone with an e-mail address and an epithet.

That seems to me a pretty good rule for opinion writing. And come to think of it, for life.

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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