Where are the women? (National Post, March 16, 2005)

Last Sunday, Maureen Dowd lamented the dearth of women on the opinion pages of America's newspapers. She herself is the only female op-ed columnist at The New York Times. The Washington Post has but one. Bloggers, all opinion all the time, are overwhelmingly male.

Dowd's reflections were sparked by University of Southern California
feminist Susan Estrich. Last month, Estrich attacked Michael Kinsley,
comment pages editor of the Los Angeles Times, for refusing to publish her
submissions. Cattily undermining her case, Estrich penned a scathing ad
hominem to Kinsley, suggesting the Parkinson's disease that afflicts him
"may have affected your brain."

Rather than dwell on Estrich's hateful hissy fit, let's turn to the
interesting question raised by the kerfuffle: Why are there so many female
reporters, editors, and parenting/fashion/food/sex advice mavens, but so few female op-ed writers?

May we dispense at once with the notion of a glass ceiling or some kind of
prejudice against women in newspaper comment departments? There isn't any. Indeed, as one editor confessed to me, he and his colleagues only wish they could get more female columnists.

Women are as smart and skilled at writing as men, and over-represented in journalism schools. But it seems there are simply not that many women who enjoy the chronic stress of mounting arguments in a public forum.

Dowd herself admits to feeling vulnerable in a way most male op-ed writers don't. She once told her editor that as a woman, "I wanted to be liked -- not attacked."

I can relate to that. It took me many months of weekly writing before I
achieved a sense of detachment about critical response.

Even in today's woman-friendly job equity market, women shy away from
exposure to the flak whizzing around intellectual combat zones. They have
opinions, to be sure, but they tend to find their outlet in causes and
organizations rooted in their community rather than in abstract reasoning.
My regular e-mail column responders are disproportionately male (Hi Bob,
Sandro, Ed, Bert), and brim with opinions they like to share in writing.
They'd all love my job.

Of course, one has only to state a general rule, and immediately exceptions spring to mind, such as Diane Francis of the Financial Post and The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente, both of whom frolic high-spiritedly in the traditionally male, wonky preserves of finance and governance. But they are unusual, and are rightly distinguished for the professional rigour and neutrality -- gender-wise -- with which they approach serious issues.

Some women columnists regularly woo readers with an openly confessional approach, like the Boston Globe's Ellen Goodman and former Daily Telegraph columnist Zoe Heller, who draw more universal inferences from entertaining personal stories.

Then you have what I call the "bitch phylum": There's militant anti-liberal
Ann Coulter on the right; and, on the left, Canada's venomously feminist and anti-American Linda McQuaig and Heather Mallick, among others. These leftists play the woman-as-victim card at tedious length, then routinely abuse men (George Bush in particular) with epithets that, if voiced by male writers about women, would end their careers.

Indeed, even Maureen Dowd shimmies in and out of bitch mode: She is prone to childish nicknames that mainstream male writers never use, so her pique at being called "mean" is disingenuous.

As for me, I had to be old before I could tackle this job. Even though I
always felt I could write competently, I would never have submitted an op-ed to a newspaper when I was young, as the thought of rejection was too mortifying. But I am now confident enough to trust my opinions and respond to criticism with reason rather thanegoism or thin-skinned whining (Are you listening, Maureen? Susan?).

Dowd ends her column with a kneejerk feminist suggestion: "I have no doubt there are plenty of brilliant women who would bring grace and guts to our nation's op ed pages ... We just need to find and nurture them."

No, Maureen, you've got it backwards. If a woman needs finding and
nurturing, she's wrong for the job. We don't want shrinking violets on our
op-ed pages. We want strong proactive women writers with definite opinions, who scorn affirmative action and like to duke it out in public.

And nobody's stopping them. They built the comment pages, but the women didn't come. Don't blame the system. There are jobs requiring patience, tenderness and empathy that don't attract most men, like nursing. And there are jobs that don't appeal to women -- firefighting, hydro-electric repair -- most of them involving the risk of getting physically hurt or, in the case of column-writing, being ridiculed, snarled at and metaphorically smacked upside the head.

Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way, as I enjoy giving back as good as I get. It's an innate thing. You have it or you don't. And most women don't. As my highly opinionated mother used to say, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it."

© National Post 2005