It's the Politics, Stupid

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.)

Last year, a fracas developed in the world of opinion journalism over why exactly it is that women writers are absent from such debates. For Maureen Dowd and the Washington Monthly's Amy Sullivan, psychology is the culprit: Whether by inclination or socialization, women just aren't natural political combatants, as they crave positive reinforcement and want desperately to be liked. Hooey, responded The Nation's Katha Pollitt, who argues that male editors are discriminatory: “They just don't see women, even when women are right in front of them.”

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.”

The whole debate could leave you wondering if women have opinions at all, or if they do, whether they're capable of expressing them. But look at how viciously female writers like Judith Warner and Caitlin Flanagan lash out at one another in the dreaded “mommy wars.” Women writers certainly aren't afraid to enter the fray when the topic is housework and child care, sexless marriages and distant husbands. Or examine the sparkling contributions women like Susan Sontag and Camille Paglia have made to cultural criticism. Publications that take culture seriously, such as Salon and Slate, have a higher proportion of female editors and contributors than the more staid political magazines.

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It's hard to ignore the conclusion that neither human nature nor willfully blind editors are completely to blame for the lack of women in political opining: we must also consider the (continued) lack of women involved in government itself. Journalism is essentially an observational profession, and it makes sense that many women writers feel detached from a political world that not only showcases very few women, but also relegates “women's issues” (these days, anything domestic in both senses of the word, whether public education, health care, issues of work-life balance, or student debt) to second-class status.

Indeed, we remind ourselves far too infrequently that the number of women in positions of national power remains miniscule, and that this affects what issues we debate when we write about “politics.” Women comprise just 15.1 percent of Congress and 22.8 percent of state legislatures. Of the 100 largest American cities, only 12 have female mayors. Just four of President Bush's 15 cabinet members are women. There are only 8 female governors. Only one woman of color has ever served in the U.S. Senate.

Furthermore, those women who do make it onto the national political stage are hardly liberated from sexism. Hillary Clinton, despite her many attributes, continues to be defined by her marriage to a much more talented politician. Condoleezza Rice is an enigma: Behind those intelligent eyes, does she resent her role as sexy, single-gal shill for the Bush administration's failed foreign policy? Nancy Pelosi, who come Election Day may very well find herself the first female speaker of the House, remains essentially unknown to most Americans. She recently told Newsweek she maintains a low profile because, as an unabashedly liberal woman (and unfortunately, not usually a very articulate one), she is far too easy for Republicans to target with misogynistic rhetoric. As laid out in a Washington Post article Saturday, she's already been criticized for her expensive suits and accused by Majority Whip Roy Blunt of wanting to establish a pussy-footed “Department of Peace.” Pelosi said to Newsweek, “Two-thirds of the public have absolutely no idea who I am. I see that as a strength. This isn't about me. It's about the Democrats.”

Indeed, effective congressional leaders have traditionally been behind-the-scenes players. But we desperately need a woman of Pelosi's stature to assume national spokesperson status. Though 151 women are now running for Congress, none of them have separated from the pack in a way that would suggest a particularly bright future on the national stage. There is no female Barack Obama -- no woman who so easily embodies the hope and the future of her movement. And it's not hard to see why that is: Feminine power in America is still too fraught with contradictions.

This is why presidential politics matter. However one may feel about Hillary Clinton's hedging and compromises on major progressive policy issues, it remains the case that a female Democratic presidential candidate would insert women into politics in the most meaningful and direct way possible, forcing Americans to imagine a woman as the world's most powerful leader and to incorporate that prospect into their political debates. As Rebecca Traister noted last week in a Salon article about Clinton's complicated relationship with feminists, it is a “visceral, painful reality that as a nation, we have never respected women enough to elect one as our chief.” Given that reality, it's no surprise that too many female writers have generally surrendered the ground of politics to their male colleagues. If a woman (or two) runs for president, and particularly if a progressive one wins, women and “women's issues” would come to the fore of the national political discussion. This could change the landscape of political journalism, forcing writers (and their readers) to perceive not only women in a different context but also politics in different ways -- involving a new set of sociological and political realities that female writers are uniquely qualified to engage.

Perhaps it's too hopeful to think that in the meantime, female opinion journalists can fill the void created by the lack of women in every other sphere of our national political life. But I must admit, it's one of the reasons I got into this profession, and one of the reasons I plan to stick with it through the seemingly inevitable and traumatic death of print. Ann Friedman, managing editor of AlterNet, suggests that publications institute a byline gender quota to force the hard work of moving toward parity. I agree, but of course journalists -- and feminists -- must always keep the bigger picture in mind. The lack of women in political opinion journalism is symptomatic of the lack of women in government, and the lack of women in government is symptomatic of an even larger structural problem -- the maintenance of traditional gender roles within the family and a continued insistence on imparting our children with gendered dreams. A lone newspaper or magazine editor can only do so much to reverse that dynamic. The real answers lie, as always, in the realm of politics and power.

Dana Goldstein is associate editor of CampusProgress.org at the Center for American Progress.

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