The Opinion Mystique

Poor Anne Applebaum. She just discovered, after a couple of decades in journalism, that she might be viewed as “a token.” She's the only woman columnist gracing The Washington Post's op-ed page, and she says, with some degree of sarcasm, that she's lonely.

But, apparently, she thinks her loneliness is born of merit. Women shouldn't be hired simply because they're women, she insists. They should be hired -- like she and her friends were -- because they're good at what they do.

She's right. Women journalists, lawyers, doctors, and plumbers should be hired because they're talented. But they shouldn't have to be more talented than the men who traditionally have held jobs in their fields and who still control most of those positions. They should have an equal chance to prove they're the best.

Applebaum, for obvious reasons, likes to think she was hired solely on her merits. I'm sure she was. She's a fine writer, a smart journalist. She's also a woman, and she had a shot at an influential, high-profile job precisely because of the women who went before her, women who fought long and hard to create opportunities for people like Anne Applebaum and me, a political reporter. Many of those women, capable and hard-working as they were, never made it into the game because it was restricted primarily to men. Many were fired when they had babies or were shuffled off to write for the “women's section” (for lesser salaries than the men). Applebaum and I stand on the shoulders of the many women who fought, who sued, and who suffered for seeking full opportunities in journalism. We also stand on the shoulders of some who succeeded, gifted women journalists who had to run twice as fast as their male counterparts just to keep up.

Unfortunately, the men who run most newspapers, rarely in the vanguard of social progress, often seem to feel they have done their duty if they find one or two qualified women and people of color to write columns, cover politics, or run departments. I once was a reporter for a large metro daily newspaper that boasted it had had a woman city editor, a woman foreign editor, and a woman national editor. Regrettably, they were all the same woman, who was moved around the newsroom from slot to slot like a chess piece. A few years ago, someone at The New York Times asked me if I thought it was really necessary for that paper to have two women political columnists -- Gail Collins, now that newspaper's editorial-page editor, and Pulitzer Prize winner Maureen Dowd. It didn't occur to him, or apparently to the people in authority, to question the larger number of men writing on the same subject. Likewise, Los Angeles Times editorial and opinion editor Michael Kinsley recently wrote that increasing the number of women on op-ed pages would necessitate decreasing the presence of minorities. Somehow he forgot to throw into the mix those most-published of opinion writers: white men.

Defenders of male-dominated op-ed pages in some of the nation's finest newspapers argue sensibly that only the best and brightest should own space on the most coveted real estate in journalism. Surely they do not mean to suggest that only 10 percent to 20 percent of the nation's best and brightest writers and thinkers are women. Yet that is the level of women-penned op-ed pieces that ran in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post during the first two months of this year. If, as some editors explain, the submissions from women aren't forthcoming, perhaps it is time to seek them out, on a newspaper's own staff, on the staffs of other publications, or from within the think tanks and universities that already are the places where many opinion writers come from.

While Applebaum and allies defend their reputations and their turf, they rarely mention -- or discount -- the reason those much-maligned feminists and others still fight for some semblance of fairness among influence peddlers. It is not merely to give women and minorities an equal shot at jobs, though that certainly is part of it. It is to reflect the diverse viewpoints that make up our society. We are all shaped by our experiences, life stories molded in part by gender, race, religion, ethnicity, age, education, income level, even hometown. Shouldn't at least some of those differences be reflected on our newspapers' opinion pages?

That does not mean -- must not mean -- that women columnists should be relegated to writing about “women's issues,” as Applebaum wryly implies, though hopefully some women and men will. Neither should black columnists have to write about “black issues” nor Hispanic columnists have to write about “Hispanic issues.” But they should have the opportunity to write about any issue -- economics, the Sinn Fein, or the White House -- through their own particular lens, the lens that makes them different from the columnist across the page. Even if that is another woman.

Jodi Enda has covered the White House and Congress for Knight Ridder Newspapers and is past president of the Journalism & Women Symposium. She lives in Washington, D.C.