Female Op-Ed Columnists Discuss Why There Aren’t More of Them

By: Dave Astor

Female opinion columnists say op-ed pages are still dominated by men for reasons including sexism, resistance to change on the part of some editors, and the reluctance of some women to do commentary.

E&P, after reporting last Tuesday that the percentage of syndicated female op-ed columnists had risen only from 23.7% to 24.4% since 1999, subsequently queried female commentators to find out why this percentage isn’t higher.

Tad Bartimus of United Feature Syndicate said a number of newspaper editors (including some female ones) are reluctant to make changes. They’ve run certain columnists (mostly male) for years, she said, and feel bringing in different voices might be risky. “They go with the safe, the tried-and-true,” perhaps without realizing that many readers would welcome something new, observed the former Associated Press reporter.

“There’s no justification for so few women voices on op-ed pages,” added Bartimus, noting that there are many women writers — she mentioned Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt as two examples — who could do great work for daily newspapers.

Some editors, Bartimus continued, feel female op-ed columnists aren’t as hard-hitting as male ones. But she said writing differently doesn’t necessarily mean writing soft. “I write about what George Will and the rest of the men write about,” she said. “I just do it in a different way.”

Joan Ryan of the San Francisco Chronicle and Newspaper Enterprise Association said: “I’m not sure why there aren’t more syndicated op-ed columnists. Maybe the same reason there aren’t more female editors, female CEOs, female tenured professors, etc. Women are still the distinct minority in power-wielding positions across the board, not just on the op-ed pages.”

Debra Saunders of the Chronicle and Creators Syndicate said: “There’s more than one factor at work here. You can’t just point to male sexism, not when Maureen Dowd writes that as a woman she found the tough part of the job — not being liked — went against her feminine instincts. I’ve never had that problem, and have little sympathy for columnists who do.”

Saunders added: “I do think that we have a tendency to look at one imbalance — women on opinion pages — without questioning the ratio of women who work in features, for example. I’ll add, it’s fascinating how we leave out the biggest imbalance in the business, which is an overwhelming left-leaning newsroom staff in a 50-50 country.”

When asked why there aren’t more female op-ed columnists, Kathleen Parker of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel and Tribune Media Services quipped: “I have no idea. Frankly, I hadn’t noticed. But let me respond with another question: Why aren’t there more left-handed columnists? As a left-handed commentator, this concerns me deeply.”

Patrisia Gonzales, who co-writes a Universal Press Syndicate column with Roberto Rodriguez, said: “I hate to generalize about this, but here goes. … Men make most of the decisions about who’s hired as a columnist or who’s accepted as having ‘authority’ to write. There are untold numbers of women and people of color whose ideas are cutting edge and ‘outside of the box’; unfortunately, they rarely make it into the commentary pages on a regular basis.”

Gonzales added: “The women and people of color who write with complexity may not fit into easily marketable niches. There are still editors who want us to fit into their ideas of who we are and how we should think. Now, in this era of war and largely unquestioning acceptance of our government’s policies at home and abroad, there’s an even greater need for women’s voices who challenge unacceptable behavior as normal and justified.”

After Ellen Goodman was asked for a comment last week, she e-mailed E&P a column that was slated to run in yesterday’s Boston Globe and then get syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. In the piece, Goodman wrote: “Is the slow pace of change due to external or internal hurdles? … 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? … I’m wary of building a case out of gender differences. Have we forgotten all those tests showing that little girls are (innately? intrinsically?) more verbal than little boys? Under the [Harvard President Lawrence] Summers standard, shouldn’t women rule the opinion roost?”

Goodman added: “Op-ed pages are, of course, a pretty small piece of property. 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.”

E&P also queried Suzette Martinez Standring, a humor writer and president of the 578-member National Society of Newspaper Columnists. “With all the yammering about diversity and equality, the percentage of syndicated female columnists has risen a nominal .7% since 1999,” she said in an e-mail. “One can only read the tea leaves when faced with the absence of hard facts as to why. There’s no dearth of female columnists who offer enlightening and well-written opinions. Anecdotally, scores of our female members, experienced and respected, seek syndication. They’re knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door, but there’s no answer from the guy in charge. Maybe the filtering system is powered by prejudice that the public respects a man’s opinion more. An op-ed page featuring opinions mainly penned by men is not uncommon, but to largely feature women? And regularly? Too bold. Too unfamiliar. It’s a … lack of courage and conviction to fully invest in half the population.”

The small number of women op-ed writers has been an issue for a long time, but recently moved to the forefront as Creators columnist Susan Estrich criticized the Los Angeles Times for its overwhelming male opinion pages. Bartimus said: “It’s like one of those peat fires in Alaska that was burning underground for 28 years before finally exploding.”

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