This week I had planned to write a column about Sinn Fein, the political front organization for the Irish Republican Army, whose leaders have recently been linked to acts of murder and grand larceny. I chose the subject because I wrote often about the IRA while living in Britain in the 1990s, because I’ve worked as a reporter in Belfast, because it’s timely — tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day — and because there might be lessons in the story for Hamas and Hezbollah, terrorist groups that may or may not be able to make the transition to democratic politics as well.
These thoughts arose, in other words, out of work I’ve done as a journalist and columnist for nearly 20 years. But in the past 72 hours I’ve discovered that I am not just an ordinary journalist or an ordinary columnist. No. I am a token.
That, at any rate, is what I conclude from the bumper crop of articles, columns and blogs that have, over the past few days, pointed to the dearth of women on op-ed pages. Several have pointed out that I am, at the moment, The Post’s only regular female columnist. This was not the case when I moved here, just over two years ago. At that time both Mary McGrory, a fixture for several decades, and Marjorie Williams, a witty and accomplished journalist, were writing regularly as well. By tragic coincidence, both died in the past year.
Possibly because I see so many excellent women around me at the newspaper, possibly because so many of The Post’s best-known journalists are women, possibly because I’ve never thought of myself as a “female journalist” in any case, I hadn’t felt especially lonely. But now that I know — according to widely cited statistics, which I cannot verify — that only 10.4 percent of articles on this newspaper’s op-ed page in the first two months of this year were written by women, 16.9 percent of the New York Times’s op-ed articles were by women, and 19.5 percent of the Los Angeles Times’s op-eds were by women, lonely is how I feel. Or perhaps the right phrase is “self-conscious and vaguely embarrassed.”
This conversation was sparked, as media junkies will know, by a bizarre attack launched on Michael Kinsley, now the editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times, by Susan Estrich, a self-styled feminist. In a ranting, raving series of e-mails last month, all of which were leaked, naturally, Estrich accused Kinsley of failing to print enough articles by women, most notably herself, and of resorting instead to the use of articles by men, as well as by women who don’t count as women because they don’t write with “women’s voices.”
Here I declare an interest: Michael Kinsley hired me to write an op-ed column when he was the editor of the online magazine Slate. As for Estrich, I don’t know much about her at all, except that she’s just launched a conversation that is seriously bad for female columnists and writers. None of the ones I know — and, yes, I conducted an informal survey — want to think of themselves as beans to be counted, or as “female journalists” with a special obligation to write about “women’s issues.” Most of them got where they are by having clear views, knowing their subjects, writing well and learning to ignore the ad hominem attacks that go with the job. But now, thanks to Estrich, every woman who gets her article accepted will have to wonder whether it was her knowledge of Irish politics, her willingness to court controversy or just her gender that won the editor over.
This is a storm in the media teacup, but it has echoes in universities, corporations and beyond. I am told, for example, that there is pressure at Harvard Law School, and at other law schools, to ensure that at least half the students chosen for the law review are women. Quite frankly, it’s hard to think of anything that would do more damage to aspiring female lawyers. Neither they nor their prospective employers will ever know whether they got there as part of a quota or on their own merits. There’s nothing wrong with a general conversation about how women can be helped to succeed in law school or taught not to fear having strong opinions. But trust me, in none of these contexts do you want to start calculating percentages.
In the paragraph I have remaining (this, girls, is truly the hardest thing about newspaper columns: making the idea fit the space) I’m not going to discuss the thorny question of whether some affirmative action policies do some good, of whether newspapers matter anymore anyway, or even return to the subject of Sinn Fein. Those are complex, gender-neutral issues, and I’ve now used up my allotted weekly slot on a “women’s issue” instead. Happy, Susan Estrich?