In the olden days, when women used to hang their laundry in the back yard on clotheslines, a lot of neighborhood news was spread over the back fence. The telephone increased the range of gossip transmission, and made it possible for eager consumers to find out what was going on in the next town as well. The contemporary substitute for the back fence is e-mail, a way of finding out what’s become of friends and acquaintances in distant places with little effort.
A forwarded e-mail this week told me that an old high school friend had become a bone of contention between two high-powered movers and shakers, in a war of words that evidently has been burning up the blogs for the last couple of weeks. It seems that Susan Estrich (Friend of Bill and USC law prof) sent out a mass mailing on Valentine’s Day—be careful when you press that send button—excoriating her sometime friend and Co-Shaker Michael Kinsley (once editor of The New Republic, then Microsoft’s on-line Slate, and now the editorial and opinion editor at the Los Angeles Times) for including so few women among the L.A. Times’ op-ed stable. She called it “blatant sex discrimination” and since she has students she has numbers to back up her opinions. They’ve been counting for three years, and find an overwhelming preponderance of male voices. Fine. Almost certainly true. Who’d argue? But then Estrich stepped a bit off the rails. She complained that a recent discussion of gender in the Times’ op-ed section had included a piece by “a feminist-hater I have never heard of, nor probably have you, by the name of Charlotte Allen.”
Well, as it happens, I have heard of Charlotte, and in fact I went to high school with her. She is, as she’s always been, a smart, witty person, quite a good writer, well-educated at famous schools, both law and graduate. I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with her in the last few years after many years’ hiatus. And no, we don’t usually talk politics, including feminism, because we’d like to remain friends. But still—she’s just as qualified as anyone, including Susan Estrich, to express her admittedly challengeable opinions in the august precincts of the op-ed pages of the L.A. Times. And when I looked up her piece to see why Estrich found it outrageous, her thesis was actually pretty tame: Smart women are wasting their time talking about feminism when they could be public intellectuals like the late Susan Sontag. She gave examples: I could give counter-examples. I think she’s wrong, and I might even like to get into it sometime with her over a glass of wine.
But there are just too many things wrong in the political universe right now for women like Estrich to waste their time and their accumulated prestige on attacking other women with ad feminam arguments. She says that she’s been recommending good women writers like Arianna Huffington to the L.A.Times for years and they’ve been ignoring her advice. She’d be on much firmer ground if she’d continued in that vein. She should have started by acknowledging Allen’s valid point that having women public intellectuals is important. Then she could have gone on to list the large number of female public intellectuals that we actually do have. To name just a few good ones: Naomi Klein, Robin Lakoff, Katha Pollitt, Ellen Goodman, Patricia Williams, Molly Ivins, Amy Wilentz, Arlie Russell Hochschild...none of these women confine their analytic gifts to feminist topics, though all are feminists. Allen missed all of these because they’re all leftish, appearing most often in left opinion journals which she probably doesn’t read.
A more interesting question for both Estrich and Kinsley is why they hang around so much with the kind of slippery neo-cons to be found in the pages of The New Republic, on the Democratic Leadership Council and among the long-time FOBs. Estrich’s latest version of her complaint can be found on her Creator’s Syndicate web page, where she complains that her column (everyone’s a columnist) isn’t picked up in papers that already have Molly Ivins and/or Ellen Goodman. One answer could be that balloon-pricking outsiders like Molly or true-blue liberals like Ellen add more spice to over-corporate op-ed pages than more conformist insiders like Estrich. They’re also—sorry—better writers, if her sample columns on the web are representative.
None of this, however, refutes her original complaint, which I have no reason to challenge: that the L.A. Times op-ed pages print many more pieces by men than by women. It would be interesting to try to figure out if there’s a more complex reason for this phenomenon than flat-out conscious discrimination. The two Timeses, east and west, solicit op-ed pieces and even re-write them if they don’t like what the writer offers; the Planet doesn’t do any of that. Our op-ed section isn’t solicited or mediated—we take what people send us, almost everything. We haven’t counted up how many of our excellent opinion contributors belong to which gender, but perhaps we should. Anyone out there have anything to say on this topic?