Are opinions male?

From The New Republic Issue: "November 29, 1993"
Author: Naomi Wolf

The barriers that shut women up.

What is that vast silent wavelength out on the opinion superhighway? It is the sound of women not talking.

Despite women's recent strides into public life, the national forums of debate--op-ed pages, political magazines, public affairs talk shows, newspaper columns-- remain strikingly immune to the general agitation for female access. The agora of opinion is largely a men's club.

A simple count of the elite media bears out the charge. In 1992, the putative Year of the Woman, "Crossfire" presented fifty-five female guests, compared with 440 male guests. Of the print media, the most elite forums are the worst offenders: according to a survey conducted by Women, Men and Media, during a one-month period in 1992, 13 percent of the op-ed pieces published in The Washington Post were written by women; 16 percent of the articles on the The New York Times op-ed page were by women. Over the course of the year, The New Republic averaged 14 percent female contributors; Harper's, less than 20 percent; The Nation, 23 percent; The Atlantic Monthly, 33 percent. The National Interest ran the remarkable ratio of eighty male bylines to one female. The Washington Monthly ran thirty-three women to 108 men; National Review, fifty-one female bylines to 505 male (and twelve of those female bylines belonged to one columnist, Florence King). Talk radio, an influential forum for airing populist grievances, counts fifty female hosts in its national association's roster that totals 900. Eric Alterman's book about opinion-makers, Sound and Fury, chronicles female pundits only in passing.

What is going on here? Is there an unconscious--or conscious--editorial bias against women's opinions? Or are opinions themselves somehow gendered male-- does female socialization conspire against many women's ability or desire to generate a strong public voice?

The answer to the first question is an unhesitant yes: on the nuts-and-bolts level of feminist analysis, women are being left out of the opinion mix because of passive

Naomi Wolf is the author of Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the Twenty-First Century (Random House).

but institutionalized discrimination on the part of editors and producers. General-interest magazines, newspapers and electronic forums tend to view public affairs as if they can be clothed exclusively in gray flannel suits, and rely on an insular Rolodex of white men.

In self-defense some male (and female) public opinion editors point to the allegedly "personal" way in which women tend to write about politics and express their public opinions. Women are accused of writing too much about their "feelings" and their "bodies"--as if such subjects were by nature ill- suited to respectable public discussion. And yes, this charge has some merit. But a double standard is at work here. Men, too, write about their feelings and bodies, but that discussion is perceived as being central and public. Though masculinists lay claim to passionless "objectivity," "logic" and "universality" as being the hallmarks of male debate, a glance shows how spurious is their position. What, after all, was the gays-in-the-military debate except a touchy-feely all-night boys-only slumber party, in which Dad-- in the form of Sam Nunn--came downstairs to have a bull session with earnest youths lying on bunk beds? What were the snuggled-up military boys asked about but their feelings--feelings about being ogled, objectified, harassed; fears of seduction and even rape? Had it been young women interviewed in their dorm rooms about their fears of men, the whole exercise, cloaked in the sententious language of "national preparedness," would have been dismissed as a radical- feminist fiesta of victim-consciousness, encouraging oversensitive flowers to see sexual predators under every bed.

Indeed, the nationalism of German skinheads, the high melodrama of the World Cup and the recent convulsion of Japan-bashing--all of these are, on one level, complex sociopolitical developments; on another, they are a continuing global c.r. session on vulnerability and self-esteem conducted primarily by men about men. One could read the Western canon itself as a record of men's deep feelings of alternating hope and self-doubt--whether it recounts Dick Diver destroying himself because his wife is wealthier than he, or King Lear raging on a heath at the humiliation of being stripped of his world.

So women and men often actually theorize about parallel experiences, but the author's maleness will elevate the language as being importantly public, while the author's femaleness stigmatizes it as being worthlessly private. Women writing about the stresses and failures of maternity, for instance, are deviating onto the literary mommy track, but when men write about the stresses and failures of paternity, they are analyzing "the plight of inner-city youths," "cultural breakdown" or "child abuse hysteria." A woman recounting her own experience of systematic oppression is writing a "confessional"; but when a man writes intensely personal, confessional prose--whether it is Rousseau in his Confessions or Bob Packwood in his diaries--he is engaged in pioneering enlightenment, or, even in William Safire's terms, acting as "a Pepysian diarist ... [who] has kept voluminous notes on life as a lightning rod."

Of course, many women write about issues unmarked by gender, from city council elections to computer chips. But when women talk about politics, culture, science and the law in relation to female experience--i.e., rape statutes, fertility drugs, misogyny in film or abortion rights--they are perceived as talking about their feelings and bodies. Whereas when men talk about their feelings and bodies--i.e., free speech in relation to their interest in pornography, gun ownership in relation to their fear of criminal assault, the drive for prostate cancer research in relation to their fears of impotence, new sexual harassment guidelines in relation to their irritation at having their desire intercepted in the workplace--they are read as if they are talking about politics, culture, science and the law.

Thus, much of what passes for rational public debate is an exchange of subjective male impressions about masculine sensibilities and the male body-- an exchange that appears "lucid" and "public" because men arrogate the qualities of transparency and generalization when discussing male emotions and the experiences of male flesh, but assign to women the qualities of opacity and particularity when they discuss their own.

The lack of media oxygen for women writers of opinion can strangle voice, putting them into an impossible double bind. Many women also write from a personal vantage point alone because they feel it is one realm over which they can claim authority. As Jodie Allen, an editor at The Washington Post, puts it, "When they sit down to write, they think, why should anyone listen to me? At least if I take it from the `women's' point of view, they can't deny I'm a woman. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." With the "public/male, private/female" split so schematized, many other women writers of opinion must assume "the female perspective," as if shouldering a heroic but cumbersome burden. They are forced, by the relative paucity of female pundits at the highest levels, to speak "for women" rather than simply hashing out the issues in a solitary way.

This extreme is represented sometimes by an Anna Quindlen, whose "maternal punditry" beats a lonely drum on the guy terrain of the Times op-ed page. The meager allocation of space for female pundits at the highest levels, what Quindlen calls "a quota of one," does indeed force the few visible women writers of opinion who take a feminist stance into becoming stoic producers of that viewpoint, counted upon to generate a splash of sass and color, a provocative readerly-writerly tussle, in the gray expanses of male perspectives and prose. Editors seem to treat these few female pundits as cans in six-packs marked, for instance, "Lyrical African American Women Novelists"; "Spunky White Female Columnists with Kids"; or, perhaps, the reliable category, "Feminists (Knee-Jerk to Loony)." As Quindlen once remarked, a newspaper editor explained that he could not syndicate her column because "we already run Ellen Goodman." Popular discourse treats such writers as sound bite producers when it needs someone to say "multiculturalism is good" or "rape is bad."

So the few "pundits of identity" achieve, in the minds of those who decide what ideas inhabit the op-ed pages and who should argue with whom about what, a hard-won commerce in the perspectives inflected by gender, or by gender and race. But few can hope to take for granted the sweet oxygen that any writer needs in order to flourish: space to speak for no one but oneself.

The other extreme of the female public voice is perhaps represented by a Jeane Kirkpatrick: a voice so Olympian, so neck-up and uninflected by the experiences of the female body, that the subtle message received by young female writers is: to enter public voice, one must abide by the no-uterus rule. This voice gives a publication the benefit of a woman's name on the title page, without the mess and disruption of women's issues entering that precious space. This is the message absorbed by the legions of young women I meet. Though many writers are avidly trying to seek it out, we still lack the space and encouragement to range from the personal to the political, from identity to universality, with the ease and un-self-consciousness assumed by men.

So women are left out, or included under conditions of constraint. But do we leave ourselves out of the public forum as well? When I have asked editors at The New Republic, The Washington Post, Harper's and The New York Times op-ed page about the gender imbalance in their forums, this is the overwhelming message. Women simply do not submit articles in the same numbers that men do. And this is accurate: during one randomly selected month at tnr (February 1992), eight women submitted unsolicited manuscripts, versus fifteen men; during another month (October 1993), the ratio was eight women to fifty-five men. According to Toby Harshaw, staff member of The New York Times op-ed page, in the morning mail of November 8, of about 150 unsolicited manuscripts, the ratio of men to women was 10-to-1.

Why is this? Some editors argue that one reason for the imbalance is that women have not yet reached the highest echelons of public life: "Our biggest groups that submit are think tanks, lawyers, universities and government officials," says Harshaw. And the overwhelming majority of pieces from these groups, he notes, are by men. Yet while that argument has some validity, it cannot account for the extent of the imbalance: at the middle ranks of the law and the academy, women are reaching parity with men. What makes many women reluctant to write and submit opinion journalism, compared with men?

There is, I think, a set of deeply conditioned, internal inhibitions that work in concert with the manifest external discrimination to keep fewer women willing to submit opinion pieces, and to slug it out in public arenas. The problem is not, of course, that women can't write. They write, one can argue, with more facility than men do: women have dominated the novel--at least in its popular form--since its birth; and, if anything, social enculturation encourages girls to be more literary than most boys. No, the problem is that the traits required by writing opinion journalism or appearing on adversarial public affairs shows are often in conflict with what are deemed "appropriate" female speech patterns and behavior.

Dr. Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown University linguist, asserted that women and men often speak in different ways--women seek intimacy and consensus, she claims, while men seek status and independence. She notes that boys are raised to see boy-to-boy conflict as a way to express bonding, while girls are raised to avoid conflict in their play and enforce consensus. Psychologists Jean Baker Miller and Carol Gilligan suggest that women are more "relational" and men more "autonomous."

I don't agree with Miller or Gilligan that these tendencies are due to any primal psychic development; but women are surely encouraged to show such traits by virtue of social conditioning. And the act of writing an opinion piece--or appearing on "Crossfire"--calls for skills that are autonomous, contrarian and independent (not to say bloody-minded). Writing opinion journalism is a cranky, self-satisfied and, in traditionally feminine terms, extremely rude way to behave in public. The momentum to thrash out an opinion piece often begins with the conviction that others are wrong and that oneself is right, or that others are not saying the one thing that must be said. One is not listening; one is not set on enhancing others' well-being; one is certainly not demonstrating a "fusion of identity and intimacy," which pursuit Gilligan claims motivates women.

Unfortunately, you can't write strong, assertive prose if you are too anxious about preserving consensus; you can't have a vigorous debate if you are paralyzed with concern about wounding the sensitivities of your opposite number. Writing a bold declarative sentence that claims that the world is this way and not that, or that President Clinton should do X and is a fool to do Y, demands the assumption of a solitary, even arrogant, stance. In Gilliganesque "different voice" terms, it is lonely and emotionally unrewarding; it is, according to such theories, almost by definition an engagement in "masculine" values and patterns of speech.

Without a countervailing encouragement into speech, the social pressure on women to exhibit "connection" and suppress "autonomy" can inhibit many women's public assertiveness. Tannen describes English Professor Thomas Fox's observations of male and female freshman students' different approaches to writing analytical papers. He looked at a Ms. M. and a Mr. H. "In her speaking as well as her writing [to be read by the class]," Tannen reports, "Ms. M. held back what she knew, appearing uninformed and uninterested, because she feared offending her classmates. Mr. H. spoke with authority and apparent confidence because he was eager to persuade his peers. She did not worry about persuading; he did not worry about offending." But in Ms. M.'s papers that were to be read only by the professor--her "private" writing--Ms. M. was clear, forceful and direct. In this anecdote we see, essentially, that of the two, Mr. H., at 17, is being socialized to write opinion journalism and shout down interruptions on "The McLaughlin Group"; whereas Ms. M. is being socialized to write celebrity puff pieces in Entertainment Weekly.

Many women are raised to care--or to feel guilty if they don't care--about wounding the feelings of others. And yet, to write most purely out of herself, a writer must somehow kill off the inhibiting influence of the need for "connection." The woman writer of opinion must delve into what early feminists called "the solitude of self." When Camille Paglia claims that women have not produced great artists for the same reasons that they have not produced a Jack the Ripper, she touches, perhaps inadvertently, upon a real creative problem for women: fidelity to nothing but one's own voice can in fact depend upon a kind of radical solipsism, an ecstatic, highly unfeminine disregard for the importance of others if their well-being obtrudes upon the emergence of that transcendent vision.

Virginia Woolf returned often in her diaries to this theme, to the need to be impervious both to criticism and approval: "I look upon disregard or abuse as part of my bargain," Woolf wrote. "I'm to write what I like and they're to say what they like." Woolf's opinion of unsuccessful women's novels says volumes about the social disincentives many women face in writing damn-the-torpedoes opinion pieces: "It was the flaw in the center that had rotted them. [The novelist] had altered her values in deference to the opinions of others." And yet the world conspires against us, and within us, to have us do just that.

This internal dilemma is compounded by an external convention: even for the many women who are willing and eager to express strong opinions, conventions about how women are permitted to speak in print or on t.v. hem them in. The authoritative female voice asserting judgments about the real world is an unseemly voice. The globalizing tone that the conventions of opinion journalism or t.v. debate require involves an assumption of authority that women are actively dissuaded from claiming. A female writer of opinion at the Post concurs: "Op-ed language is the language of a certain level of abstraction; this is a language more often used by more men because more men are expert at it--you have to learn that language." As Professor Rhonda Garelick, who teaches French literary theory at the University of Colorado, put it to me, "It is just now becoming true for me that I can make `sweeping' statements. But even as I make them, I am aware that it is an unusual verbal structure for me because I'm a woman. And I am always pleasurably surprised when they are accepted. The effect is good, but it is certainly something I am trained not to do by a lifetime of being a woman. I always opted for carefulness, precision, detail in what I said or wrote--but to take that leap [and write]: I must mean this large thing--that is disconcerting. And that's what opinion journalism is."

Since the authoritative voice can be so disconcerting for many women to use, women writers often have turned to fiction to give safe cover to their longing to express their political points of view: Jane Eyre conceals a passionate outburst about feminism; Uncle Tom's Cabin sugar-coats an anti-slavery polemic. As Emily Dickinson warned, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." A prominent feminist muckraker keeps on her refrigerator the motto, "Tell the truth and run."

We know as women that the act of "taking a position" in a sweeping way-- "standing one's ground" above one's own byline, asserting one's view about the world of fact rather than fantasy--is a dangerous one, an act that will be met with punishment. When I have interviewed college women about their fears of leadership and public voice, they often use metaphors of punitive violence when describing their anxiety about expressing opinions in public: "having it blow up in my face"; "I'll be torn apart"; "ripped to shreds"; "they'll shoot me down."

Punishment--is that not too strong a word? This is the end of the twentieth century, after all; women no longer need to write under pseudonyms to conceal the force of their opinions. Yet when we look at what happens when women "take a stand," the common female fear of punishment for expressing an opinion suggests no phantom anxiety. A woman who enters public debate is indeed likely to be punished. A complex set of rules ensures it. Some involve ad feminam attacks: the absurd attacks on Chelsea Clinton's appearance that flitted across the public stage in the last year or so were in fact attacks on her mother, a message to all women contemplating entering public life that their children can be held hostage in retribution.

Others involve chivalry: when a woman tries to argue with men--as Rodham Clinton did in presenting her views on health care--the debate can be neatly sidestepped by labeling her "charming" and "disarming." These terms ensure that she cannot be seen to fight and win by virtue of her wits, for her potential adversaries preemptively "disarm" themselves--yield their weapons-- and let themselves be "charmed"--go into a trance of delight that, presumably, mere reason cannot penetrate. Rodham Clinton's experience eerily re-evokes the debate-evasive reaction that Virginia Woolf anticipated after she finished the immensely (if elegantly) confrontational essay that became A Room of One's Own: "I forecast, then, that I shall get no criticism, except of the evasive, jocular kind ... that the press will be kind and talk of its charm and sprightliness; Also I shall be attacked for a feminist and hinted at for a Sapphist.... I am afraid it will not be taken seriously."

Still others involve stigmatizing the woman's anger: if the female antagonist is less than universally admired (or doesn't happen to be married to the president), she is called "shrill," as Geraldine Ferraro was when she debated George Bush ("rhymes with rich"). Female radio personalities have told me that when they ask male guests tough questions, their listeners call in and tell them to stop being rude to the men. It was front-page news when, in a speech, President Clinton lost his temper at the press--something that a cool-headed leader is rightly expected not to do; but it was front-page news when his wife directed anger at the insurance industry--something that a leader in her position should do, if she is to serve her constituency well.

Ido not believe that the "different voice" concerns lie deep in women; granted permission to do so without punishment, as many women as men would write blustery, cantankerous prose and flock to the delights of public argument. Women do not lack the desire or ability to fight hard or write fiercely; we lack a behavioral paradigm that makes doing so acceptable.

When a woman does engage in public debate, she is often torn in two. She may be anguished by her own sense that her strong voice is in a state of conflict with her longing for approval and her discomfort with conflict. I feel this role conflict often myself: in a recent book, I argued hard with a certain writer's ideas; when I subsequently met her and liked her, I wanted to beg forgiveness--even though my views of her work had not changed. I feel a kind of terror when I am critical in public and experience a kind of nausea when I am attacked. The knowledge that another person and I publicly disagree makes me feel that I have left something unresolved, raw in the world; even if I "win"--especially if I win--I also lose, because I am guilty, in traditionally feminine terms, of a failure to create harmony and consensus; this bruise to identity manifests at the level of my sense of femininity.

Now I know that this anxiety is unhelpful, even retrograde; and it is directly at odds with my even stronger wish to enjoy the fray without this grief. But there it is. And if I, with my strong feminist upbringing, feel this sense of two drives in a state of absolute conflict when I enter public debate, I doubt that I can be alone. If a woman thinks of herself as someone who is warm and kind in private life, how can she also be a critic in public life, an agonist? This sense of role conflict can feel to many as if it is built in to women's participation in public life.

Women also lack any paradigm for expressing dissent with other women in a way that is perceived as a sign of respect. Men have rituals for expressing conflict as a form of honor, even of friendship; British male parliamentarians are famous for braying at one another and then joking over the urinal. But women lack any such social patterns. If a woman engages in hard debate with another woman, she is a "spoiler" or a "mudslinger," as Liz Holtzman was accused of being when she attacked Ferraro in the 1992 Senate race; the fact that Senator Nancy Kassebaum disagreed with Senator Patty Murray about what to do with the Packwood investigation made news. Woman-to-woman argument is seen, even by women, as a breakdown of precious consensus, or a catfight, or a "betrayal of sisterhood"--a situation that can force women in public to suppress their legitimate differences of opinion; whereas man-to-man argument is understood as being the stuff of democracy.

Why is all this "subjective," "emotional" stuff a fit subject for the pages of a policy journal? Because the psychic disincentives for women to argue in public, or to write strong opinionated journalism, have profound implications for the health of democracy. Woolf wrote, "The effect of discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured." These psychological and social barriers to women's opinionated public speech make it literally not worth it, in many women's minds, to run for office, contradict an adversary or take a controversial public stance. If many women feel ridicule and hostility more acutely than men do, if they are uncomfortable with isolation, then ridicule, hostility and the threat of isolation can be--and are--standard weapons in the arsenal used to scare women away from public life.

In essence, certain kinds of forceful speech and interchange are defined as male and prohibited to women, as a subtle but immensely effective means to maintain the world of opinion and policy-making as an all-male preserve. And then, in a vicious circle, many women pre-emptively internalize the barriers, which keeps them wary of storming their way into the marketplace of opinions.

The response to this state of affairs has to be a complex one. To begin with, editors and producers must root out their own often unwitting bias. They are welching on their commitment to inform citizens of a real range of views, leaving half the population ill-prepared to pursue their interests within the democratic process. They are also shortchanging us as a nation, for their unacknowledged warp in perspective leaves "women's issues" and female talking heads, no matter how pressing the topic nor how perspicacious the voices, to languish in the journalistic harem of women's magazines, crowded in among celebrity pets and the latest news on the French manicure. Because of this omission of "women's perspectives" and hard facts about women, we endure wildly off-the-mark debate and create faulty policy in a vacuum of information.

Further gender polarization is not the answer. Just as we are learning to integrate "male" and "female" perspectives about sexual harassment as we seek a newer, fairer social contract in the workplace, we must integrate "male" and "female" views and patterns of expression as we renegotiate the contract about what it is appropriate to say, and how it is appropriate to say it, in the forums of opinion.

The last solution to this dilemma, for all of us who are women still ambivalent about waging opinion, is internal: the only way forward is through. We must realize that public debate may starve the receptors for love and approval, but that it stimulates the synapses of self-respect. Let us shed the lingering sense that authority is something that others--male others--bestow upon us; whenever we are inclined to mumble invective into our coffee, let us flood the airwaves instead. Let's steal a right that has heretofore been defined as masculine: the right to be in love with the sound of one's own voice.

Go Back to Shy David's Feminism Page.