WASHINGTON – When I need to work up my nerve to write a tough column, I try to think of myself as Emma Peel in a black leather catsuit, giving a kung fu kick to any diabolical mastermind who merits it.
I try not to visualize myself as one of the witches in Macbeth, sitting off to the side over a double, double toil and trouble, bubbling cauldron, muttering about what is fair or foul in the hurly burly of the royal court.
There’s an intense debate going on now about why newspapers have so few female columnists. Out of what will soon be eight New York Times Op-Ed columnists – nine, counting the public editor – I’m the only woman.
In 1996, after six months on the job, I went to Howell Raines, the editorial page editor, to try to get out of the column. I was a bundle of frayed nerves. I felt as though I were in a Godfather movie, shooting and getting shot at. Men enjoy verbal dueling. As a woman, I told Howell, I wanted to be liked – not attacked. He said I could go back to The Metro Section; I decided to give it another try. Bill Safire told me I needed Punzac, Prozac for pundits.
Guys don’t appreciate being lectured by a woman. It taps into myths of carping Harpies and hounding Furies, and distaste for nagging by wives and mothers. The word “harridan” derives from the French word “haridelle” – a worn-out horse or nag.
Men take professional criticism more personally when it comes from a woman. When I wrote columns about the Clinton impeachment opera bouffe, Chris Matthews said that for poor Bill, it must feel as though he had another wife hectoring him.
While a man writing a column taking on the powerful may be seen as authoritative, a woman doing the same thing may be seen as castrating. If a man writes a scathing piece about men in power, it’s seen as his job; a woman can be cast as an emasculating man-hater. I’m often asked how I can be so “mean” – a question that Tom Friedman, who writes plenty of tough columns, doesn’t get.
Even the metaphors used to describe my column play into the castration theme: my scalpel, my cutting barbs, razor-sharp hatchet, Clinton-skewering and Bush-whacking. “Does she,” The Los Angeles Times’ Patt Morrison wondered, “write on a computer or a Ronco Slicer and Dicer?”
In 1998, Bill Clinton made a castration joke about me at a press dinner, as I sank down in my seat. I called Alan Dundes, a renowned folklorist, to ask about it. “Women are supposed to take it, not dish it out,” he replied. “If a woman embarrasses a man, he feels inadequate, effeminate. He wants her to go back to the kitchen.”
The kerfuffle over female columnists started when Susan Estrich launched a crazed and nasty smear campaign against Michael Kinsley, the Los Angeles Times editorial page editor, trying to force him to run her humdrum syndicated column.
Given the appalling way she’s handled herself, Susan – an acquaintance for many years – is the last person Michael, a friend of mine, should hire. But he should recruit some more talented women to write for him. So should The New York Times, The Washington Post – which also has only one female columnist – and anyone else who has an obvious gender gap on their op-ed pages.
Gail Collins, the first woman to run The New York Times’ editorial page and the author of a history of American women, told The Post’s Howard Kurtz: “There are probably fewer women, in the great cosmic scheme of things, who feel comfortable writing very straight opinion stuff, and they’re less comfortable hearing something on the news and batting something out.”
There’s a lot of evidence of that. Male bloggers predominate, as do male TV shouters. Men I know and men who read The Times write me constantly, asking me to read the opinion pieces they’ve written. Sometimes they’ll e-mail or fax me their thoughts to read right before I have lunch with them. Women hardly ever send their own rants.
There’s been a dearth of women writing serious opinion pieces for top news organizations, even as there’s been growth in female sex columnists for college newspapers. Going from Tess Harding to Carrie Bradshaw, Dorothy Thompson to Candace Bushnell, is not progress.
This job has not come easily to me. But I have no doubt there are plenty of brilliant women who would bring grace and guts to our nation’s op-ed pages, just as, Lawrence Summers notwithstanding, there are plenty of brilliant women out there who are great at math and science. We just need to find and nurture them.