Nov 1 1995

The Pundit Spectrum: How Many Women–and Which Ones?

The myth of the feminist dominatrix lives. When a handful of right-wing women founded the “Independent Women’s Forum” in 1992, they did so because “they felt invisible in a media culture that tends to represent all professional women as liberal Democrats” and they wanted “to get conservative women’s views heard in the media and on Capitol Hill.” (Village Voice, 7/11/95.)

Talk about setting achievable goals. In 1992, television’s most visible female pundits were former Reagan speechwriter Mona Charen and Reagan’s Civil Rights Commissioner Linda Chavez. Female liberal Democrats were hardly controlling the culture; as for outspoken feminists, they were largely invisible then–as they are today.

For one thing, women of any kind have a hard time making news. In fact, according to the monitoring group Women, Men and Media (WMM), female participation in the reported news is down. The number of front-page references to and photographs of women dropped from January 1994 to January 1995, and the number of front-page articles or TV news stories reported by women showed meager gains or none at all.

Female sources were likely to be ignored by TV correspondents–even when those correspondents were women–and the absence couldn’t be explained simply by sexism on the political scene. Prominent senators like Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) and Carol Moseley Braun (D.-Ill.) were close to invisible even in the newspapers in their hometowns.

What WMM is finding “amounts to a symbolic annihilation of women,” declared co-chair Betty Friedan at the group’s televised press conference in D.C. (C-SPAN, 5/31/95). But as another participant in WMM’s discussion commented, when the question “how many women” is followed by “which ones,” it’s clear that some women are more “symbolically annihilated” than others.

“The right wing has been very effective in bringing women’s voices to the fore,” said Betsey Wright, a former aide to President Clinton. “They dominate public opinion-shaping. Why aren’t we hearing from feminists? Where are the progressive women columnists?”

We looked. Of 185 leading independent journalists and syndicated columnists listed in the Summer ’95 News Media Yellow Book, a journalism directory, only 39 are women (21 percent). Of the females, almost half give advice: Following in the tradition of “Hints from Heloise” and Sonja Heinze’s “Curious Shopper,” 19 women columnists focus on topics like nutrition, interior decorating, sex and family psychology, recipes, travel tips or entertainment reviews.

In the tiny field of syndicated female political commentators, the right is well-represented by some ideological heavy hitters: At least three former Reagan administration women have syndicated columns: Charen, Chavez and former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. Other conservative women who appear regularly on the op-ed pages include Suzanne Fields, Georgie Anne Geyer and Debra Saunders.

Is the other side represented? It depends what you mean by the “other side.” Ellen Goodman, Molly Ivins and Mary McGrory are all left-of-center female columnists with wide circulation. Goodman’s and Ivins’ columns are often as much about humor as about politics. None of the three is particularly radical–none seems comfortable challenging Bill Clinton from the left, as Charen and Kirkpatrick frequently did to Bush from the right.

But getting a hard-hitting, outspoken progressive feminist–a woman as wild for female freedom as Charen is crazy for free trade–into the front ranks of columnists will not be easy. Getting syndicated is harder than ever, John Brewer, president of the New York Times Syndicate, told the National Society of Newspaper Columnists this summer (Editor & Publisher, 7/8/95). “There are very few competitive markets left and fewer newspapers,” Brewer noted. But there’s still space for “certain kinds of features,” he said–for instance, “conservative columns by minorities or women.”

Quota of None

Op-ed pages lost their leading feminist voice when Anna Quindlen stepped down from her post at the New York Times at the end of 1994. Quindlen has remarked (New York Times, 11/22/90) that when it comes to women, many op-ed pages operate with a “quota of one.” With the Times, it seems to be “one at most”: After Quindlen’s departure, it took the op-ed page six months to add another woman to the regular roster–former White House correspondent Maureen Dowd, who has shown little interest in feminist issues.

One might have thought that with seven men and no women writing regular columns during this period, the editors might have made an extra effort to seek out female guest columnists. Think again: Out of 330 op-eds by outside writers, 278, or 84 percent, were by men. All in all, during the first six months of 1995, men got to write 93 percent of all the columns on the nation’s most prestigious op-ed page.