A matter of opinion

A matter of opinionThe New Statesman should be on its guard. When the Los Angeles Times turned over some pages to women writers for a special "gender" issue in February, it started a bitter war of words that continues to simmer. The opening salvo came from the University of Southern California law professor Susan Estrich who--somewhat perversely--chose the occasion of the all-women special to attack the LA Times for using too few women in its comment pages. She was particularly put out that one of the contributors to the special issue suggested that since the death of Susan Sontag there had been a shortage of female intellectuals.

Professor Estrich sounds like one of those brawlers and barrackers you never want on your side in a public debate. She certainly dragged her own cause through the grime when she suggested that the LA Times comment editor's failure to publish more female opinion regularly could be the result of illness affecting his brain (he has Parkinson's disease). Such unsubtle reasoning was never going to win her a permanent column in the LA Times, and it scuppered support for her basic concern that women were under-represented in the American press. None the less, her case does have merit and, as with so many US quarrels, the debate will doubtless soon find its way across the Atlantic.

Estrich laments that only about 10 per cent of bylines in the comment sections of the serious US press are women's. A more precise count made by a journalist suggested it was a little more. He found that, in the first nine weeks of the year, 20 per cent of LA Times commentators were women; for the New York Times it was 17 per cent; and 10 per cent for the Washington Post.

But even these figures leave cause for concern. Such ratios suggest that decades of equality awareness and anti-discrimination laws have had little impact on a crucial area of American civil society. Do women not have as many opinions as men? Aren't they entitled to have their views heard equally? And if women have a lesser voice in the national press, how will women's opinions get equally aired in wider debates about public policy?

These questions should concern us in Britain, too.

The British press is differently structured--it is more diverse but more centralised--and maybe has a broader notion of comment (our sections include countryside diaries and faith columns, profiles, gossip columns and humour). On first glance, however, there seems to be a fair number of female regular columnists and contributors. A survey of my own recycling box reveals that, over the "serious" titles (excluding the Financial Times), no single issue of a newspaper had as little as 10 per cent women commenting. Most days for most titles, the percentage was higher than 20, with some titles on some days yielding highs of 40 per cent of all commentary from women.


But my byline counting led me to a quite separate concern. It is clear to me that, in the British papers at least, the issue is not simply one of headcounts. The difference between an Adam Smith and an Eve Jones is far greater than their gender-specific names. Their picture bylines tell it all.

Adam will look aged between 40 and 70, and can be as gaunt or chubby as he likes. He may or may not have teeth or hair. He may choose to look stern or wise. In short, he is his own take-me-or-leave-me self, there to inform and argue his case. Eve, on the other hand, is there to please. She will more often than not look like Smith's daughter, and she is usually glamorous or pretty, with expensive hair and a beguiling manner that promises not to give the male reader a hard time. The pictures of Eve and her sisters seldom make any attempt to convey authority or gravitas.

Thus, our male columnists brim with expertise--the sort of chaps who will give us the back story on the size of Gordon Brown's black hole (or at least reliable advice on wine vintages)--while Eve and her sisters tell us about ourselves and the dilemmas of modern living. You simply do not expect these well-mannered looking young women to go thumping tubs or upsetting politicians. And by and large they don't.

This is not to deny that many female columnists confound this stereotype. Polly Toynbee, Mary Riddell, Mary Ann Sieghart and Anne McElvoy, to name but four, earn their places at the very apex of the commentariat triangle. Nor would I wish to express anything other than pure envy for the fabulous writing skills of young columnists who have made a 21st-century art form out of observing and dissecting the vagaries of modern life, particularly life as experienced by women.

But how has it come about that, so very implausibly, most female columnists are young and attractive but most male columnists are not? Where are the female counterparts of all those fiftysomething or even sixtysomething men who still occupy so many column inches of commentary space? Did the young female journalists of two decades ago leave to have children and simply never return? Are they writing books? And what will happen to their counterparts today?

When we see the byline picture of a rosy-cheeked woman with white hair and a couple of chins rather like--but let's not name names--a certain respected political columnist, say, then women really will have made progress. We might even eventually start to see a new generation of Susan Sontags.