Women writers silent on abortion in the New York Times

90 percent of the writers who discussed abortion in the Times' Op-Ed pages in the past two years were male.


Sarah Elizabeth Richards
March 22, 2006 6:09AM (UTC)

We knew things were skewed on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, but thanks to the American Prospect for showing us just how much. The Prospect surveyed the gender of the authors of Times Op-Ed pieces that dealt with abortion over the past two years -- including staff columnists -- and found that a shocking 90 percent were male. They wrote 83 percent of the articles that even mentioned abortion. And get this -- more Op-Eds on the subject were by pro-life men than by women of any persuasion.

So what's up at the famously liberal bastion? It can't be for lack of female voices on the subject. The Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta points out that the pro-choice side is made up of groups founded or staffed by women. And surely a female reproductive-rights advocate, service provider or representative of a women's group would have something to say on the topic.

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Is this compensation for the pro-choice unsigned Times editorials? "Their influence has sagged under the heavy load of conservative jurists, conflicted Catholics, and emotionally distraught men readers find on the op-ed page when they turn to the Times for thinking about abortion," writes Franke-Ruta, adding that even the pro-choice male-penned pieces lack conviction. "This suggests either that the op-ed page now favors a much more doubt-ridden, hand-wringing stance than it has historically -- or else that the Times, in attempting to balance its own editorial stance, has unwittingly engaged in one of the most egregious cases of liberal overcompensation in recent media history."

The absence of any women of any belief system writing about abortion is so stark that Franke-Ruta suggests it reflects an editorial stance by Op-Ed editors. Of 124 articles that mentioned the subject, only 21 were written by females.

It wasn't always this bad. In the early '90s (the last time abortion rights were threatened), the Times included nearly twice as many articles written by women. And it's not because columnist Anna Quindlen, who wrote frequently and in depth on abortion, was replaced by Maureen Dowd, who does neither (81 times in four years compared with 44 times in 10 years). Even Dowd's brief mentions, though, account nearly half of the female representation.

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There doesn't appear to be a ready explanation. "American cultural politics, to be sure, is different now than in the 1990s," writes Franke-Ruta. "There are far fewer explicitly feminist books being published and many more on the mommy wars, and overall the nation is more conservative. Also, the mix of available writers has shifted. But that does not provide an explanation for the Times' current choices."

It's pretty much a New York Times problem, she insists, especially since the Los Angeles Times hasn't succumbed. Women wrote nearly one-quarter of its Op-Ed pieces on abortion during the same time period (and 38 percent following the resignation of editor Michael Kinsley, who was accused of not adequately representing women writers).

Editors may regard the inclusion of conservative male voices as adding balance to the debate, Franke-Ruta suggests. But when you shut out everyone else, you're guilty of framing it -- or, at the very least, stifling it. And this is the worst time to do that.

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"The public debate on abortion is stalled, but that's not because there's nothing new to discuss," she writes. "With the Supreme Court reconstituted and South Dakota having banned abortion, this is a radical new moment in the abortion wars. It's time for the Times to let its readers in on that secret."


Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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