What's lost when women aren't on the Op-Ed page?

An American Prospect editor on why it matters who writes editorials.

Published March 23, 2006 7:53PM (EST)

Since I published my piece on the dearth of women writing about abortion on the New York Times Op-Ed page -- roughly 17 percent of Times Op-Eds on abortion were by women in a two-year period -- I've been asked if that's higher or lower than the percentage of women on the Times Op-Ed page generally. Based on a survey by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, it looks as though it's about the same.

I undertook my survey because, after reading Katha Pollitt and William Saletan's exchange on Slate, I realized I almost never hear perspectives like hers. Instead, I open Details magazine and find Ross Douthat writing about pro-life men. I open Foreign Policy and find Phillip Longman predicting "The Return of Patriarchy." I read the New York Times and get Dalton Conley's decade-old anger at his ex-girlfriend, who did not want to bear his child. I turn on the television and there is Harvey Mansfield spouting off about "Manliness."

Looking for Conley's Times column on Nexis one day, I realized why Pollitt's voice sounded so unusual -- because it was. Even in 2006, very few women are part of the public debate about issues that specifically impact women, let alone the nation as a whole. That has a distorting effect on our public discourse.

As I wrote in the Washington Monthly a year ago, nearly every values controversy in American life is, at core, a conflict over how men and women should relate to each other. And to the extent that only male liberals and centrists are called upon to defend the liberal or centrist perspective on choice issues and related questions, they are sure to fight a losing battle, because their arguments, while potentially clever, well reasoned and thoughtful, nonetheless lack certain insights and perspectives that can be found among (and compellingly articulated by) those with a different biology and experience of society.

The further absence of women's advocates from the conversation means that broad factual distortions and questionable assumptions about our political life have flourished and become conventional wisdom. How many times in recent years have we heard calls for pro-choice advocates to work with pro-life ones to reduce abortion? I too thought it might be possible, until I read Cristina Page's recently published "How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America," where she reports that "there is not one pro-life group in the United States that supports the use of birth control."

At best, such groups, like the National Right to Life Committee, take no position on the question. At worst, pro-life groups have been actively working to redescribe traditional means of birth control, such as the pill, as "abortifacients," and have been fighting state laws mandating insurance coverage for birth control by falsely saying they fund abortions.

How often does one hear about this on any Op-Ed page? The answer again -- almost never.

By Garance Franke-Ruta

Garance Franke-Ruta is a senior editor at the American Prospect.

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