Guys Still Hog Role of Intellectual Heavy Weight

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Society has warmed up to women in many ways--but not in every way. Caryl Rivers says women are still shut out of the world of ideas. This month's news of all-male authors in Publishers Weekly's list of top 10 books for 2009 is the tip of the iceberg.

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Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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BooksThere are news pockets where women do better. Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" radio program is preeminent among progressive radio journalism, but such shows don't get the mass-market "buzz."

In the nation's top intellectual and political magazines, bylines are heavily male. In an analysis of 11 magazines published between October 2003 and May 2005, male-to-female byline ratios ranged from 13-1 at the National Review to 7-1 at Harper's and The Weekly Standard to 2-1 at the Columbia Journalism Review. Little has changed at these magazines.


An Underlying Attitude

It's not just the statistics--which are bad enough--but an underlying attitude that the most important thinking in society is done by men, about men's activities and men's issues.

Writer Francine Prose, in a Harpers' article, blamed this on a widespread--if seldom stated--assumption that "women writers will not write about anything important--anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise."

There are a few women whose prose is given respect.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a heavyweight in the history of the presidency.

Ayn Rand is currently getting a lot of posthumous attention and blame for her intellectual spearheading of supercharged capitalism.

And anything Susan Sontag used to say or write before her death could be counted on to stir things up.

Too often, though, in the world of ideas there is an idea that when men write or speak it matters more. That shows up in the way "male" stuff, no matter how homely, wins attention.

Take, for example, the book "Shop Class as Soulcraft," which made PW's top 10.

Matthew B. Crawford extols the beauty of the blue-collar skills of making things work. It is, by all accounts, a lovely book, but could you imagine a book by a woman about how sewing elevates the soul or how cooking for your family puts you in touch with the universe being taken seriously?

No matter how beautifully written, they would be relegated to the women's pages. (I once co-authored a book about feminism and women's mental health called "Beyond Sugar and Spice." It regularly appeared in the cookbook section of bookstores.)

'Traditional Values' Resonate

When material about women does appear in the "ideas" universe, too often it attacks feminism and promotes "traditional" values.

The watchdog group FAIR notes that 4 of the 9 most widely distributed female columnists (published in 50 or more papers) are conservatives who frequently disparage feminism and feminist positions: Kathleen Parker, Ann Coulter, Mona Charen and Maggie Gallagher.

And The Atlantic's "It" girl of the moment, Megan McArdle, is a young blogger who opposes government health care and calls environmentalists fascists. She also calls concern about obesity a cover for rich white people to make everyone thin like them.

When you do see a lot of media attention towards women on op-ed pages and in the elite media, it's often bad news that is faulty and left uncorrected.

Former Harvard President Larry Summers got lots of ink in 2005 for his statement that women may be inherently less able in math and science than men. Almost invisible on opinion pages, though, was a major study by the National Science Foundation in 2008 that found that girls now perform as well as boys on standardized math tests.

In 2007, "The Nation's Report Card on Math and Science Abilities" found, among other things, that girls were on a par with boys on a range of math abilities, including algebra, geometry, measurement properties and data analysis. Of 37 newspaper articles I found on the report, not one mentioned this fact.

It took Newsweek 20 years to apologize for a story that first appeared in 1985 claiming that a woman over 35 had as much chance of getting married as she did of being killed by a terrorist. The story never was true, but many people still believe it. It was immortalized by a line of dialogue in the movie "Sleepless in Seattle."

A strong and ongoing backlash against women's growing possibilities and a fear that men's opportunities are stagnant seems to be reinforcing the intellectual status quo.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."

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Two comments:
Margaret Atwood's "The Waterless Flood" is the best and most important book of the year, without exception. How could they possibly miss this?
In standing for women's accomplishments, what do you find is your reaction to the name "Florence Nightengale"? I imagine it is a reaction of amusement and pity, at the thought that she could possibly be an important woman in human history. In other words, we are all subject to our own version of demeaning women's accomplishments, and thus not learning enough about them to understand their importance.