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Hating the Hate Mail

As a female opinion journalist, I've been called everything from bitch to whore to sweetie.
 
 
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As a young woman, I stepped out into the treacherous waters of opinion journalism, and was amazed by the lack of civil discourse and the intensity of personal attacks that I received via e-mail, letters to the editor and on Web postings.

Subjects such as women's issues, racism, anti-war politics, environmental matters and virtually any topic deemed "liberal" inspired some vitriolic comments from readers that I will mention here. I was called everything from "bitch" to "whore" and was often addressed as "sweetie" or "honey" before a launch of expletives. Most attackers took the position that I was just a cute, dumb, college student (even though I was in my late 20s) in an effort to discredit me and I was most reliably attacked by a collection of right-wing Web sites and right-wing men who sent me letters.

Needless to say, I ran out of the gates, trail-blazing, and came back a wounded animal. The experience solidified my "attack and retreat" explanation of the low numbers of women in opinion journalism.

The presence of female opinion journalists has remained virtually unchanged over the past 25 years, with only 10 percent to 20 percent of all op-eds in the country being written by women. Only about a quarter of nationally syndicated columnists are women and they tend to be white and right-wing.

While numerous professions--science, medicine and even journalism--have seen a sharp rise in female participants, opinion journalism doesn't seem to budge. In my case, I was attacked, and then retreated into self-censorship for a period of months and in that darkened room I found no mentors and little support from editors.

Fear of Appearing Vulnerable

The psychic impact of hate mail is something female writers don't often talk about in fear of appearing vulnerable in the male world of opinion writing. I believe women can take the heat of opinion journalism as well as any man; the problem is that the heat we take and the reasons why are very different.

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times discussed reactions to female opinion in her column last year. "While a man writing a column taking on the powerful may be seen as authoritative, a woman doing the same thing may be seen as castrating." She went on to say she called Alan Dundes, a renowned folklorist, to ask about it. "Women are supposed to take it, not dish it out," Dundes told her.

Rekha Basu is the civil liberties voice at the Des Moines Register in Iowa, and she is a woman, liberal and Indian. She's been called a Hindu-worshipping slut, an Arab terrorist, a whore, a lesbian, a cunt, a skanky Muslim. Most insults are via e-mail and on Web sites, where attackers can remain relatively anonymous.

She's been stalked and followed on the highway and told readers can't wait to read her obituary in the newspaper. But nothing hurt like the time a reader said they hoped her husband, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, would hurry up and die so she would leave the country.

Rekha used to be scared, and is still hurt by some of the more malicious letters. But after a while she realized "I have the opportunity to change lives. If I censor myself, what's the point?"

Do Men Get the Same?

Do men get the same? I asked David Yepsen, who is white, male, centrist and also a columnist at the Register. He says he is called an asshole from time to time and received a death threat once, but Yepsen felt readers had paid their quarter and were entitled to an opinion. "I've heard Rekha was called a Hindu-worshipping slut and things like that. I've never gotten anything on par with that," he said.

Katherine Kersten is a conservative voice at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and gets a lot of grief from the liberal population. But it doesn't seem the same over-the-top, bone-chilling stuff that Rekha receives. Kersten said some readers harassed her for going against women's interests and she was accused of being dishonest and greedy.

However, Kersten felt men and women received equal treatment from readers, noting that Nick Coleman (a liberal voice at the Star Tribune), gets as many attacks, if not more than she does.

Coleman thinks there is a gender gap in the hate mail. "My wife is also a columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer, and there is a huge difference between the types of abuse I get, and what she gets. It's much worse for her," he said.

Michele Weldon, a contributor to Women's eNews who has also provided columns to the Chicago Tribune, recalled the time a hostile reader of a column read her memoir on the domestic abuse she experienced and wrote to tell her she deserved everything she got.

Sasha Kemmet is a young, budding liberal writer for The Des Moines Register's Young Adult Board. She has been stalked by critics who have accused her of everything from racism to elitism. She describes her detractors as deeply misogynist. "I was surprised by the viciousness of the attacks and it was extremely disappointing. My goal in writing was to initiate dialogue, not bring about petty personal attacks." Kemmet thinks "society wants women to have opinions as long as they don't speak them too loudly . . . as long as this persists, women will believe it themselves."

Year-Old Debate

A year ago, the debate about female pundits was blazing. In February of 2005, Susan Estrich ignited it by launching an e-mail campaign that blasted the Los Angeles Times for hiring few women to write columns.

A discussion of the situation then bounced around from Estrich to Maureen Dowd to Katha Pollitt of The Nation and included scores of columnists across the country.

I was emboldened by what Pollitt had to say on the topic last December. "Women buy the crap about women being too shy-weak-polite to express themselves," she wrote. She added that this is "not the fault of women themselves . . . women are discriminated against, not groomed or mentored."

In Dowd's column on the topic, she said that after six months writing op-eds, she retreated into submission and nearly walked away from the job, just "wanting to be liked."

Young women, like Kemmet and me, tend to go into this profession with a lot of hope and passion. But we sometimes retreat without an adequate support network. When new female writers are bolstered by the moral support needed to survive the onslaught of anti-female sentiment flooding their inboxes, more women's by-lines will show up on the opinion pages.

Heidi Schnakenberg is a part-time columnist for the Des Moines Register.