FALUDI: Where's the Feminist Conspiracy?

Back in the seventies, newspaper editors told feminist writer Jane O'Reilly they couldn't run her column because "we have a woman," Ellen Goodman.Fifteen years later, editors told New York Times feminist columnist Anna Quindlen, "Gee, we would love to run your column, but we already have a woman," Ellen Goodman. Five years ago, when United Media editor Sara Eckel proposed that the syndicate develop a column by feminist Barbara Ehrenreich, "My boss said these columns are very interesting and very provocative but editors will say, 'We already have Ellen Goodman.'" Today we seem to have broken through "the quota of one," as Quindlen dubbed it. Op-Ed editors seem to be allowing more women to sound off.Progress -- right? But wait. The presence of women commentators is declining for the third year in a row, according to the group Women, Men and Media, which finds women writing only 26 percent of all opinion articles (with 28 percent of opinion pages featuring no women commentators).Furthermore, the only female bylines proliferating on Op-Ed pages are those from members of new right-wing-funded feminist-bashing groups like the Independent Women's Forum.As journalist Jennifer Gonnerman observed in In These Times, The Wall Street Journal published more than half a dozen Op-Ed articles in 1995 by I.W.F. members attacking feminism, reprinted several excerpts from the forum's periodical, The Women's Quarterly -- and then published two news articles exclaiming over the "new wave of counterfeminists," as if it weren't a wave artificially induced in the Journal's own backyard pool. In fact, the I.W.F. quarterly's editor admits that the idea for the publication came from Amity Shlaes, an editorial board member of The Wall Street Journal.Last year, The New York Times ran six Op-Eds just by I.W.F. leaders, according to the media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting). This year, the Times's female roster has already included Dan Quayle's former speechwriter and Clarence Thomas's former clerk. It's the same story at other papers. The Philadelphia Inquirer's page features two antifeminist pundits -- Cathy Young and Rene Denfeld -- with such frequency (Young's byline has appeared twenty-six times since 1995) that other Inquirer editors mistakenly told me the two were regular columnists.Editors like to say this is all about giving equal time to left and right points of view. But the editors count feminist writers through the same distorted lens employers use to count women in general: A very few's a crowd.Creators Syndicate president Richard Newcombe told me, "I feel like Phil Donahue, we syndicate so many women. We're hiring more men to even it out."But only seven of his twenty syndicated commentators are women, among whom Molly Ivins and centrist Hillary Rodham Clinton are vastly outnumbered by such antifeminists as Arianna Huffington, Mona Charen, Deborah Saunders, and Linda Bowles. While Hillary Clinton rhapsodizes about daffodils planted along the parkways by Lady Bird Johnson, Bowles rails against "the demon seeds of the 1960s" sown by "countercultural, heathen hordes," who live in "pig-headed, juvenile defiance of the natural and spiritual laws of the universe." Yikes!While I.W.F.'s 500-member group got all that play last year on The New York Times Op-Ed page, the leaders of the National Organization for Women, with a quarter-million membership, got none. So who are the I.W.F.'s antifeminists "balancing"? The ghost of Anna Quindlen?Editors at the Times say they have been under pressure by editorial-page editor Howell Raines to provide "balance" for his page's "liberalism." The tradition that the two pages operate independently is no more. "When I took over the page, I had the general sense that Op-Ed too often echoed the editorial page," Raines told me. So he urged the Op-Ed editor to avoid articles that "re-state what the editorials are saying."Raines said his aim was to eliminate "redundancy," not create two ideological poles, but conceded that the result "may come down to providing higher input for conservative voices."Especially female conservative voices. "There's an emphasis on getting women on the page," said Julie Just, a Times Op-Ed editor who recently moved to New York magazine -- so conservative women kill two birds with one stone. "They always call us," Just said of the I.W.F. pundits."Unfortunately for liberals, this whole attack school of conservative women writers is very canny. They're always on the news. They know exactly how to get their Op-Eds in. They must have had Op-Ed classes! You could say we're being manipulated, but we need the material."But what about what readers need? When feminist commentators get a shot, they command the biggest audience -- witness Anna Quindlen and Ellen Goodman. At Creators Syndicate, Mona Charen generates controversy, but no one, male or female, is more popular than feminist Molly Ivins. A few years after United Media editor Sara Eckel failed to persuade her boss to sign up Barbara Ehrenreich (now writing a column for Time), she offered to fill the slot herself. Her unadulterated feminist stance got an instant and hugely favorable response -- from middle America. Eckel's fans read her in the Current-Argus in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the Tribune-Herald in Waco, Texas, and 200 other small and rural newspapers. But if she wants to break into the major urban press, where a feminist liberal "bias" supposedly reigns, she'll have to change her political stripes. "I have the feeling if I were doing the Rene Denfeld thing of 'Oh, I'm this young woman who is going up against the big, bad feminists,' I'd be a lot bigger," Eckel says.Or maybe feminist commentators need the aggressive marketing that conservative women get. If they want to compete with the I.W.F. brigade, Julie Just told me, they "pretty much have to start their own think tank with secret sources of funding and target Op-Ed pages." Good advice. After all, they already think we're part of a feminist conspiracy. Why not make it true?

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