The NYT's Woman Problem

A liberal, poet Robert Frost, once quipped, is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel?

Nowhere is this truer than at The New York Times today on the subject of abortion. The past two years have seen one of the most contentious and closely watched presidential contests in 40 years, the retirement of the first female Supreme Court justice, the appointment of two new justices, and an attempted Senate filibuster against one of them specifically because of liberal concerns about how he would vote on choice issues. And during that period, not one op-ed discussing abortion on the op-ed page of the most powerful liberal paper in the nation was written by a reproductive-rights advocate, a pro-choice service-provider, or a representative of a women's group.

Instead, the officially pro-choice New York Times has hosted a conversation about abortion on its op-ed page that consisted almost entirely of the views of pro-life or abortion-ambivalent men, male scholars of the right, and men with strong, usually Catholic, religious affiliations. In fact, a stunning 83 percent of the pieces appearing on the page that discussed abortion were written by men. Editors explaining the dearth of women on op-ed pages, a subject that has in the last year received a great deal of attention, will frequently point to the broader society for explanation: Congress is 86 percent male; very few women hold executive positions in the business world; the academy remains overwhelmingly male at the level of tenured professorships; military leaders, diplomats, world leaders -- all are overwhelmingly male. Thus, they say, it's not entirely the fault of newspapers that their op-ed pages rarely reflect women's voices.

One topic on which it would seemingly be easy to find female authors, however, is abortion. The vast bulk of the pro-choice side consists of groups founded, staffed, and led by women, and every significant pro-choice advocacy organization is also in some measure a women's group. That the issue even exists as public policy question worthy of discussion is a result of female agitation, legal strategy, and demands for autonomy. Abortion rights advocates, legal strategists, and political theorists together make up one of the rare political niches in which women predominate. Because of this, you might think that those writing about this topic on the op-ed page of a liberal, officially pro-choice publication like the Times might similarly be largely female. You would also, however, be wrong.

A Prospect examination of the authors published between late February 2004 and late February 2006 found that 90 percent of writers -- including staff columnists -- who discussed abortion on the Times op-ed page over the past two years were male. These men wrote 83 percent of the op-eds that mentioned abortion.

Even more surprising, more op-eds that mentioned abortion in the Times were written by pro-life men than by women of any belief system.

While the unsigned Times editorials have remain resolutely pro-choice, 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. 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.

All op-eds that mentioned abortion during the two-year period were included in this analysis, rather than only those that were solely about abortion, because the broader category contained so many columns that took strong editorial positions against abortion, used conservative buzzwords to describe abortion procedures, or combined highly charged commentary on abortion with discussion of a number of issues, such as stem cell research, the Human Life Amendment, and the greatness of Ronald Reagan.

Another significant though smaller category of references, more commonly found on the pro-choice side, raised the abortion question only to discount its continued importance as an issue, warning, as Anthony Lewis did last October, that "(t)he most profound issue that will face the Supreme Court in coming years is not … abortion. It is presidential power." Such a statement amounts to an editorial positions about abortion, even when included in an article primarily concerned with politics and electoral figures.

So, too, does the absence of certain voices, over time, suggest an editorial position on the part of the op-ed page editors. Over the past two years, voices from NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Organization for Women, EMILY's List, Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Federation, and the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists were entirely absent from the public conversation about abortion on the Times opinion pages. Pro-choice female academics, authors, and religious leaders were also largely shut out when it came to the topic of choice -- as were pro-life or abortion-ambivalent women.

Indeed, what's most striking about today's op-ed page is the absence of women of any sort writing on the subject of abortion. Of the 124 mentions of abortion on the page over the two-year period, only 21 of those instances were female authored. In total, there were 67 authors who wrote about abortion for the Times -- only seven of which were female. (Many authors wrote multiple columns mentioning the topic.) That's seven women over two years, compared with 60 men.

It has not always been thus. The Times was just as dedicated to the topic in 1991-1992, the last time abortion rights were as contested as in the past two years. But it was much better about printing women's opinions on choice issues back then. Of 129 mentions of abortion during that two-year period, 46 were in columns or op-eds written by women. That's 36 percent female voices on abortion in 1991-1992, compared to just 16 percent (less than half as many) today. In other words, the absence of women writers cannot be explained by a genuine shortage of women qualified and eager to discuss the topic in a prominent publication.

Nor can the absence of women be entirely explained by the 1994 retirement of columnist Anna Quindlen, who wrote primarily about the politics of family life, and her replacement by columnist Maureen Dowd in 1995. Quindlen, to be sure, wrote many reported, thoughtful columns concerned from lede to kicker with the complexities of abortion while Dowd usually just mentions abortion in passing during columns devoted to political personalities or electoral questions; Quindlen wrote on abortion 81 times during her four-year tenure as an editorial columnist, while Dowd has touched on the subject 44 times over 10 years.

Nonetheless, restricting the analysis only to op-ed page contributors with no Times affiliation, the percent of pieces discussing abortion written by women plummeted from 30 percent in 1991-1992 to only 7 percent by 2004-2006. In fact, Dowd's passing references artificially skew the number of women writing on abortion upwards. Far from being an advocate for reproductive rights, she is a former political reporter who still primarily focuses on presidential politics. She has never, over the course of a decade on the op-ed page, devoted a full column to an actual, substantive argument in favor of abortion rights. Nonetheless, she is responsible for close to half of the instances (9 of 21 mentions) in which a woman discussed abortion on the Times op-ed page during the 730-day period.

Without Dowd's occasional glancing references to choice and the work of two female guest columnists during the summer of 2004, the Times op-ed page would have been almost totally devoid of female defenses of choice -- or even commentary on it -- during the past two years. Those two were Dahlia Lithwick, Slate's Supreme Court reporter, and Barbara Ehrenreich, the well-known feminist and author, who were both brought in during summer 2004 while Dowd and Thomas Friedman were on leave or vacation. During those brief guest-columnist stints, they provided more than another quarter of the female mentions of abortion on the page (6 of 21 mentions). Times editorial board member Carolyn Curiel also wrote a single "Editorial Observer" column in Nov. 2004, "How Hispanics Voted Republican," that mentioned abortion.

That leaves just five references to abortion from "outside" submissions. One was an additional op-ed by Lithwick in summer 2005, nearly a year after she had been a guest columnist. The others were from Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, who mentioned abortion in passing in an article on debt and the new bankruptcy law; Ann Althouse, a blogger and law professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Donna Harrison, chair of the subcommittee on Mifeprex (RU-486) of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Harrison's column focused exclusively on abortion, as did Ehrenreich's July 2004 column "Owning Up to Abortion," making those the only two columns exclusively about abortion written by women on the Times Op-Ed page during the two-year period studied.

The rest of the authors who discussed abortion over the past two years -- all 60 of them -- were male. The list of men writing about abortion for the page was so biased toward the pro-life, conservative, and/or Republican side of the conversation that it is almost comic to catalog the writers. They include: former Reagan aides and cabinet officials such as Lyn Nofziger, William C. Clark, and Charles Fried, the solicitor general who led the head-on charge against Roe in 1985; Matthew Scully, the pro-life author of Dominion and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush; John Gregg, a former speechwriter for Massachusetts Governor William Weld; pro-life conservative polemicists Hugh Hewitt and Ramesh Ponnuru (author of the soon-to-be released book on Democrats, The Party of Death); American Enterprise Institute fellow John Lott; the Vatican correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter, John Allen Jr.; Mark Roche, the pro-life dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame; and Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Denver, who has written in a Bishop's Letter that "abortion kills." Two other Republicans round out the list of right-leaning men, although admittedly they are pro-choice: former representatives Tom Campbell of California and Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.

Compare that list to some of the outside op-ed writers in 1991-1992: Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women; Helen Fisher, author of Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce; Susan McLane, a Republican New Hampshire state senator; Christine Todd Whitman, the pro-choice Republican candidate for New Jersey governor; Ellen Chesler, author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America; Joan Finney, Democratic Governor of Kansas; and feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich. Thought still inclusive of Republicans, that overwhelmingly pro-choice line-up included some of the most interesting female thinkers about women's history and reproductive rights issues of the day, on top of the columns of Quindlen and Times senior columnist Flora Lewis, both of whom were writing during that period.

American cultural politics, to be sure, is different now than in the 1990s. 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. During the same 2004 to 2006 period, more than a quarter of abortion-related op-eds in the Los Angeles Times were written by women -- a number that rose to 38 percent in the months after the resignation of editorial desk editor Michael Kinsley, whose editorial choices sparked a March 2005 controversy about the representation of women on opinion pages. Indeed, his resignation appears to have been followed by a concerted effort on the part of the L.A. Times to bring a more diverse group of writers onto its op-ed page.

Despite the conservative tenor of our times, the L.A. Times was also somehow able to find high-profile women to defend choice, publishing pieces by such prominent advocates as Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America; Mary-Jane Wagle, CEO of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles; and essayist Anne Lamott.

Not only has The New York Times lacked such perspectives, but the pro-choice men invited to write for its op-ed page in recent years have all too often been highly ambivalent in their support of women's reproductive freedom. Op-ed writer Jeffrey Rosen is well known for his argument, published in The New Republic, that Roe was wrongly decided and ought to be overturned. NYU sociology professor Dalton Conley used his column to argue that "If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create."

William Saletan took to the op-ed page to argue that "abortion is bad" and that "It's bad to kill a fetus." And the legal scholars and academics brought onto the page to provide expert commentary on judicial nominations or other legal issues also frequently held strong pro-life positions or conservative affiliations. Harvard Law School professor John F. Manning, for example, clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia and ran the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under John Ashcroft, while Princeton University professor Robert P. George has called abortion "the unjust killing of innocent human beings who, as a matter of right, are entitled to the equal protection of the laws." How can such biases not inform their commentary when discussing abortion and related topics?

While op-ed editors may see publishing this array of commentators as providing readers with balance, the decision to select certain authors for publication and not others also amounts to an active intervention in our public debates on one side. New York Times op-eds are, in the lives of authors, exchangeable for raises, book contracts, and promotions. An op-ed page that prefers to elevate people whose positions the editorial board disagrees with significantly strengthens the hands of its adversaries at the expense of its friends.

There are many interesting women whose fresh perspectives on choice issues Times readers might be eager to read. Rather than publishing yet another pro-life or abortion-ambivalent Ivy League legal scholar, the Times could provide a forum for Aspen Baker, executive director of Exhale and leader of the new "pro-voice" movement that is working with Planned Parenthood and Catholics for Free Choice to improve the emotional care women get after abortions. Newsweek just wrote about her, as have many papers in California. Instead of the intellectual musings of another conflicted Catholic man, the Times could invite a column from one of the new chaplains hired by Planned Parenthood to provide pastoral care, including baptisms, to religious red-state women after abortion. Instead of another piece by Saletan, whose call to "declare war on abortion" echoes of the well-rehearsed sentiments found on the Times op-ed page in pieces by Mario Cuomo in 1992 and Naomi Wolf in 1997, the editors could give some space to Cristina Page, author of the new book How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America. Coming from today's Times, that would be a truly counter-intuitive perspective.

There are so many options. The Times could solicit a pro-life female legislator in South Dakota to talk about why her state just banned abortion. It could invite someone from Haven, a volunteer group that provides temporary housing to out-of-state women coming to New York City for second-trimester abortions, to contribute a piece on the wave of women now flowing into the city to obtain procedures unavailable in many states. It could even have snagged the op-ed on Plan B and abortion, which former FDA assistant commissioner of women's health Susan Wood recently wrote for The Washington Post.

The public debate on abortion is stalled, but that's not because there's nothing new to discuss. 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.

Copyright 2006 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to


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