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Not all women have the same voice

J.R. Labbe Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A dust-devil is swirling within American media circles over female columnists – or the lack thereof – on the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers.

Readers may have gotten a speck of it in their eyes if they read New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. The only woman on the Times’ op-ed page staff, Dowd is upset because some folks think she’s mean – and she wants people to like her – and male columnists aren’t considered mean when they take on those in power.

Mo, honey, shush. A Pulitzer Prize sits somewhere in your house. You write for the Times. Warts and all, it’s still the big mamma of U.S. newspapers. I’d trade places with you in a fingersnap to have that many eyeballs seeing my work each week, ‘cept for the fact that I can’t legally carry a gun in that gosh-awful town.

The ruckus over female columnists started on the Left Coast in an e-mail exchange between Michael Kinsley, the Los Angeles Times editorial and opinion editor, and feminist Susan Estrich, a syndicated columnist who apparently can’t get Kinsley to buy her work. Estrich berated Kinsley for not having enough women on his op-ed pages and scolded him because the ones he does run don’t speak with a “woman’s voice.”

“Woman’s voice”? If they aren’t spouting feminist mantra, what do they sound like – yipping lapdogs?

The issue bubbled up as a topic on the electronic message board of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, of which I am a member and an officer. I share with you, dear readers, the random thoughts I shared with my NCEW colleagues.

The first thing I tell every journalist – male or female – who aspires to be a columnist: “If you want to be loved, drive for Meals on Wheels. Don’t become an opinion writer.”

If ever there were two-legged creatures in this world who needed thick skin, it’s politicians and columnists.

In my almost 13 years of writing editorials and a weekly column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I’ve been called everything from evil to one reader’s write-in candidate for president. I didn’t take any of it personally; people are reading, and that’s what matters.

If columnists write with passion – something they all should strive to do – they’re going to irk some and inspire others. It goes with the job whether you’re male, female, black, white, conservative or liberal. And the job of a newspaper’s op-ed pages is to provide readers with as much diversity of thought as they can – not only to challenge the readers’ personally held views but “so more people will buy the paper.”

Passion, by the way, should never substitute for solid research and a thorough understanding of the issue du jour.

Yes, the nation’s newspapers need more female voices on the op-ed pages – and Hispanics and Asians and blacks and Muslims and Buddhists and reformed Druids. And young folk. Why? Because newspapers need to reflect the voices – and the faces – of their readers “so more of them will buy the paper.”

I doubt many Americans live in all-white, all-WASP, all-wanted-W-in-the-last-election enclaves. Oh, wait a minute, I do. The newspaper that lands on my lawn each morning needs to provide a chorus of diverse voices so that I and my neighbors are exposed to the world outside of our homogeneous neighborhood.

Important disclosure follows: This blonde, green-eyed Lutheran is a product of affirmative action. Yup, when I was hired at the Star-Telegram in 1992, I was the first full-time female editorial writer in the paper’s history. The man doing the hiring – and who today is still one of my bosses and a friend – asked me to change my byline from my initials, J.R., to include Jill (my given name) so readers would know I was female.

Does that make me a “token”? Not unless every supervisor I’ve had in the past 13 years has lied on my annual evaluations. I’ve kept my job and assumed additional responsibilities, including recruiting for the newsroom, because I’m good at what I do.

Now, according to scores of readers, I don’t “write like a woman.” Some papers across the country that use my columns don’t run my photograph; many of their readers think I’m a man based on the mail that’s addressed to Mr. Labbe. I suppose it’s because I write about what have traditionally been considered “men’s” issues: gun rights, national defense, good government, foreign policy.

In Estrich’s eyes, I am not a legitimate female columnist because I don’t speak with a “woman’s voice.”

Sorry, Susan, but not all women are in favor of smelting every last gun into a giant heap of scrap metal or support abortion on demand. And, Mo, some of us can take on the powerful without sounding mean. Substance will always trump style.

N’est-ce pas?

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