Are Women Dim or Are Editors Sexist?

His Girl Friday. 1940.

Charlotte Allen’s wretched Washington Post essay arguing that women are “kind of dim”  has been widely condemned, rightly so. My friend and occasional collaborator Laura Rozen has been particularly fierce keeping up the attack on the Post for running such a retrograde, insulting piece.

There is one sociological point that hasn’t been made: historically the newsroom has been among the most sexist of workplaces, a masculine enclave on par with barber shops, the Catholic hierarchy, and the military. You get a sense of this from the memoirs of early 20th century newspapermen like H.L. Mencken: a newsrooms was a smoked-filled, grubby place, with spittoons on the floor and pinups on the wall. Even in their leisure hours old school newspaper reporters and editors continued their male bonding at bars and boxing matches. My friend Chris Ware refers to this as a culture of the “sporting life”, and the governing rule was “no girls allowed.”

Actually, there were a few women in these newsrooms, but in order to fit in with they guys these women had to assume a role, often making themselves into tough-talking raspy-voiced “dames” (a characteristic example of this stereotype can be seen in Rosalind Russell performance in the 1940 movie His Girl Friday, interestingly in the original play the movie was based on the Russell character was a man).

In my experience, the sexist subculture of the newsroom continues to this day. There are many great women journalists but the ones that get promoted and turned into columnists and media personalities fall into two types:

1. The tough-talking dame, described above, continue to exist: Christie Blatchford has made a career playing this role, the gal who is really one of the guys, ready to swear like a sailor and quick to celebrate cops, firemen, soldiers and athletes.

2. The dim, dumb blond. That’s the role Charlotte Allen adopted in her piece and many other writers have made a career of personifying. Typically they write about dating and shopping, worrying in print about their bum being too big.  I tend to think of these writers as female quislings, willing to sell out their sisters in order to promote their own careers. Canadian readers will know what I mean when I say that Rebecca Eckler is the platonic ideal of this species (although not, if I remember correctly, blond).

And who are the writers who don’t get promoted in the same way? Hard-working intelligent women who write articles that break news and tell us about the world, but don’t reinforce gender stereotypes. In particular I’d name Laura Rozen (whose excellent reporting helped sink the career of terrible congressman Curt Weldon), Laura Secor (a great foreign correspondent), and Dahlia Lithwick (the best writer on legal issues in America). These are excellent writers and they’ve been successful enough but they’ve never gotten the attention and praise they deserve. Instead, newspaper editors prefer to publish long think pieces asking if women are dim.

5 thoughts on “Are Women Dim or Are Editors Sexist?

  1. I’m a Rozen fan too. To add to your list, Nancy Youssef, Leila Fadel and Hannah Allam are all outstanding McClatchy reporters who have done work in Baghdad ranging from solid to astonishing. The Post’s own Ellen Knickmeyer has done some great work in Iraq as well, but doesn’t get nearly the recognition afforded her war correspondent colleague, Thomas Ricks.

  2. Eat it you anti-Catholic bigot. Why can’t you write a paragraph without a gratutious insult to Catholicism. You are living proof that bigotry is alive and well in cyberland.

    Eat it.

  3. “The dim, dumb blond. That’s the role Charlotte Allen adopted in her piece and many other writers have made a career of personifying.”

    Since Ms. Allen was complaining about people she was calling dim and dumb, it doesn’t seem write to call her dim and dumb.

    I am surprised to here talk of suppressing her ideas. Why not allow her to express them and then respond, rather than trying to have her suppressed. I don’t think women’s progress is threatened by a bit of humorous self-criticism.

    Please be more charitable to women of other persuasions. There’s room for variety.


  4. Despite my life as an editor, I hate proofreading my own Internet communications. At least when contributing to other people’s blogs (this is my first time), I will have to do it from now on. Please read “write” as “right” and “here” as “hear” in my modest contribution above. Thanks.

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