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March 30, 2005

Women Writers: The Chutzpah Factor

In Sunday's Washington Post there was a fascinating piece on the troubling (to some) dearth of women on the Op-Ed pages. Fascinating may seem an odd word, as many - including numerous female writers - have earnestly prayed this subject would somehow find a merciful death and put an end to our long national nightmare.

Certainly, we thought, it should have drowned in sheer verbiage by now.

But Ms. Smardz, in addition to having a memorable last name, is also a female opinion editor for a major newspaper. As such she brings what is fatuously called a fresh perspective to the debate and in the process confirms some thoughts I've had for some time on another tired meme: sexism in the blogosphere. In a passage that would have gotten her run out of town on a rail (had she been a man), she first dares to suggest that there may be inherent biological differences between men and women:

When Opiniongate broke, it reminded me right away of a neuropsychiatrist I ghostwrote a book for a few years ago. A female neuropsychiatrist, by the way. She told me lots of edifying stuff about the science of the brain, including certain -- dare I say it? -- innate differences between women and men that, yes, Virginia, apparently do exist.

For instance: Did you know that men are generally oriented toward the left brain, the mind's intellectual and linguistic power center, while women tend to use both sides of the brain? But the left brain is the dominant side. It likes to run things, be in control. So that (plus the testosterone, of course) makes men more assertive. Unafraid to take risks and willing to take a shot at anything, anytime. Women, being tuned in to the more cautious (and more creative) right brain, are more reluctant to do something unless they're sure they're going to get it right.

Here's how the neuropsychiatrist put it: Think of a man as carrying a quiverful of arrows. When he spies a target, he lets fly with the whole caboodle. Most of his arrows will miss the bull's-eye, but one is likely to hit. And that's the one people will remember -- and applaud. A woman, though, proceeds slowly and considers carefully. Only when she's pretty sure she has a perfect shot does she send off a single arrow. And she hits the mark! Amazing! But . . . too bad. The guy's already walked off with the prize.

Once I picked myself up from the Hopkinsian lapse of consciousness her words evoked, I had to admit there is more than a grain of truth to this theory. This admission comes despite the fact that I've never been hesitant to offer my opinion. It is, after all, what I do here every day. In both high school and college I was easily the most vocal student, usually dominating any class discussion. In fact, I viewed my forthrightness as something of a problem. Professors used to call on me even when I did not raise my hand, so sure were they that I not only had an opinion, but would be more than happy to share it.

But this behavior is not, I find, typical of women in general. And even if I wasn't entirely convinced by the timidity argument, I could definitely see the risk-taking aspect of male vs. female behavior. I was reminded of a story I like to tell from over twenty years ago.

A friend of mine, a Marine wife whose husband was in the field, woke to find her aged Ford would not start and called me for help. I determined the battery was low and offered to jump-start the car and follow her to the dealer. I was, perhaps, 24 at the time and had worked on cars before. In fact, I'd jump-started my own station wagon just a few weeks before that. But since this was not my car and I didn't want to be responsible for any mishaps, I took extra care: I retrieved her manual from the glove compartment and started reading. As I connected the cables (looking for a spot to connect the ground at least 18" away from the battery, one of those old-fashioned ones) a Marine drove by, jumped out of his car, almost wrestled the cables from my hand, and threw them on the car. After he finished, he dusted off his hands and said, "I've always wanted to do that!". He collected the customary female adulation and drove off into the sunrise.

I turned to my friend and said, "Only a man would try something like that without bothering to check the directions" and we agreed that men hate taking that extra 3 minutes to be on the safe side. They'd rather just wing it. He had, of course, grounded the cable right next to the battery. But it didn't blow up. They usually don't, but I don't know what he would have done if it had. And most of the time things work out just fine, and lots of things get done that wouldn't if men had to stop and think about every little detail.

On the other hand, every wife, every secretary, every mother can recount numerous tales of fixing the problems that inevitably arise from this "don't look before you leap" strategy. I am a technical support manager and therefore spend a major amount of time correcting situations caused by men who didn't see any point in consulting the users manual when that critical warning message asked them, "Are you sure you want to delete the Microsoft Jet Database Engine?". Men almost invariably say, "Yes". Women, I find, err on the conservative side and almost always say, "No".

But the most interesting part of Ms. Smardz's piece, though she gave it short shrift, was this:

It's my job to chase down articles and contributors for the first five pages of this section every week. (We have no stable of columnists, à la the op-ed pages, here in Outlook.) And I know who's constantly beating on my door to be heard, and who's a little more inclined to hang back. It won't surprise you who's who, either. I took an informal count while writing this, and over a recent span of seven days, unsolicited manuscripts to our section were running 7 to 1 in favor of, yes, those pesky, ubiquitous men.

Her experience jibes quite well with mine as a blogger. I've opined before that, while much of the absence of women in the top ranks of the blogosphere is explained by the fact that we're not as likely to write about so-called "men's issues" like the war on terror, Social Security, Economics, foreign policy, or First Amendment issues, a more fundamental issue may simply be that we are not as pushy as men.

Let's be honest: I think I'm a damned good writer when I'm on my game. Although most bloggers don't write long opinion pieces, I do with some frequency. Blogging is a more informal medium, and so it lends itself to more frivolity than the sort of fare one finds in the New York Times or The Washington Post. But one adjusts one's style to the audience. In an earlier post on Susan Estrich's whiny demands to be noticed by the male power structure, I mused about sexism in the blogosphere:

Do I think there's a perception out there that female bloggers aren't as "serious" as men? You bet.

Do I think that some male bloggers (including one or two big-name bloggers) don't particularly welcome female bloggers into the club, or link to their posts? Perhaps. It's hard to say.

I've honestly been mystified in a few instances where I (or other women) have consistently written better or more substantive posts on a subject than a popular male blogger, but everyone links to him. I think this happens to men, too though. And as a woman, I have to admit a few things:

I don't promote my work. At all. And this may be a defining difference between male and female bloggers - many successful men are very aggressive about networking and emailing their posts around, and it works. So in the blogosphere (as in the real world with salary and compensation packages) they are seeing the result of their hard work. If a perfect world, maybe merit alone would determine who gets linked, but let's face it - effort counts too. And chutzpah. You can't sit in a corner and pout and hope the world notices you.

Interestingly, when I began blogging I read several pieces on how to succeed. They all suggested emailing big-name bloggers with carefully-chosen posts. Each piece warned of the pain of rejection and counseled patience: "It's a numbers game", they all said. "Keep up the effort and eventually your persistence will be rewarded". This advice was seconded by several successful bloggers I admired. I vividly remember Robert Prather, a fine writer who has been a daily read for some time, telling me that when he first started he pestered several big-name bloggers unmercifully (his words): something one would think unnecessary given the quality of his work.

I tried this tactic for all of two weeks when I started blogging at Jet Noise. Every now and then I'd send a piece I was particularly proud of to a carefully selected blogger. The results, I now realize, were quite good. But in the end I abandoned the process. I found it took too much time away from writing. I found it irritating.

Looking at my Inbox this morning, I have several emails from male bloggers suggesting various posts to me. In more than a year of blogging, I have never received a like email from a female blogger, though I know several. Not one: zip, zippo, nada, zilch. Without exception these gentlemen draw more traffic than my humble site, yet they took the time to include me on their distribution list. Some email me every day, even several times a day, with recommendations.

As a lark, I sent a link to Charlotte Allen, one of my favorite writers at The Inkwell, last week. This is something I almost never do: I can't think of the last time I tried to get someone to link to something I wrote, and to be honest I was not really expecting a link from her. How to explain this atypical act? My email was prompted more by excitement over something I had read that day, and the recollection of a great piece Charlotte wrote asking "Where are the great women thinkers?" There is nothing I love more than making a connection, and seeing Ruth Wisse's letter seemed the answer to Charlotte's question, posed way back in February. I couldn't wait to address an issue that had been rattling about in the back of my mind for weeks.

And that is so typically female: I sent off the email and promptly forgot about it, not really expecting either a link or a response. The connection had been made, the thought completed, and as far as I was concerned, the case was closed. But there was one more act in the play; the final, if unintended, result is here. It's hard to argue with success, ladies.

Another time I got excited about a post and fired off an email, this time hoping for a link, it also succeeded. I felt so strongly about my defense of General Mattis that I sent a link to Thomas Lifson of The American Thinker. He graciously responded with a link. In this case the piece in question was already receiving ample traffic. I simply felt compelled to respond to a letter The Thinker had published and I read and vehemently disagreed with.

And a recent Instalaunch was, likewise, the result of aggressive promotion. Just not mine. The Confederate Yankee (one of those horrid men who shamelessly promotes his own posts) kindly sent a link to my defense of Brit Hume to the Instapundit. So here we see a male blogger spontaneously promoting the work of a female blogger. In all fairness I must also admit that I would not have half the traffic I do, were it not for the efforts of another man, John Hawkins of Right Wing News. I have also been grateful for the support of other more successful (if traffic is the measure of success) male bloggers like John Donovan and TigerHawk. They have been generous with their links and have often done for me what I have chosen not to do for myself: give my writing a bit of a shove into the spotlight. And all without a single request for assistance, nor, all too often much in the way of thanks. This last, both from a reluctance to stop writing and the hope that it is the quality of my work that prompts their actions.

I don't begrudge male writers their success. If promotion works, so be it. I do happen to think the quality of one's work is important. But in the larger scheme of things, if you build a better mousetrap and no one knows about it you shouldn't be surprised if you don't get rich. I believe women may simply be more inner-directed. I write because I enjoy writing. I view promoting my work as a distraction from what I enjoy, and since I don't get paid for blogging I can afford the luxury of lofty ideals.

All of this musing begs the question: are crybabies like Susan Estrich ignoring the persistent efforts of editors like Ms. Smardz to overcome their own lack of effort? Why should editors have to go looking for female writers of quality? If we are so worried about gender disparity on the Op-Ed pages (and in truth, I can't say this pressing issue is keeping me awake nights) why aren't we banging her door down?

I did have one parting thought regarding the reluctance of female writers to commit to a tight deadline. Perhaps Ms. Smardz is looking in the wrong place? Two weeks? Four days? I'd be happy to have four hours to write an opinion piece. This one was important to me and it took me under two, advance reading included.

Try the blogosphere, Ms. Smardz. We're out here, and there's no shortage of opinions. Trust me on that one.

Posted by Cassandra at March 30, 2005 05:53 AM

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Translation for we lazy gentlemen:
"Half of winning is just showing up for the game."

Now give me them jumper cables.

Posted by: spd rdr at March 30, 2005 09:31 AM


RTFP: if what you define as "winning" is getting noticed (as Ms. Estrich counts women on the Op-Ed pages) I'll buy off on that proposition. You have to promote - that's why she's a whiner.

If what you define as "winning" is having the time to do what you enjoy free of annoying distractions (my favored definition) then I crossed the finish line on day One, admittedly unnoticed and unapplauded. Oh well...

A lot of us show up every day. My point was that some of us don't subscribe to the same definition of success. If we do, then we should quit whining and follow the recipe.

If we don't, then quit pining for something we don't really want anyway and admit we have what we wanted all along: a more balanced life and the achievement of (admittedly) different goals.

I believe this is what Lawrence Summers was pilloried for saying but I can say it because I lack testicles.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 09:44 AM

Okay, this is the first long piece of yours that I have read in its entirety without having to take a kid break.

I think you hit on something and it is this: You ARE a damned good writer. And the male bloggers who have given you a shove toward the spotlight know it too. THAT is what I think is terrific; that a good piece of writing isn't 'heteronormed' by who writes it, but what it says.

What is the lesson here? You
don't have to be a man or a woman to write a good piece and get noticed. You have to be GOOD.

I know you may not want to hear this, but I am saying it now: I like the way you have taken the weekends off from blogging. For one, it is about
time you did, and for another, it gives more depth to what you do chose to write about.

We have benefitted as a result.

Thanks again, Cass.

Posted by: Cricket at March 30, 2005 09:55 AM


oooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhh, aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh

Posted by: Masked Menace© at March 30, 2005 10:04 AM

Well, thank you Cricket.

I have been a bit conflicted about the weekend thing. I had always looked forward to writing on the weekends because I didn't have to get ready for work in the morning and I had time to think.

But lately my husband has been home most weekends, so that's a reason not to be on the computer.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 10:08 AM

Nicely said Lady Bug.
Cass, I was just popping in with the obligatory sports metaphor. If you want to get heard then you make some noise. If you want to be listened to, make the right noises. Estrich is not making the right noises.

Posted by: spd rdr at March 30, 2005 10:10 AM

Sorry if I sounded cranky spd - I didn't mean to. I'm fighting off another migraine - too many nights of overtime in a row doesn't make for careful wording, and I think I sort of shot my wad with that post.

Knowing you, I thought you had very likely taken the point on board, but I didn't really know that I had stated it explicitly and figured I probably shouldn't expect people to read my mind.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 10:22 AM

I read this piece on Sunday. Haven't laughed so hard in a month.

Posted by: George at March 30, 2005 11:47 AM

"...but I can say it because I lack testicles."
"...and I think I sort of shot my wad with that post."

Not only is Cass a good writer, but she is dern confounding at times.

I know that my little blogging efforts have cited Cass a whole bunch. I do think though that if you want to be cited more often, you should have more flashy lights and things at your site. [Sorry, inside family joke about stupid brother in law. Think of Homer's first web site in the Mr. X Simpsons episode, but with a real person playing Homer.]

Posted by: KJ at March 30, 2005 11:48 AM

I know you have, KJ, and I appreciate it.

I should say here that my choice of those particular male bloggers was driven by the fact that I originally intended to include a chart showing a few wild upswings in traffic from major launches from big sites.

Most bloggers dream of such, and while I am also somewhat gratified when it happens I have to say that it is not my idea of 'success'. That's kind of what I was getting at in my comment to spd.

The day I got all that traffic on the Brit Hume post, I just wanted to run away. I didn't even look at the traffic counter until John Donovan drew my attention to it.

In many ways, I have tried, both here and at Jet Noise, to keep the site growth contained so that the character of the place would not change; and that was one factor that, frankly, figured into my decision to strike out on my own. I don't want to have to shut off comments. So big upswings in traffic are (to me at least) a decidedly mixed blessing.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 12:09 PM

Well, one thing about the comments here, is that they are either on topic or polite...with some rare exceptions.

I also think that those who do come by are either impressed with the blog and the Regina Monologues
and will either say so or say not so, but will usually keep it polite.

Posted by: Cricket at March 30, 2005 12:25 PM

I don't know.

I just don't know.

I don't do anything to promote my site with the exception of going to other peoples sites and spreading the "suck" around. If I did promote my site I am guessing I would probably promote the wrong stuff. I posted a crappy little piece that was little more than pictures of women teachers who were accused or convicted of having sex with their students and it got linked all over the place. On the otter heiny, I posted a beautifully written, heart wrenching peice, smattered with personal insight, on our culture of flatuphobia, and.......nothing. Silence.

Posted by: Pile On® at March 30, 2005 01:21 PM

Oh, I'm not saying that all guys promote their sites - I don't believe that's the case by any stretch.

I've just noticed that the sites that really take off, traffic-wise have one of two things in common: they are usually well-promoted (in the sense that their owners both promote posts, link generously, and comment on other sites) and they are either well-written or appeal to the mass market (sometimes known as the LCD).

A third factor is definitely early entry.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 01:28 PM

Posting often helps too.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 01:29 PM

...and if it's any comfort Pile, the posts I'm usually proudest of and put the most thought into, rarely are linked to.

On more than one occasion they haven't gotten a single comment. Sometimes I've really put my heart into something and then I wonder if anyone even read it - that's a heartbreaker.

Then I've written some moronic post off the top of my head and had a million trackbacks and comments. It depresses the heck out of me.

But you have to remember this: even if no one liked your post, the insights you gained into the world of flatulence are yours forever.

And no one can take that away from you, Pile. You're an author.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 01:35 PM

Thank you.

I feel better now.

Posted by: Pile On® at March 30, 2005 01:39 PM

Ooooohhhhh, that's right, Pile On is an author. I can now use Pile On for "P" or "O" as an answer for both "Authors" and "Things/people that suck" in my next game of Scattegories.

Posted by: KJ at March 30, 2005 02:15 PM

You ARE a damned good writer. And the male bloggers who have given you a shove toward the spotlight know it too.


I'm sorry if you don't like Instalanches, Cass. I'll try to keep that in mind. ;-)

I do shamelessly plug my blog, and I don't feel bad about it.

I send out what I think of as press releases when I write what I think is a good article. I "e-mail cast" it toward a select group of bloggers within a group of blogs that I monitor who have similar interests in like topics.

Personally, I wish other bloggers would email me when they have a new article up they think I would be interested in.

And yes Cass, that is a hint.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at March 30, 2005 04:13 PM

Oh, I wasn't complaining. I was really touched that you did that :)

And I think it makes a lot of sense to promote your work - I'm not dinging that by any means. I've had the same conversation with several guys who do the same thing. It seems to be kind of a female thing really - I don't know why I don't like doing it - I just know I don't, so I don't overthink it.

What bugs me is when women who don't want to put in the same effort as men then COMPLAIN about not being noticed!

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 04:21 PM

And FWIW, I don't mind getting your "press releases" in the least either. My attitude is that they are there for me to either read or disregard - it's up to me. No one is forcing me to do anything, and sometimes it prompts me to go over for a visit (and I need the prompting to get off my butt - sometimes I forget).

Posted by: Cassandra at March 30, 2005 04:23 PM

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