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Stearns: Women Shaping History

Turn to the opinion pages and start counting. How many commentaries are written by men? How many by women? Surely in 2015 there’s equal play, right?

Wrong.Women may be ascendant in medicine, law, teaching and other professions, but when it comes to the nation’s influential opinion factories - places like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post - the second sex is still second fiddle. Women write less than a quarter of commentaries for the nation’s leading national newspapers, according to surveys for the Op-Ed Project, a nonprofit that aims to diversify opinion by enlarging the pool of women who contribute to media forums.

It’s not that editors are sexist necessarily. It’s that women don’t submit commentaries as frequently as men. They tend to remain silent by choice, turning down solicited requests to contribute to public debate unless they are recognized experts. When they do write, they typically prefer what some dismissively call “pink” topics - family, food, furniture and fashion. Surprisingly, almost as many men as women write about issues central to women’s lives, including birth control and reproductive rights.

There are plenty of theories about why women are more likely than men to suppress their own voices. Social conditioning offers one explanation. Argumentation, a favored rhetorical style, has been called a masculine art. More pertinent perhaps is the notion that men, unlike women, believe that their opinions matter. Centuries of history reinforce this belief - history written largely by men, for men, about men.

Yes, there’s been a cultural correction over the past several decades. But for every Maureen Dowd or Rachel Maddow or Ann Coulter spouting opinions, there are far more men telling us what to think. That’s why women - and not just established media stars - have to speak up.

As writer and broadcaster Katherine Lanpher has said, “The people we hear from on the issues of the day effectively narrate the world.” There can be no complete understanding of that world if women - half the population - remain reluctant to offer their perspectives in powerful media outlets such as The New York Times or National Public Radio.

After all, today’s commentary is tomorrow’s history. It’s part of the documentary record vital to those who will analyze the social and political conditions of early 21st-century America.

So, if you’re wondering whether women’s history is relevant, consider who’s narrating the stories unfolding right now and how those stories will inform future generations. History isn’t just his story. It’s her story too.

Kathryn Stearns has spent 30 years in journalism as a writer and editor. She is a former member of the Washington Post's editorial board and stepped down as editorial page editor of the Valley News in 2012.
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