To the Editor:
In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to his publisher, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women.” Although he was referring specifically to sentimental novelists, his letter expressed the larger belief that women’s writing was not worth reading or publishing, that their words and ideas didn’t matter, and that their work was, to use the language of Hawthorne, “trash.”
As a historian, I see this playing out not only in the antebellum period, but also in the postwar era when I read letters to the editor. As I scan through various national newspapers, day after day, year after year, I find myself hoping that someday, eventually, women will be represented proportionally. I am always disappointed; they always skew male.
Perhaps Hawthorne’s disdain for scribbling women is not such distant history.
This problem is especially concerning because unlike an Op-Ed — where the writer presumably has some expertise in the subject matter — anybody can submit a letter to the editor. It is, I’d argue, the most democratic section of the paper because children and adults, billionaire philanthropists and minimum-wage workers, and people of all genders can contribute. Each has an equal opportunity to express her or his thoughts and participate in a robust debate in the public sphere. Therefore, I’m troubled that in 2019, The New York Times struggles to find women’s letters that are worthy of publication.
When I first inquired as to why so few women were writing, I was told that there aren’t formal statistics on the number of women submitting letters, but that a large majority come from men. Gail Collins provided a similar explanation when she became the first woman editor of the editorial page at The Times in 2001 and started looking into this problem. She found that in letters to the editor and Op-Ed submissions, “the preponderance of men was off the charts.”
But still, causality remains murky. Are women not writing because they don’t see themselves represented? What role does implicit bias play? In the absence of formal research, it’s hard to know.
The Times could put in place a quota for women’s letters, ensuring that the number of women published each week is roughly proportional to the number of women in the population. But given the overwhelming backlash against affirmative action, I am not optimistic that this is a realistic possibility.
So while I would like to see more institutional changes, in the short term I want to encourage women to write more letters to the editor. The poet Audre Lorde described writing as a political act, the way “we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change.”
Similarly, submitting a letter to the editor says that in a society that refuses to acknowledge your full humanity, you insist on it. It is asserting that your ideas and words deserve an audience in a world that has historically devalued them. It is accepting that you most likely will never receive external validation for your efforts save for an automated email thanking you for your letter.
You will never know if your letter wasn’t published because you were Kimberly and not Karl, or if your letter was boring, or if it had absolutely nothing to do with the merits of what you wrote. As Ta-Nehisi Coates reflected in “We Were Eight Years in Power”: “My reasons for writing had to be my own, divorced from expectation. There would be no reward.”
I used to think the reward would be the individual accomplishment of an editor selecting my letter as worthy of publication. But now I know the reward would be for tomorrow and the next day and the next, to open up The New York Times — in fact, letters pages in any national newspaper — and to see nasty, scribbling women from all over the country sharing their ideas and having their thoughts equally represented.
The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at George Washington University.
The Editors Respond: We Hear You
Ms. Probolus is right. Even before we received her note, we’d wrestled with the fact that women have long been underrepresented on the letters page. By our rough estimate, women account for a quarter to a third of submissions — although women do tend to write in greater numbers about issues like education, health, gender and children.
This gender disparity problem is not unique to the letters page. Online comments on our articles and the unsolicited Op-Ed submissions we receive skew heavily male. Nor is this issue unique to The Times.
The lack of women’s voices is an industrywide phenomenon, as documented in a 2011 article in Poynter.org (“Why women don’t contribute to opinion pages as often as men & what we can do about it”). It is reflected in efforts such as the Op-Ed Project, founded in 2008 “to increase the number of women thought leaders in key commentary forums to a tipping point.”
As for our letters page, we make our selections regardless of gender. But we are sensitive to gender imbalance, and as editors of a space dedicated to readers’ voices, we are determined to have it reflect more closely society as a whole. Going forward, we’re committing ourselves to work toward a goal of parity on a weekly basis. We’ll report back on our progress in February 2020.
But we need your help. So we want to urge women — and anyone else who feels underrepresented — to write in (here is a guide).
Traditionally we have chosen letters that were sent by email ([email protected]) or postal mail. From now on, in addition to those sources, we’ll seek a new pool of writers by reaching out in newsletters, the Reader Center, Facebook groups and other social media.
Just as we were thrilled to hear from Kimberly Probolus, we’d love to hear from you.
THOMAS FEYER, Letters Editor
SUSAN MERMELSTEIN, Staff Editor
Please Write to Us
We’d like to hear your thoughts about why more women don’t write letters and comments, and how to remedy this. Let us know in the comments section of this article.
Or send an email to [email protected]. Please keep your letters to 200 words or less. Include your name, city/state and contact information, and put “women” in the subject line.