Before SJ, I wrote the occasional Letter to the Editor. Sometimes, I wrote on my own behalf, but mostly I wrote for the sake of others, often organizations with which I was involved because the “elected” leader* sucked at writing. It was my words above their name, because they could barely string two sentences together and didn’t want to look dumb.
Sometimes the letters were published. Other times not. That’s how letters worked. When I wrote for others, I put their ideas and thoughts into words for them. They weren’t always ideas with which I agreed, but hey, it was their letter and so it had to reflect their ideas. I was just the guy putting them to words. Some of the “leaders” for whom I did this were men. Some were women. My writing was no different based on the sex of the name below my words, but it wasn’t just the name that differed, but the ideas in the letter.
A year ago, prodded by a reader who wrote eloquently about how women were underrepresented on the letters page of The Times, we started the Women’s Project, aiming to correct that imbalance and better reflect the diversity in society. We committed ourselves to work toward a goal of gender parity and to report on our progress in February 2020.
We haven’t reached the goal line yet.
There was no discernible difference between publication of my letters on behalf of men or women. There was a discernible difference between the content of the letters. When I wrote for men, the content was harder, colder, and unapologetic. Women preferred a softer, warmer, more moderated tone.
I know because they would tell me so. I listened because when you write something to be published over someone else’s name, they will be the ones who have to live with the consequences.
Over the summer, I attended a party where the hostess introduced me to another guest as the woman who wrote the letter to The New York Times about why not enough women write letters to the editor. The guest, a man, must have only heard some of this introduction, because he started telling me about an amazing new initiative by The Times to achieve gender parity in letters submissions. In fact, this man was so excited to tell me all the reasons women didn’t write letters to the editor that he still did not hear me when I told him that I wrote the letter.
Finally, at the end of “his” story, I gave it one last shot. “I wrote the letter,” I said, to which he responded with the appropriate mix of embarrassment, apologies and admiration. While this may seem like an episode out of Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” the man I encountered was not the least bit arrogant, displaying a boyish giddiness toward feminism. And yet, he could not hear the small blond woman standing right in front of him.
Whether this story is true or a rhetorical device to fulfill the daily self-serving anecdote requirement is unknown, but as irrelevant as my experience. They’re just stories used to serve a purpose, although Kimberly Probolus’ story made me chuckle as I wondered how she believes men talk with each other as opposed to women. Does she think men hang on every word uttered by another man, yet talk over women?
But her letter moved the New York Times Letters editor to the point of creating an official project. Rather than approve publication of letters based on content, strength of argument, diversity of viewpoint, inherent merit, they would post letter based on the sex of the writer. How did that work?
For the last year, we have tracked and entered into a spreadsheet the gender of every writer we’ve published on the daily letters page. As of today, the tally is 43 percent women, 57 percent men — numbers that have remained remarkably constant for several months. While we do not have exact data from previous years, we do know that there are now far more women on the page than in the past.
We have also done spot tallies of the much larger number of submissions. There the percentage (when a writer’s gender can be determined) is about 25 to 30 percent women, about the same as a year ago, before the project started.
So the probability of a letter finding its way into print was significantly better for a letter written by a woman than a man. Even so, women just didn’t write letters apace with men, and the ultimate “balance” fell short of the demographic outcome the Times sought to achieve, content notwithstanding. But the problem wasn’t merely a numbers game, but a subject-matter game as well.
** These are some of the topics in which published letters since the start of the Women’s Project were predominantly from women: helicopter parenting; girls outpacing boys at school but not at work; when parents don’t vaccinate their children; college experiences; women without children; women traveling the world alone; widows and finances; end-of-life care; the American family and working mothers; the trauma from school shootings; President Trump’s appeal in rural America; how moms and dads divide the work; older women, not just about looks; abortion; women and the diet industry; separated at the border, at 4 months old; empty nest no more; home health aides; assisted living; menopause; miscarriage; abnormal sleep cycles; the story of two homeless children in New York; robots that provide health care; the cost of college textbooks; a soaring rate of suicides by the young; balancing being a surgeon and a mother; the lost art of listening; middle-class families in despair; a turning point in President Trump’s impeachment trial; the Senate’s vote to block impeachment witnesses; Nancy Pelosi and the State of the Union address; J. Lo at the Super Bowl, and body image.
It wasn’t that women were mostly interested in family and women’s issues. There was the manual transmission post.
Some of the results surprised us: Homages to stick-shift cars? We published letters from five women, and none from men.
That’s not to say men didn’t write letters about stick shifts, but that the Times didn’t publish them. Or maybe the letters were written by men, but they were submitted under women’s names? That could be the lesson here, if one was cynical, and it wouldn’t be anything new, as I was doing years ago.
*The organizations of which I speak tend to change the heads annually, so that they would have a new “president” every year. This is a self-defeating proposition, since the universe of people whom anyone wants to be president is limited and, after a few years, they run out of decent choices. Also, presidents are drawn from participants, usually the “board,” so presidents bring their pals onto the board to groom them to be future presidents, even if their sole qualification is being friends with a past president. Lastly, there is often a sense of it being someone’s “turn” to be president, even if the person is no one’s choice for dog catcher.
In the beginning, presidents tended to be admired and respected people. After a while, the question most often heard when the board would send out its ballot with one name proposed for “president-elect” was “who?”