Susan Estrich

Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California, author, columnist, commentator on Fox News and former advisor to Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign, has launched a high-profile war of words with Michael Kinsley, editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times. Estrich accuses Kinsley of “blatant sex discrimination” on the Times’ opinion pages, because few women are published. Estrich’s correspondence with Kinsley, and his replies, have been reprinted widely, including by the DC Examiner. Estrich took special exception to a series of op-ed articles (all by women), published Feb. 13 in the Times, entitled “Gender Studies.”

Susan Q. Stranahan: You’ve been critical for some time about how the Times treats women on its staff and on its opinion pages, launching a campaign two years ago to save the job of the lone female news columnist [Patt Morrison], and now demanding the inclusion of more women’s voices as commentators. What are readers of the Times missing?

Susan Estrich: When we don’t hear women’s voices, we miss out on half the population — and I do think it makes a difference. [Yesterday,] there was one article by a woman on the Los Angeles Times [op-ed page] — it was from the Harvard Crimson, and it was about women and science. Need I add that it was the only piece about gender issues on the page. The only piece by a woman on the New York Times’ op-ed page [Thursday] was Maureen Dowd’s piece on the AARP/gay rights issue, which is certainly related.

But it’s not just that women are more likely to notice gender issues, and write about them. There’s a famous U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1964 called Hoyt v. Florida that upheld Florida’s exclusion of women from juries, on the grounds that women were different, with the implication that their lives were sufficiently different to justify the separate rules, but at the same time, their voices weren’t important enough that they needed to be included. In the law, we call that sexual asymmetry — separate and unequal. The fundamental recognition that women do bring different perspectives, a range of them, but different ones, is important, and to exclude those perspectives is a loss for everyone.

SQS: The Los Angeles Times isn’t unique in the absence of female commentators. “Most newspapers will only ‘take’ one liberal woman. If they take Molly Ivins or Ellen Goodman, they won’t take me,” you wrote. “Can you imagine someone saying that they can’t take Bob Novak because they take George Will; can’t take Bill O’Reilly because they take Bill Safire? Silly.” Why, in your view, is one female columnist considered to be “enough?”

SE: I’m not sure why people consider one to be enough — clearly they shouldn’t. But let’s face it: Many of the decision-makers are men, and the stereotypes are strong. When Karen Jurgenson was the editorial page editor of USA Today, she didn’t take that approach. She hired Linda Chavez and me, and two men, and I didn’t even know at the time how unusual that was. But I should add, it isn’t just a liberal issue. Ann Coulter and I may not agree on much, but we do agree on this: She has written four bestsellers, but last time I talked to her, [her commentary] wasn’t in any paper big enough to be included in Lexis-Nexis. Laura Ingraham is terrific on the radio, but she had a really tough time getting stations, and switched [time-of-day] and syndicators before she started to hit pay dirt.

I don’t think discrimination is conscious, but that makes it even harder to deal with. I don’t think anybody sits down and says, we hate women here. But they call their friends, print whom they like, whom they know, who’s been around. It takes a conscious effort to make change. I remember once asking a panel of men at a news business conference about how gender entered into their coverage and to a man — including now-Mayor Bloomberg — they said they didn’t take gender into account. Well, if you don’t, [the end result] is just one woman, or none. That is what most corporate boards look like, and it’s what most op-ed pages look like. But an op-ed page is easier to change than a corporate board. You can change it in a matter of hours or days, just by deciding to, and reaching out consciously.

SQS: You’ve picked this fight with your former Harvard law school classmate, Michael Kinsley, a formidable journalist whose tenure at the New Republic and Slate didn’t produce howls about sexist bias. Jack Shafer of Slate recently ran a list of women writers Kinsley has published or mentored. Has something changed?

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.