Why Do So Few Women Write Letters to the Editor?
Earlier this month, Caroline Kitchener reported that issues of confidence and deep-seated social norms may help explain the gender imbalance in letters to the editor sections, at The Atlantic and elsewhere.
My feedback is to suggest you reframe the question. Let go of the tired assumption that this stems from a “confidence gap,” which implies women are deficient against some norm. A norm that might not be a good thing anyway.
Instead, consider that women have enhanced self-awareness or an extra helping of humility. Perhaps we don’t suffer from an excess of hubris, which powers the pens (or keyboards) of other letter writers.
When I am inspired to respond to an article, I ask myself two questions: Why? and So What? Many times, my answers reveal my intentions are superficial or impulsive. Or I realize I don’t care enough to deal with what may ensue. So I don’t write.
I answered this message because I am moved by your authentic inquiry and motivated to challenge the confidence gap stereotype. The idea that a lack of confidence drives behavior for half the population is incredible and sort of silly. When a course of action is unlikely to produce a good outcome or likely to have negative results, opting out is considered a sign of prudence, not a lack of confidence
My “so what” is to encourage you to continue to examine the systems and culture related to reader feedback. But please don’t assume women are lacking when we don’t opt in to your current model. What is lacking is an experience that makes our efforts worthwhile.
Interesting questions posed today about why the majority of those who write letters to the editor are male, and also white. I’m not surprised, but I don’t think the confidence gap has much to do with it. I believe the confidence gap explains a lot about what promotions we strive for, how we market ourselves, but I’m not buying that as the root cause for [gender imbalance in] feedback at all.
Women are busy. Busy with all kinds of work that has tangible consequences—screw up an online order for a woman and she’ll give a bad review and school a customer service rep—no confidence gap there. We are confident in the kitchen, we are confident with the kids, with the chores, we are confident putting out fires; not solely because we have confidence in our abilities in those areas but because this is real shit that needs to get done, that others may be more likely to neglect (not always, but still the trend, sorry guys).
I think the tendency for women to be juggling a lot of roles, many with immediately tangible consequences, leads to women being less likely to spend time on opinion/feedback—it’s like indulging in some online shopping but with no package arriving in the mail for your effort.
The other contributor, I believe, is that we’re tired. We have to work so hard to be heard, we get attacked, we get mansplained all. the. time. And I’m a proud bitch from Jersey, not meek by any means—when I get a condescending compliment about my accomplishments, moxie is usually referenced. But I think, I’m gonna write a letter to the editor, to speak my mind and just be ignored. Or be heard and then attacked. And in the end, even if I am heard, even if the attacks can be weathered, how likely is it my feedback actually results in anything tangible? So I just scream into the ether on Twitter if need be; quick and easy.
I think this trend may change, because girls growing up now are experiencing things differently. You can see the difference in agency in teen TV shows—the girls in Pretty Little Liars are more independent than Buffy ever was, and she was our feminist heroine fighting demons. We see it in Teen Vogue and more prominent female voices across Harper’s Bazaar and others. This generation is growing up with a more ideal/equal outlook but also seeing a glaring threat to their rights and safety at the same time. They’ve lost patience for behaviors we used to be trained to endure, and they don’t buy the patriarchal messaging, even as it comes from older women. Now, are they finding real confidence to bridge the gap or are they scared and fighting what this backlash to female empowerment might turn into? A little of both I’d say. But I’d also argue what is referred to for men as “confidence” is really bravado; and, when they’ve got more capable, strong women to contend with, in hopefully more meritocratic systems, we’ll probably also see some of that bravado quiet down.
I doubt you’ll ever stop receiving incoherent letters full of opinions from men. We can only hope you start receiving just as many from women, starting with mine.
I’ve been a magazine reader since high school, and a subscriber since I was in college (I’m now in my 30s). I have written a grand total of two letters to the editor, and neither were for The Atlantic. Out of those two, only one expressed an opinion; the other was praise for a particularly good issue.
Why have I not engaged with what I read in this way? It’s a great question, and I believe there is a gendered element to it. I didn’t usually read the online comments to Atlantic articles, and I’m glad you’ve eliminated them; however, I have had the opportunity to read a lot of letters over the years and without even realizing it, I began to assume that the letters section (or any letters section in a magazine or newspaper) was the territory of mansplainers, trolls, and those prone to rambling. In other words, I rolled my eyes and moved on to the journalism. Rather than try to find my way in, I self-selected out.
But it’s not like I didn't engage with the content at all. I forwarded articles, cited them in school papers, and talked about them in person with friends and family. In all those times I’m sure I demonstrated both an entitlement to an opinion and a belief that my opinion was correct. But for a number of reasons, those opinions never made it back to the publication.
Come now, this title is misleading. Women are not pulling themselves out of the discussion. They were never in it in the first place. From my experience, as a professional woman with a Ph.D., I cannot begin to count the daily microaggressions I experience that silence my voice over and over again. And this is often in the name of “discussion.”
Being the only woman at a high-level meeting, a man always needing to have the last word, being asked to fit one more assignment into an already busy schedule, keeping a calm facade while the men around me are allowed to have meltdowns or do half the work for more pay, being aware of the emotional toll of life as a woman of color, wanting to save my mental and physical energy for myself: These are some of the reasons I choose not to comment to The Masthead or any other platform that seeks my opinion to puff up itself.
It is hardly a lack of confidence. It is a deliberate and strategic form of resistance. This issue is not unconnected with what is being revealed through #MeToo, which ironically continues to produce “shock” over things no one is surprised about. It is connected at the level of systemic forms of gender inequality that manifest in micro and macro ways to silence women’s voices on the one hand, and as workplace violence on the other. Women don’t need more platforms to speak more often, louder, in greater numbers, etc. How exhausting. They just need men to shut up for a while.
D. D. (full name withheld upon request)
One of your points is that letter-writing is a form of participatory democracy, civic involvement, active citizenry. But, letter-writing is done in the privacy of one's home as an outburst of praise or rage (usually rage), and then, having satisfied its purpose of getting something off one’s chest (or showing others that they’re wrong or misguided), is put aside for the other activities of daily life. Participatory democracy, civic involvement, is working with others in your neighborhood, your community, your city, your state. Citizenry is taking an active role in political or not-for-profit groups whose activities have goals beyond immediate satisfaction, and repercussions that affect others far beyond the readers of one publication.
Women, who, for too long have had to balance work, study, homemaking, child-rearing, and recreation almost by themselves, know exactly how to weigh the importance of how they allocate their time and energy. Perhaps the answer to your puzzlement is, women have figured out that letters to the media are like masturbation. It feels good for the nonce, but doesn’t do much for the future.
Kitchener questions why women are hesitant to raise their voice in the public sphere, but she overlooks the important role that women play in the public relations industry. As a communications professional currently enrolled in a public relations writing class at Georgetown University, I can’t help but note that only two of my current classmates are male. According to an August 2014 article from this publication, the public relations field is nearly two-thirds female. Who do you think is writing many of the opinion pieces and official responses that make their way to the opinions sections of newspapers and journals across the country?
I encourage all women wishing to speak up to find their voice, but we must also recognize communications and public relations professionals (of all backgrounds) for the critical work they do behind the scenes to educate and advocate on their clients’ behalf.
Riverdale Park, Md.
Bring back your comments section. Women are too busy to have time to sit and write a letter. I commented daily on many articles until you got rid of the comments. I am still miffed about that and do not have time to sit and write letters.
Caroline Kitchener replies:
Thanks, everyone, for reading my piece—I’m happy to see what looks like a lot of female names here! Since I published this, quite a few women have written to me with some version of your response, Anna: They’ve told me that they share their opinion with friends, or in local community forums, freely and often, but aren’t inclined to submit it for publication. Women, perhaps, just prefer to voice their opinions privately, or semi-privately. Looking at the responses I personally received to this piece, this theory seems to hold. I got over 20 emails responding to my argument—almost all were from women. But when we discussed the article in our Atlantic discussion forum (one of the features of our membership platform, The Masthead), almost all participants were men. This brings me to your point, Judith: Do letters to the editor actually lead to productive conversations? Even the handful that actually make a clear point? Letters to the editor are, inherently, performative—and maybe that’s a problem. Maybe the public nature of the platform encourages writers to infuse their letters with far too much—as you say, Jen—“bravado.” Maybe the best way to change minds is to talk to a smaller group, or to a friend, one-on-one.
My concern is that if women don’t write letters to the editor, other women will feel like they can’t. At The Atlantic’s offices, I laughed with a group of my female colleagues about the subtitle selected for my piece (a quote from Andrew Perrin, a professor of sociology at UNC Chapel Hill): “In many cases, the confidence men have is not particularly warranted.” I think it’s time for women to have a little unwarranted confidence, too.