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.