Magazine Editors Respond to Criticisms Over Dearth of Female Bylines

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This picture is deliberately confusing. Photo: iStockphoto.com

Awhile back, Forward writer Elissa Strauss stirred the pot by criticizing some of her favorite literary and political journals for the large and notable gap between the number of female bylines and number of male bylines that appeared in their pages. Not long after, VIDA, a women's literary organization, made an official count and found that the discrepancy was extremely noticeable. So Strauss took further action:

I sent out emails to the editors at The New Yorker (27% female bylines overall in 2010 according to the VIDA study), The New Republic (16%), The New York Review of Books (15%), Harper’s Magazine (21%), and The Atlantic (26%), asking them if they would be willing to talk with me about the dearth of female bylines. A few days later I received on-the-records responses from all those publications except for the Atlantic.

Generally, the responses from editors like David Remnick were sincere but a little pat. "You are right," he said. "It's certainly been a concern for a long time among the editors here, but we've got to do better — it's as simple and as stark as that."

"Harper’s Magazine has always published great women writers — from Edith Wharton to Jane Smiley to Joyce Carol Oates, Sallie Tisdale, Susan Faludi, Lynn Freed, Rivka Galchen — and I plan to solicit more pitches from women writers," responded Harper's editor Ellen Rosenbush. "The dearth of female bylines, however, is an industry-wide issue. There may be some sort of a historical hangover from past years that has resulted in us getting fewer pitches from female writers, but I would like to change that equation."

Jonathan Chait, a writer for the New Republic, however, wrote a very forthcoming and thought-out response. After noting that TNR engages in a "mild form of affirmative action" when it comes to hiring women, he notes that women don't always thrive there as he hopes they would. Largely, he thinks, it's because it's an opinion journal. Here is the nut of his theory:

But I believe ... that opinion journalism disproportionately attracts men. My explanation, which I can’t prove, is socialization predisposes boys to be more interested both in producing and consuming opinion journalism. Confidence in one’s opinions and a willingness to engage in intellectual combat are disproportionately (though not, of course, exclusively) male traits. I’ve come across several writers in my career who are good at writing in the argumentative style but lack confidence in their ability. They are all female.

Some of you lady readers are quite confident in expressing your opinion, I'm pretty sure. I'd love to hear what you have to think on this.

New Yorker, Harper's, NYRB and TNR Editors on the Dearth of Female Bylines [Forward]