Writing Op Ed Pieces: Progressive Women Need to Be Heard, If Not Seen

Lois Phillips, PhD, Strategic Change Associates
Communications and Strategic Planning Consultant

April 21, 2011

In today’s polarized world, extremists delight in escalating current controversies, pouring a plethora of verbiage into the media, whipping social commentary into tornadoes of misunderstanding. This unending line-up of commentators rant and rave, over-simplifying issues into flat dichotomies with black-and-white, good-and-evil thinking, providing much heat and little light to public discourse. For instance, Fox News Commentator Glenn Beck spins out conspiracy theories about progressives, describing them as “goose-stepping Nazi Communists hell-bent on seizing all private property.… “Progressives may laugh at Glenn Beck now, but if his assertions keep going unchallenged, they might not be smiling for long.” (1)

On the other hand, one constructive perspective on taking a progressive position is suggested by Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future (2):

People need a clear narrative about how we drove off a cliff, and what we need to do to get off of it, and it has to relate to a set of ideas about how we got off the cliff. That’s where laying out a progressive agenda–and explicitly identifying the conservative agenda as opposed to it–would help.

Moreover, women historically tend to hold progressive opinions about social issues and their involvement in reform movements is well documented. Think back to this time in history when progressives effectively mobilized themselves:

The Progressive Era was a time period in American history lasting from the 1890s through the 1920s. At the turn of the century, America was experiencing rapid urbanization and industrialization. Waves of immigrants were arriving, many from southeastern Europe. As a result of these processes, countless city dwellers were crowded into tenement slums, with high rates of disease and infant mortality. In urban areas, party bosses controlled power through political machines. In addition, corporations were consolidating into ‘trusts’ and a few companies controlled the majority of the nation’s finances. (4)

Does this list of topics sound familiar: immigration, housing, children’s health care, and corporate deregulation? Even back then, women were increasingly involved in publicizing enormously complex problems and forging change. For example, as a result of Journalist Ida Tarbell’s 1904 expose about Standard Oil’s unfair business practices, the U.S. government prosecuted the company under anti-trust legislation. Let’s not forget that progressive reformers, in response to the vocal and well-organized suffrage campaign, also passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which enfranchised women in an unprecedented way. When women spoke up, they changed history. (5) We modern women must keep that tradition alive with continuous and vital involvement in dissecting and speaking out on today’s constantly changing controversial issues.

Each issue that faces Americans, such as the economic implosion and resulting unemployment, has tremendous implications for women’s lives, families, and the various economic and political roles that women play, and yet women’s opinions about those issues aren’t represented adequately in the press, much less on the Op Ed page.

While this well-read section of our local and national news sources provides a key forum for public debate, women’s opinions are unfortunately lacking here as well as in the print media in general; for instance, and based on simply counting bylines,

…legacy print publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post tend to feature the fewest female voices (usually around 15 to 25 percent). The newer online-only sites tend to have slightly more female bylines, while the student-run publications have the most. But they’re still overwhelmingly male. The same is true on some non-news sites, such as Wikipedia. (6)

An Op Ed piece forces the writer to take a stand, with no room for the hedges and qualifiers that often accompany women’s extemporaneous speech. The problem of getting women to write more Op Ed pieces is larger than you and me and any reticence we might have. When Catherine Orenstein saw a need to help women develop the savvy and self-confidence to do so, she founded The Op-Ed Project to ensure that women learn how to express their opinions using the proper format and submission protocols. (7)

Given that women tend to be more modest about their capacities, they don’t often submit opinion pieces to editors but remember: you don’t have to be a professional journalist or have a PhD to have an opinion piece written well enough in a fresh voice so that it will serious consideration by Op Ed editors. You just need to start by taking yourself seriously.

Do you have a personal experience that might catapult you into a current conversation about an issue? Start with a situation you’ve experienced and go on to make a point that is more global. For example, the experience of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease could lead you to write about the state of health care costs. Do you have opinions about the state of your neighborhood or city, your public schools, health care, access to affordable housing or childcare, the workplace, the economy, taxation, or local politics? If you are concerned about these issues and believe in the possibility of change for the better, write an Op Ed essay for a local or regional newspaper today.

Start with what you know best, and provide some light for your readers. Leave the heat- generating missals to the other side. Remember, if you don’t present your side of the story, who will?

Footnotes:
(1) Glenn Beck and The War on Progressives, Mike Madden http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2010/03/11/progressives
(2) Ibid
(3) Ibid
(4) National Museum of Women’s History; http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/progressiveera/home.html
(5) Ibid
(6) http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/118696/why-women-dont-contribute-to-opinion-pages-as-often-as-men-what-we-can-do-about-it/
(7) http://www.colormagazineusa.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=496

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3 responses to “Writing Op Ed Pieces: Progressive Women Need to Be Heard, If Not Seen

  1. Great points Lois! Yes — writing op-eds help. So does posting valid points and opinion on Facebook , Twitter, one’s blog, etc. as we take our news in bite-size chunks these days.

  2. victoria bortolussi

    Lois,
    Good and motivating thoughts. While I share the belief that voices need to be heard on progressive and important topics, I wonder if the Op Ed articles in traditional newspapers are really the right medium. How read are today’s traditional, dying print newspapers? To write a whole Op Ed piece may seem daunting. With current social media, perhaps we need to explore other ways to broadcast messages and have voices heard. Thanks for opening up the needed conversation.

  3. Hear, hear! I also wonder how many women’s organizations actively encourage their members, staff and donors to hit the Op Ed pages. I’m sure right-wing groups are very intentional about encouraging their followers to do so.

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