The New York Times has serious female troubles, and it’s time to call them on it. Why are they are so intent on repeatedly using sloppy journalism to suggest that the women of America want to turn back the hands of time and re-embrace the feminine mystique? The paper has been reeling from serial scandals, in which the failure of its editors and management to scrutinize the claims made by its journalists has come under withering criticism. As one letter writer put it, “All Times bylines now must be considered suspect.”
Amen, especially when bylines are reporting about women’s alleged repudiation of feminism. Over the past three years, the Times has trafficked in stories about accomplished women wanting to chuck work and a career in favor of diapers, mac-and-cheese, and deference to men. The latest salvo was the excerpt from Maureen Dowd’s new book Are Men Necessary? which ran in the magazine under the title, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?”
Beginning with Lisa Belkin’s instantly infamous Times magazine cover story in October 2003 “The Opt-Out Revolution,” which evoked stacks of irate letters from women around the country, the Times seems to take perverse delight in goading women about the alleged bankruptcy of feminism. But the crucial criticism here is that, much like Belkin, Dowd based her story about all women secretly wanting to morph into some weird hybrid of June Cleaver and Jayne Mansfield on anecdote, the use of a small circle of the reporter’s friends made to represent a “trend,” and the distortion of statistics and social science studies.
Belkin’s “trend” piece was based on a handful of white Princeton graduates (like Belkin herself) who could afford not to work because their husbands had high six-figure salaries. Nor did they leave their careers by “choice”: They were forced out by unforgiving workplaces that insisted they work 60-80 hours a week or quit. And most importantly, Belkin fudged her data.
More recently, the Times gave us its front-page story about female students at Yale asserting they would deign to stick their toes into the career pool ever so briefly after graduation, but that 60 percent of them would immediately retreat and become stay-at-home mothers once they had children. Katha Pollitt eviscerated this piece in The Nation, as did Jack Shafer at Slate. The author of the story, Louise Story (not surprisingly, Yale ‘03, and revealed to be not a Times reporter but a journalism grad student working on her thesis), showcased only those women who supported her preposterous claim, and even some of them felt misrepresented. Indeed, Pollitt and others found that a vast majority of Yale women had every intention of combining work and child rearing.
But when it comes to bashing feminism, apparently there are no learning curves at the Times. Dowd, in her recent piece, asserts that “the perfume of female power is a turnoff for men” and suggests that a purported decline in women offering to pay half the dinner tab is proof that young women no longer want equality. Her evidence is a combination of quotes from acquaintances, her own experiences (me-search as research), and several studies purporting to prove that men flee from accomplished women, and that if a woman is professionally successful her chances of marrying and having children are equivalent to Charles Manson getting elected President. Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett disemboweled Dowd’s slipshod reporting in a scathing riposte on Women’s eNews. One study Dowd cites is based on the dating preferences of 18-year-old boys; another on the attitudes of men and women born in 1921.
In the article, Dowd refers to women of my vintage as “Jurassic feminists,” lumbering around cluelessly as we supposedly fight battles about “whether women should pay for dinner or wear padded bras.” Instead, we “should have focused only on big economic issues.” How does Dowd think that women suddenly got to be doctors, lawyers and even a regular columnist at the Times?
Meanwhile, outside the rarefied precincts of the Times, two-thirds of American women are consigned into low-paying, traditionally “female” jobs. Most of them would be delighted to make what male construction workers or bank managers make, and the last thing on their minds would be to do what Dowd prescribes: “Play hard to get but stay soft as a kitten.”
The public editor at the Times, Byron Calame, should be getting just as much e-mail about this kind of journalistic irresponsibility as it has about other gaffes. By foregrounding the voices of “ordinary” women (who, of course, are anything but) and misreported data, the Times seems bent on insisting there is an irrefutable “common sense” out there among women that feminism has been bad for them. But women do not want to go back to 1957, with its legally enforced gender discrimination, its cultural misogyny and its insistence that women should be subservient to men. By suggesting otherwise, the Times adds another notch to its growing hash marks of slipshod journalism and does a real disservice to the women of America.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.