Muting Women

Even in the 21st Century, inequalities for women are everywhere.

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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, speaks at a luncheon for the American Society of News Editors on April 7, 2011 in San Diego.

What a surprise. Men are drowning out women in the public conversation, a new report from the Women's Media Center tells us.  

Actually, it is a surprise to learn just how bad it is, as if there never was a women's movement launched by Betty Friedan's classic, The Feminine Mystique, 50 years ago, which decried the quiet desperation of domestic suburbia. 

Fifty years ago is long enough for a cultural forgetfulness to fall over us and long enough for a hostile camp of enemies to make their living mocking women's empowerment—and yes, I mean you, Rush Limbaugh, most of all. You are the self-appointed keeper of the patriarchy's keys. The medieval archbishops of the Catholic Church are vigilant in the war on women. The mean-spirited men of the Supreme Court can be counted on, too, ready to usurp our human rights if the "right" opportunity presents itself.  Meanwhile, Michelle Obama has new bangs.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

In other words, ladies, things are not getting better for us in the 21st century. The recession has been rough on everyone, but especially for our place in the workplace world. As a journalist, let me share some numbers that show you how the conversational monopoly works. In the 2012 presidential campaign, male bylines outnumbered female bylines by nearly three to one, according to the Women's Media Center. Newspaper decision-makers are usually male in these tight times, as are the subjects of most front-page stories, even obituaries. Then the echo chamber takes effect, because men are far more likely to be quoted than their female colleagues in public discussions—especially on politics. 

The Sunday talk shows, the power listening posts of the Washington establishment, predominantly invite men as their guests. But here's the thing: only 14 percent of the interviewed guests and 29 percent of the roundtable guests are women, according to the report. The hosts conducting the dialogue are predominantly male. Avuncular, authoritative Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation is by far the best of 'em.  

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is There a Republican 'War on Women'?]

Women protested this state of affairs at the ballot box last fall. Twenty women senators are now serving, more than ever before. Is this a critical mass that will change the conversation, or the conversationalists? Let's see. 

I remember being in a panel cable interview after the State of the Union with two good guys—Howard Fineman and Steve Roberts. I had something sparkling to say but even I was drowned out by these older silver-tongued pros, who later apologized for being "the two biggest airhogs in Washington." It's a salty slice of memory. Men are just used to talking over women, just as boys talk over girls, like breathing. It happens all the time in Washington. What made Hillary Clinton's verbal victory over her attacking jousters in her valedictory Senate hearing so extraordinary was because it was, well, extraordinary in this talkative town. She lifted morale all over for Washington women.  

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Will the Benghazi Attacks Tarnish Hillary Clinton's Legacy as Secretary of State?

To our rescue comes Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, who is lighting a match to start a "Lean In" movement. More on that another day as it gets underway. Consider the Oscars: Daniel Day-Lewis was honored for playing the greatest president and humanitarian in our history while Jennifer Lawrence won for playing a wifely female stereotype. As I listened to two male critics from the New York Times website comment on every single Academy scene in the show, it felt relentlessly normal. We are such good listeners.  

The status of women is stuck in a lull, like a sailboat on a lake with no wind. And we are the ones who have to start speaking our views and telling our stories—to borrow from radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison—so that we will be heard

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