On Web, Gender Rules Again?

Forty years ago feminists banished "woman's pages" that featured cooking and other highlights from U.S. newspapers, calling them sexist. But now, 40 years later, they have returned. Long time feminist and regular contributor Ruth Rosen , of the website Talking Points Memo, says the resurgence of the women's sections in modern-day media amounts to "gender apartheid online." Host Michel Martin speaks with Rosen, a journalist and professor at University of California Berkeley, about women's presence in news media today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now, we still like to say America is a melting pot, but is it still really melting? Researchers have found an increase in the number of Hispanics marrying Hispanics and Asians marrying Asians, just to name a few. Why might this be? We'll talk about that in a few minutes.

But, first, though, anybody remember the women's pages? Those like the fashion, society, cooking segments. You could all find them right there in the women's pages. Well, 40 years ago, feminists succeeded in getting rid of those pages. But journalist Ruth Rosen says they are back - online especially. And while the reporting is, as she puts it, tough, smart, incisive and analytic, she says their placement in essentially women's ghettos is still a form of gender apartheid online. That's how her piece was headlined in the online publication "Talking Points Memo."

And Ruth Rosen joins us now to tell us more about her views from University of California Berkeley, where she teaches history. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Professor RUTH ROSEN (History, University of California Berkeley): My pleasure.

MARTIN: So, you say there's tough, incisive journalism about issues that particularly interest women or are about women. So, what's the problem?

Prof. ROSEN: Well, the problem is, here we had a really new opportunity with the Internet, with new magazines being created, a new chance to think about not the traditional divisions of a newspaper, but rather, a new way of thinking about how to mainstream all kinds of issues. And very shortly, what happened is that very special sections began to spring up. And these sections tend to be quarantined and they tend to be segregated into special sections.

So, for example, you'll have Salon has Broadsheet, which has very good stories, or Slate has DoubleX. The British online magazine, which is rather distinguished, has a special section called 50/50. And I began to notice this over the last year and think about, well, what are the advantages and the disadvantages of re-segregating these sections. And doesn't it make women the other again? Doesn't it, in a sense, replicate what we saw in the late-'60s, which we really tried to abolish.

MARTIN: And you pointed out that, for example, the Huffington Post tends to place blog posts about women and so-called women's issues in the style or living section, even though the Huffington Post was founded, of course, by a women, Arianna Huffington.

You also point out, though, the writing in these sections tends to be very good. But you're saying the placement is itself a problem. But why is it a problem?

Prof. ROSEN: My feeling - I'm a historian and my feeling about social change is that social change occurs, particularly around the women's movement and the issues that the women's movement has really placed on the national agenda and the global agenda, that that has the best chance of succeeding when men and women read about women's lives.

And that's why I've always been so impressed by Kristof's columns in the New York Times, where he brings up issues about children's lives as prostitutes or fistulas among women in Africa and so forth. He really points out that these are really serious problems. They're not to be quarantined as women's issues. They are really part of cultural and social problems.

MARTIN: When you call it quarantining, I'm thinking about publications to which people gravitate because they feel that they will address the issues that they want to read in a certain way. I'm thinking about Essence magazine, which is, of course, a lifestyle magazine, but also has important, you know, reporting on things like HIV/AIDS and financial issues affecting women. And Latina magazine, also a lifestyle magazine, but again, addresses issues that a lot of other people are not.

So I think the publishers, and I don't know if you talked to any publishers about this, they might argue, well, that's consumer preference.

Prof. ROSEN: Well, I think some of the publishers, first of all, a lot of the publishers would not respond to me. Secondly, I wasn't dealing with print magazines, I'm only dealing with online magazines, where there is a real opportunity to rethink how you organize a magazine.

And, yes, I think a lot of the publishers think that, well, people will know exactly where to come to hear about the newest regulations about abortion or about women's health and they'll know exactly where to click. My concern is that some of these issues are of such importance and so central to our culture and our society that men are not clicking on them. And I think social change occurs when men know about women's lives, not when they're - only women talk about them.

I also mentioned in this article that there are many, many women's sites now -Feministing, Jezebel, Women's eNews. And some of these are just amazing stories that really deserve to be mainstreamed, I think, in the regular news, not simply part of a subscription that's free, but mainly women subscribe. And so it's that concern I have of the re-segregation of women's news.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with journalist and professor Ruth Rosen. She recently wrote a piece called "Gender Apartheid Online" where she talks about the re-segregation of so-called women's news in online publications.

So, what do you recommend? I mean, back in the day when women were excluded from covering a number of things, like, one remembers that, you know, Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, famously pressured news organizations to hire more women by restricting her news conferences to women.

Prof. ROSEN: Right.

MARTIN: So, that was kind of one way of pressing the case. And then, of course, later on there were a number of women who refused to report for these so-called women's sections.

Prof. ROSEN: Right.

MARTIN: And then, of course, the later iteration was that a number of women became quite famous for writing for these women's sections, like Sally Quinn at, you know...

Prof. ROSEN: That's right.

MARTIN: The Washington Post kind of spearheaded a kind of political reporting that was considered quite groundbreaking for the time. So, what do you recommend right now? You're noticing this and you're saying that you think there's a cost to the reader's full education...

Prof. ROSEN: I think there is a cost.

MARTIN: ...for not having full access to these kinds of stories. But what do you recommend?

Prof. ROSEN: Well, for example, the New York Times has a special section, which most of my friends and myself, I never heard of, called the Female Factor. It aggregates some very interesting stories that also reports originally on some very interesting stories, though, some of those stories clearly belong to me in the news section.

This is my, I guess this is my greatest point - that if you have these stories all in a special women's section, you don't have your readers learning about the lives of women and how very important issues like unemployment, the ways in which women's lives, for example, in the Gulf are being affected, as well as the fishermen and the men. It's not that I want one or the other. There is a gender difference sometimes, not always, about how a problem is being resolved or how it's being approached, a policy issue. And if that has a gendered issue, I'm not saying it always does, but when it does, it seems to me that that should be part of our regular news.

For example, a very important story that appeared recently in the New York Times about men in Sweden and their ability to take long paternal leaves and what happens during that period of time, that's a really good story because it really did compare the opportunities and the ability for men and women to be parents and workers, compared to the United States.

But we very rarely have stories about the lack of childcare, which does affect both men and women as parents in the news section. They will usually be in some women's section or the style section.

MARTIN: And, finally, I'm curious overall about much of what we've been reporting about, that the news industry in recent months has - just the stress on the news industry overall - major news outlets are cutting back, you know, wildly. That there has been significant contraction in the news business overall. So, given this environment, I'm curious to know whether you think there's a case to be made for why industry, news industry people should reevaluate the way they place these stories, in any case, against this backdrop of such kind of dislocation and distress in the business.

Prof. ROSEN: There's a good argument to be made that if you took away these sections, that some of these very young, smart women who are writing very incisive and, I think, extremely articulate pieces, might lose their jobs, might not be able to write these kinds of pieces and that they might not be, in fact, mainstreamed. And so, there might be a really big loss.

And so I agree with you that in the background of the declining economy of the journalism world, this is a really tricky question. I just wanted to raise the fact that we have, in fact, replicated to a large extent what a lot of people in 1969 were asking to abolish, which doesn't mean that everyone should change everything.

It just means that I want editors to consider the fact that women are not just an issue. For example, if you go to TruthOut, you can't find the women's section. You have to go to issues, and then you click on issues and you find women. And to think about women as half the population as an issue seems to me to be a little bit anachronistic.

MARTIN: Like the Negro problem.

Prof. ROSEN: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you remember that? The Negro problem.

Prof. ROSEN: Oh, yes, I certainly remember. And I want to encourage the editors to look at some of the issues that they are quarantining and saying, as the Inter Press Service asks, what does this mean for women and girls, so that they at least think about the entire population with both eyes open rather than one eye open and one eye closed?

MARTIN: Ruth Rosen is the author of a recent article called "Gender Apartheid Online." She joins us from the University of California at Berkeley, where she teaches history. Rosen is also a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle. Her most recent book is "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America."

And if you want to read the piece that we're talking about, we'll have a link on our site. Just go to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Ruth Rosen, thank you.

Prof. ROSEN: My pleasure.

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