A few months ago, I was walking around my neighborhood when I ran into two young men with whom I went to college. I hadn’t seen them since they had graduated the year before I did, but we were — or had at some point been — Facebook friends, and we stood on the corner catching each other up on what was going on in our lives. Because we live in America — and because we live in New York — one of the first questions one of them asked me was what I’m doing for a living these days. Sort of. He actually phrased it like this:
“So, are you still writing for that rabid feminist website?”
What happened next was a classic instance of what the French used to call l’esprit d’escalier; staircase brain, or the experience of having the perfect rejoinder to a dinner table quip come to you as you’re heading upstairs to go to bed. What I wish I had said in response to his aggressively jocular question was something along the lines of, “You mean, am I still the Senior Editor at the world’s most read feminist publication, a blog that’s been recognized by the Columbia Journalism Review and the Sidney Hillman Foundation, and that’s helped launch the careers of several of the nation’s most high profile feminists? Yes, I am.”
I don’t remember what I actually said, but I know it wasn’t nearly as snarky, pointed, or as shame-inducing as the guy deserved after belittling my work — and that of my colleagues — in such a flagrant way.
This isn’t an uncommon experience for those of us with experience journalism while female. That’s a term that’s been thrown around a lot in the last week, since the news broke that the New York Times had fired its first ever woman Executive Editor, Jill Abramson, after she reportedly took issue with the fact that she was being paid less than her male predecessors and less than at least one of her male subordinates. The organization Women, Action, and the Media has started collecting stories of people’s experiences of journalism while female, and they’re not pretty: bosses who come on to you, female colleagues you urge you to stay home with your kids even when you’ve expressed a desire to come back to work, male coworkers who tell you that sources will only talk to you because they want to sleep with you — and sources who prove them right. My former colleague and role model Ann Friedman wrote a few months ago about The Island, an imaginary place that she and her journalist friends invented to send all the creepy male bosses they’ve ever had. “The Island became a code for telling each other who was a good guy and who was a bad guy — which upper-masthead men actually wanted to mentor us, and which ones just wanted the thrill of having a cocktail with an attractive younger woman under the guise of professionalism,” she wrote. “Watch out, that guy’s totally on The Island,” they’d warn each other.
As I learned from my cozy street corner catchup session with two guys who work outside of my industry, it’s not just within journalism that women have to journalism while female. We have to defend our right to exist in the field even with people who are outside of the field, especially if we do “girly” kinds of journalism. If I wrote about US-China relations or about derivatives markets, for instance, I’d certainly have to contend with the idea that women don’t know the first thing about international relations or about Wall Street. But when you write about gender, sex, body image, pop culture, and the other things I write about, the sense that you’re unserious is compounded; not only are you a woman, but you write about frivolous feminine topics.
And it doesn’t only apply to journalists: Danielle Steele, the romance novelist whose name is synonymous with romance novels, recently wrote about how men outside of publishing and writing talk about her career. “I run into a man I know or meet at a dinner party for the first time in a long time. After hello, they open with, ‘So, are you still writing?’…What this does is that it immediately puts my writing into the category as a hobby. As in, are you still taking piano lessons, doing macrame, have a parrot?” Steele, whose books belong to the girliest of genres, argues that this is a question you only ask when you think that someone’s work isn’t real work — or when you’re trying to make it seem so in order to make it feel less threatening:
I never say to guys, “So are you still a lawyer? A doctor? A brain surgeon?” They would think I’m nuts if I did. But men who are annoyed by women’s success in business have to find a way to put them down. And what better way to insult someone than minimize what they do, imply that it’s really insignificant, and inquire if they’re still doing it?
All this ran through my head as I walked away from that street corner and away from the guy who had reduced the last five years of my work to a silly little hobby.
I wish I could tell you how I responded. I think I was so taken aback that this smart, progressive guy had said something so stupid, and was so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of feminist journalism, that I just laughed and changed the subject. It’s not a mistake I’ll make again; after five years of doing journalism while female, I really ought to have a response to comments like those in my back pocket, ready to pull out whenever I need it. No more esprit d’escalier for me.
Am I still writing for that rabid feminist website? Yes sir, I am. It’s not a hobby; it’s my job. You know, just like you’re a full-time dickhead.