Looking for a story on women business owners? Women politicians? ‘Women’s issues,’ by which the media seems to mean ‘anything with a lady in it’? Your first bet should be the Life and Style section, the segment of the paper where these things are shunted so they don’t contaminate the important news, you know, the things that actually matter, the things that readers might care about and expect to see on the front page. Despite substantial protest from readers who argue that this antiquated process is just absurd and shouldn’t continue any longer, many papers continue to do it.
Including progressive publications or those with vaguely liberal editorial positions. If the focal point of a story is a woman, there’s a very strong chance it will end up in life and style, no matter what the subject matter is. Take, for example, a woman scientist making a major discovery. You might expect to find her in science news, if the paper has a section like that, or possibly even the front pages, where major information about scientific breakthroughs sometimes goes. But no, she’ll be in life and style, probably in a fetching lab coat, holding up a pipette and looking thoughtful on direction from the paper’s photographer.
This means that I often end up flipping right to the life and style section to find the actual news, because it’s as likely to end up there as anywhere else. Sadly, it’s sandwiched between stories about things that do not interest me, like choosing curtains and identifying insect pests. To be fair, I probably should be interested in pests since I have a garden, but they pretty much leave me alone, so it’s not high on my list.
The situation has grown to the point where it almost feels like a parody of itself, because it’s just so ludicrous. Change the genders of the parties involved and a story moves from Life and Style to business, or sports, or science, or food. That really does seem to be all it takes, and the editorial process involved is really rather puzzling for readers. Do editors genuinely believe that people think stories about women should be isolated in their own area of the paper? Is there an idea that people won’t want to read stories about women if they are mixed in with the rest of the paper? Are they worried about sales numbers if people are forced to encounter something as offensive as a woman above the fold on the front page?
Isolating stories about women doesn’t just occur in the news; it can also be seen in fiction, where stories featuring women are dismissed as chick lit and written off as not being serious literature. The general idea seems to be that having a woman in it makes a story, fiction or nonfiction, inherently ‘weaker’ and less interesting, that the story won’t be able to grab general readers because it’s no longer of general interest. It contains women, and ergo is ‘for women,’ not people in general. Critically, it shouldn’t be allowed to contaminate the serious stories, the Pulitzer Prize winning fiction, for example, which is of course about
men serious matters.
Changing editorial policies shouldn’t be difficult, but many publications seem to be having trouble with it. A story is of general interest if it contains information about newsworthy events. It belongs in the sports section if it’s about athletics. It belongs in food if it’s about food. It belongs in life and style if it’s about things like home decor. If it’s about a politician developing proposed legislation or working on a project, it should probably be in the actual news section, or possibly local/regional if it’s a local politician. This doesn’t seem like rocket science (which would belong in the science section, unless we’re talking major breakthroughs in rocket science).
Breaking women out of the purgatory of the life and style section has proved surprisingly difficult. Publications that have things like actual feminist columnists end up sticking them in this section right along with all their other ‘women’s issues pieces,’ for example, even when those columnists belong on the op-ed page like everyone else. It really does feel like a return to the schoolyard and fears about cooties—is that it? Are editors worried that getting ‘women’s issues’ all over the news might result in people actually being concerned about these issues? Being infected with the desire for more coverage? Possibly even breaking out in action to do something about topics they become interested in? Is that it? Are ladies contagious? Is this why ‘women’s issues’ are treated like they are radioactive, because they have the power to spread, infectiously and aggressively, if they aren’t kept firmly contained behind lead walls?
Putting pressure on ombudspeople is probably the most effective way to start pushing women out of life and style and into the rest of the news. Papers that maintain public editors or an ombudsperson, like The Washington Post, pledge to be accountable to their readers and to answer questions about editorial policy, to consider direct challenges to policies that are perhaps no longer working and are definitely not serving the customers of the paper. A concerted campaign to demand to know why it is that papers continue to isolate coverage of women may be the best way to make it clear that yes, women really do intend to bust through the walls of their paper prison and spread out into the rest of the paper, where they belong. Just like everyone else.