The Moving Target: Female Journalism.

The Demented Goddess asked Lynn Enright, Editor of News and Content for womens’ magazine, The Pool, to discuss whether there is any such thing as gender of voice and what female stories are missing from Western culture.

DG: There have been moments in reportage, as when New Yorker writer Ariel Levy’s 2013 wrote about miscarrying her baby while on assignment in Mongolia, that could only have been written by a woman.  But is there any such thing as a female voice, in journalism?  And can you tell right away if a writer is a woman?

Ooh, interesting. I don’t think there is an innately womanly, feminine voice, just like I don’t think there is an innately womanly, feminine brain or heart – but of course women can tell stories that are particular to their gender. And most notably, perhaps, they can do that about pregnancy and childbirth (Although, obviously trans men and non-binary people can also experience and write about pregnancy and childbirth.)

 

Ariel Levy wrote on miscarriage in Mongolia for The New Yorker. Art by Dan Costner.

It still feels quite radical to read about childbirth; there is a power in reading about something that was taboo for so long. So that goes for pregnancy – but also menstruation, post-natal incontinence, miscarriage, abortion, sex, the list goes on. I hate to think that women must relive their pain so that people can understand it – but, that said, I believe that well-crafted, well-written stories can inspire empathy and understanding like nothing else.

DG: Which voices are missing, in your opinion, from mainstream media – and why?  Does this change according to political or social media trends?

 I think if you looked around a lot of the news rooms at newspapers, you’d be shocked at the lack of women and the lack of women of colour, in particular. There are lots of reasons for this – not least because news rooms can be unpleasant places for women. I know more than one woman who has given up on a career in newspapers because of sexism and sexual harassment faced at the beginning of her career.

Yes, absolutely this is an area that can be influenced by political and social-media trends. Social media has a strong call-out culture and newspapers are aware of that. Whenever I meet young people, I am so struck by how compassionate and – to put it kind of crudely – woke they are. Young people – Gen X and millennials – really care about representation – and media organisations need to be aware of that.

DG: Can male reporters write well about women’s issues?

Yes, I think so. Fintan O’Toole has always written brilliantly about the issue of abortion in Ireland, for example. That said, I think they should be mindful of allowing room for other voices. Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

Ethel Payne, who challenged Eisenhower on segregation on buses.

DG: Who are your heroes?  The history of the female journalist is the history of literary style and political activism, too.  Ethel Payne and Veronica Guerin are two of the greatest activists. Payne’s question to Eisenhower about racial segregation on buses helped accelerate the civil rights debate (the President declined to support “special interests”).  Guerin stood up to Dublin’s crime lords and was murdered  On the other hand, stylists, like Virginia Woolf, or Pulitzer-winning Edna Buchanan,  transform a regular magazine or news story by pulling the reader into their perceptions.  Which female writers and journalists have most inspired you?

Oh gosh, the obvious one for me (and so many others) is Nora Ephron – for her wit and warmth as well as her tenacity. I also grew up reading Christa D’Souza in British Vogue and I really used to love her tone. Her work taught me something about charming the reader. Nowadays, I admire Frances Ryan in the Guardian and The Pool for drawing attention to issues affecting the the marginalised in Britain. Sarah O’Connor at the Financial Times is doing great work on British employment rights and law. I like Paris Lees on sex. And I think Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker is inspiring a generation of female writers – her work is so smart but light on its feet, too.

Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

The women who broke the Harvey Weinstein story at The New York Times, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, are heroes. Their reporting has changed things for women around the world, putting a spotlight on workplace sexual harassment and prompting #MeToo. That’s journalism (the expensive and time-consuming type, not the hastily written opinion pieces) making a real, tangible difference.

DG: You chaired a panel, this summer, on the 100 most influential books written by a woman.  Do you feel that women have any particular duty to try and change the way we think?

It wasn’t strictly speaking about books that were influential but books that deserved to be celebrated. Of course many of them were deeply influential. In general, I think it’s unfair to presume that a woman has a “responsibility” to be influential when she sits down with her own thoughts and imagination and begins to write a story – but I think it quite often happens that way. I think publishers have a  “duty” more than writers. There are writers writing interesting and important stories – publishers need to make sure they reach readers.

DG: As an editor, what do you consider a good story?  What remains to be voiced that you would like to commission or write?

I’m always looking for a way of describing something that allows the reader to see a commonplace or familiar circumstance in a new light. I think there is a lot to be done around sex. When I think of how women’s magazines have written about sex, I cringe. It’s like not even describing the act that I know. I think we need a whole new vocabulary for it – that would allow women to have better sex lives, too. The problem is it’s hugely personal – so it makes it difficult. But I’d love to edit more honest writing about sex – the pleasure, the pain, the emotions and the physical act.

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