Six Questions, Washington Babylon — November 18, 2009, 9:40 am

Six Questions for Marian Wang on “Lady Bloggers”

Marian Wang works and writes for Mother Jones. She previously was a freelance investigative reporter and blogger for The Chicago Reporter, the Chi-Town Daily News and ChicagoNow. Wang’s recent post, “Where Are All the Lady Bloggers?”, cited a report from Technorati that found that sixty-seven percent of bloggers are men, prompting her to ask: “Is there a glass ceiling in the blogosphere?” I recently spoke to her by phone and via email about the post, and the broader issue of gender and journalism. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

1. Based on the Technorati survey, women are badly underrepresented in the blogosphere. What do you think accounts for that online gender disparity?

It’s hard to speculate, since a lot does depend on how accurate the Technorati survey actually is. I know part of the survey’s findings was also that a higher percentage of bloggers — at least, higher than expected — actually had backgrounds in news and journalism, in which case I think it’s quite logical that the gender disparity in the blogosphere mirrors the disparity in our newsrooms. Technorati doesn’t really raise this point, exactly, but the thoughts that drove my blog post were more along the lines of why, outside of the world of hobbyist-type blogs, there aren’t more women writing political blogs. A lot of women I know seem to decompartmentalize a little more — the political is mixed with the personal — and I wonder if to some extent that diffuses their opportunities for branding and reaching wider audiences with their blogs, since the online world is all about niche, and about tailoring or even customizing what you have to the interests and tastes of your target audience.

2. One commenter about your post wrote that the real question is “Why don’t more females want to blog?” since, this person noted, “the entry requirements to blogging are the ability to fill out an online registration form and to write stuff.” Do women feel blocked from blogging for some reason or do they just prefer not to?

I don’t think it’s necessarily that women don’t want to blog. There are tons of blogs out there written by women–I write, my friends write. It’s so obvious to me, because I grew up reading blogs written by funny, opinionated women–at first on random online blogging communities like Xanga or, when I was even younger, AsianAvenue. Even now there’s still a random mom blog on Xanga that I subscribe to on my Google Reader. I don’t know why, I’m not a mom myself, and I don’t know the woman, I just find her life fascinating and her kids are creative and funny and adorable. It’s so random. But sure, there are all kinds of blogs out there–a whole world of them–and women write a ton of them.

But if you look at the top names in professional political blogs (and by that I mean they’re hosted by some sort of news outfit), I’d argue that most blogs written by a solo blogger are written by men. It’s kind of just a hypothesis of mine, and some people may say, well you’re just not reading the right things. I’ve heard some people say, even some feminists say things like, well some women just aren’t into politics. I don’t think that’s true at all. All the women I’m around are incredibly informed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to start a political blog and comment on all the things they know and have opinions about. Plus, I wonder if there’s a degree to which they just think, “Why bother?” We’re all busy, why sink time in this unless you are going to have some tangible returns–why just be another voice lost in some online political fray?

Most of the women I know who blog about issues/politics/policy had formal training in journalism, so having a voice in the telling of news is something they were used to doing as work. Transitioning into blogging, for them, probably seemed a lot more natural than for, say, one of my teacher friends to suddenly start a political blog in her spare time in addition to doing lesson plans for her first grade class.

3. What was the general reaction to your post? Not everyone seemed happy with it.

Some weren’t surprised at all by the numbers, some questioned the accuracy of the Technorati survey, but people seemed to agree that if the numbers are in fact accurate, this is really bad news. Some readers even went a step further and got into the spirit of things by suggesting female bloggers, offering support for female bloggers, and trying to make them more visible with the hashtag that Sarah Posner started.

But definitely not everyone was happy with the piece. There was some amount of picking at silly things, I think, like the term “lady bloggers” in the headline. Even after I wrote a response to some of the main objections, I saw some blogs that were still really critical, saying stuff like, oh Marian Wang said she chose the term “lady” for the headline because it was shorter than “female.” That’s just silly, and it’s not what I said. And then there were a few comments from people who were annoyed that the photo in the blog showed Ana Marie Cox with the slightest bit of cleavage.

My gut level response to both of those criticisms was just, really? We’re not over this yet? “Lady” still implies antiquated gender norms to you, like corsets and daintiness? It doesn’t to me. And really? Are we so backwards that somehow Ana Marie Cox showing a hint of cleavage undermines her legitimacy as a blogger? I don’t get it. I read somewhere that Emily Gould blogged about a sort of “feminist policing,” and I think to a certain extent that’s what happened in this situation, but it’s so ironic because NOW who’s saying what women can or can’t do? Plus, it just seems to me that feminism is best when it’s inclusive, and it seems counterproductive to say there’s just one way to be a feminist. It’s just silly, all these rules. I didn’t know they were out there. Who gets to make them?

4. What did you think of last year’s campaign coverage of the Democratic nomination? Do you think gender impacted the way Hillary was treated by the media?

I think gender did affect how she was treated. Granted, Hillary has been in the public eye for a long time, and with Bill as her husband but also as a powerful politician in his own right, it makes her situation a little different. Certainly I feel there was a lot of questioning about her ability to be her own person in the race, and Bill injecting himself on her behalf probably hurt her chances more than he actually helped, because people started asking whether this was just another way for him to get in a few more terms.

In the end, I do think Hillary had her time to shine. We all saw she was a brilliant debater, she knew her stuff. There was no doubt about her intelligence or strength. But there’s often this negative caricature of strong liberal women as scary, unfeminine and mannish, who don’t attract their husbands/get laid/have a soul, and that seemed to always be lurking in the background for Hillary, in commentary and political cartoons. Certainly there were some moments where gender played a huge role. First Hillary’s this power-hungry woman who’s lampooned as having threatened Bill to help her with her campaign. Then she cries in New Hampshire and suddenly it’s like, if the tears were real, is she strong enough to lead us? And if it’s not, was it a cunning, strategic attempt to show that she has a soul after all? It just seemed to me that she had to be careful about negotiating her public image in a way that most male politicians never have to consider.

5. And what about Sarah Palin? Do you think some of the criticism of her is nastier and unfair because she is a woman?

In the political image game, she didn’t go the Hillary route and wear yellow pantsuits all the time. She talked about lipstick, she brought her hockey mom identity into the picture–it was part of how she wanted to be packaged, I think. In some ways, she had the opposite problem of what Hillary had. Hillary was seen as smart, so she became the smart, frigid woman that no one wants to have sex with. Sarah Palin was seen as dumb, so she became the dumb bimbo that was only good for eye candy–or, if you look at some of the nastier comment threads–for blowjobs.

Personally, I think she was totally under-qualified for the position that she suddenly found herself in. She’d never been on the national stage up until this point, so in her own attempt to stretch her credentials and sound as if she had the knowledge and experience for the job (neither of which she actually had), she came off sounding stupid when she tried to explain her qualifications, like her state’s proximity to Russia. I don’t think she IS stupid, she just sounded stupid at times because she was so far in over her head.

Anyway, all that’s to say that people were quick to call Sarah Palin a bimbo, for sure, but that’s not unique to her being a woman–it happened to Bush and has happened somewhat to Biden. I do think, though, that when a woman gets the bimbo label, the criticism gets way more personal and offensive than criticism of gaffe-tastic men like Bush and Biden. When women aren’t seen as intelligent (especially if they’re attractive) it’s like, well you’re not good for anything else, so let me objectify you, then–you’re all boobs and no brain. And you see these awful comments like, “She’s dumb, but I’d still do her.” I guarantee that’s never been said of Bush. What I would say was incredibly unfair was all the speculation about whether she could handle her mommy responsibilities and do her job at the same time. That was annoying to see, because when are men ever, ever asked that?

6. What political blogs by women do you recommend?

Several of my friends are beat bloggers, but I’d say their beats count as political. Megan Cottrell writes an amazing blog on public housing at True/Slant, and she really hits on all the angles–political, economic, racial. She’s also a great storyteller. Teresa Puente writes a blog on immigration called Chicanisma. I love both their blogs. Really like Dana Goldstein’s stuff, now over at The Daily Beast, and the women who write on the Tapped blog, as well as Feministing. And Wonkette has always been hilarious, a legacy that started with Ana Marie Cox. Then of course there are tons of great female bloggers at Mother Jones who also cover politics. We’re out there, you just have to look, but my sense is that in the world of political blogging, women’s voices still aren’t equally represented, and I’d love to see us move closer to that.

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