Whoever Tells The Story Writes History
NOTE: This is from a monthly column about life in Trump’s America for the Japanese publication Courrier Japon.
Once a month, I receive a request to edit an op-ed article written, sometimes by an academic, sometimes by an executive, sometimes by a professional, but all women. I do it because of a single fact: of the thousands of op-eds that are published in the U.S., only about one in four are written by women. I also do it because of the vision of one woman: Katie Orenstein.
Twelve years ago, Orenstein was working as a writer in New York when Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, sparked an outcry by suggesting in a speech that there were relatively few women in science and math because they were less capable than men in those fields. The following month Susan Estrich, a syndicated columnist, accused the Los Angeles Times of sexism because they ran so few op-eds by women.
While pundits, journalists and experts subsequently debated why there were so few visible women intellectuals, and whether it was because of biology, sexism or socialization, Orenstein saw a more obvious reason. Women weren’t more visible because they weren’t speaking up. Women weren’t published in the op-ed sections because they weren’t submitting articles.
More than most people, Orenstein understood why a diversity of voices in newspapers was important. In the 1990s, she was in Haiti when a coup broke out. She was there when Haitians complained that the New York Times was writing one-sided stories that were based mostly on accounts from U.S. officials. As a folklorist and writer, she had always been interested in who was telling the story and how that made a difference in how history is understood.
Using funding from a grant, she launched The Op-Ed Project in 2008. “It might be biology. It might be sexism. It might be the weather. How do we know?” she asked. “Something needed to happen, and nobody was doing anything about it.”
Orenstein started by offering pro bono workshops that helped women find their voices, their stories and their expertise. Now, however, The Op-Ed Project operates as a hybrid part-profit, part non-profit operation. It sees itself, not as a charity, but rather as an investor of women. “We’re not helping people who lack anything,” she said. “We’re investing in people who are valuable, and we’re expecting a return.”
In the nine years since inception, the organization has worked with 12,500 participants through workshops and multi-year fellowships at universities as well as corporations. The majority of them have been women, though it also welcomes men whose voices are underrepresented. While it’s impossible to keep track of every article that participants have published, one rough estimate puts it at about 9,500 based on what the organization knows about its overall success rate.
I became involved in 2011, almost by happenstance because a former journalist colleague asked me to sign up. Until then, I had no idea that only 21 percent of published op-eds were written by women. It shocked me that when Orenstein first started, that number was even lower at 15 percent. According to preliminary data from a joint study between The Op-Ed Project and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that figure is now at about 26 percent.
As one of 120 mentor-editors, my contribution is small. I volunteer one or two hours of my time every month to edit an article. Over the last several years, I’ve edited a couple dozen opinion pieces by women on topics ranging from racism to technology and politics. But even when you believe in a cause, even sparing a little time can get difficult, especially when life gets in the way. Last fall, I found myself turning down requests and pulling away from the organization as my work commitments increased. I told myself that I had to put my own needs first.
Trump’s election in November was a wake up call. I realized with a shock how important Orenstein’s project was if we wanted to truly be a diverse country. The next day, I sent an email to a colleague of hers. “I’m back in!” I wrote. I told her that it was “the only way I can think of to immediately fight back on last night’s results.”
A few months later, I was sent an article to edit by a St. Louis, Mo.-based writer Jocelyn Seagrave Fundoukos. In it, the former television actress asserted that our thirst for entertainment created Trump.
“He’s not so much dividing the country as throwing us all on the same soundstage and executive producing the chaos,” she wrote. “Trump is president because all of us have sold our souls for entertainment.”
Her article was published on the popular site Salon.com and was shared nearly 500 times on Facebook. Fundoukos told me later that she took a five-hour train ride to Chicago to participate in an Op-Ed Project workshop immediately after the election.
“I was tired of holding myself back and waiting for the right time to say the right thing,” Fundoukos told me later. “I wanted to be more assertive and take more risks and put myself out there.” I was thrilled by her success and glad that I made a contribution in a small way.
Orenstein said she too felt “a stronger sense of responsibility and mission” now. She also stresses that the goal of her organization has never been just about increasing diversity in the op-ed pages. That was just a means to an end. Her ultimate goal was to raise the influence of women and men, regardless of gender, religion, class, color and sexuality, insert more ideas into society, and change how knowledge and power is shaped.
“We want to look at the earliest places where experts and ideas are seeded,” she said. “We’re not just trying to change who is telling the story. We’re trying to change the culture of history and knowledge.”
One of her proudest recent successes is Rebecca Saldaña, a fellow who was elected to the Washington State Senate. Another fellow Carol Anderson, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, is the best-selling author of the must-read book “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.”
Orenstein confided to me that her team was also discussing the possibility of starting a leadership school. “My goals have grown,” she said. “I used to think of it as a small project. Now I think of it as the biggest possible. Nothing is too small or too large.”
The day after I spoke to her, I received a request by one of her team members to edit an op-ed piece about contraceptive and abortion rights. I was rushing to catch a flight to Tokyo and was tempted to say no, but Orenstein inspired me to say yes. In the minutes before my plane took off, I finished the last edits and pushed send.