Christine Kenneally is a journalist and author who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, and New Scientist, as well as other publications. Her book, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, was published in hardback by Viking in 2007. Before becoming a reporter, Christine received a Ph.D. in linguistics from Cambridge University and a B.A. (Honors) in English and Linguistics from Melbourne University. Christine was kind enough to answer the questions we’ve been asking of our Mentor Editors over the last few weeks. Her answers are, quite honestly, inspiring. Check them out:
Why do you think there are so few women on the op-ed pages?
I suspect there are at least two factors at work, though there may be more. First, it’s clear that women need to submit more. This is easier than it sounds (see the answer to the next question!). The other problem is surely that residual sexism constrains the choices of some editors, male or female. Maybe some day, a researcher will run an experiment or do a study that proves conclusively this is not the case. If that happens, I’ll be happy to change my mind. In the meantime, I know way too many women writers who have impressive expertise and writing skills, and who don’t get enough work. If they were invited to write op-eds, I know they would be fast, professional and produce stimulating pieces (and if any op-ed page editor would like a list of these names, I’d be delighted to put it together for them). I don’t know the solution to this problem, but—without suggesting that it is women’s job to change it–I am confident that it won’t change if more women don’t submit more op-ed pieces.
What can individual women do to change the situation?
It’s hard to write on spec–most of us don’t have spare time. It’s also hard to be rejected. When you put in a lot of work, it can feel like an entirely wasted effort if there is no publication at the end of that. The weird-good news about rejection that is that it doesn’t matter how successful you get, there is always some rejection–let me explain! Not every piece works for every editor, there are a million reasons why some articles don’t pan out. The more you realize this, the more it frees you to keep trying instead of becoming too discouraged or taking it too personally. One also learns that rejections can teach you to be a better writer. In addition, the more you go through that process, the more you learn to be discerning about what criticism you need to take and what criticism you can safely ignore. I’ve read it a million times, and I believe it to be an immutable law of physics–when it comes to publication, persistence is an essential ingredient.
What advice would you give to a young feminist hoping to break into public debate?
Rest assured that–even if it doesn’t feel this way most of the time–the rest of us, writers, feminists, readers, look forward to hearing your voice. You won’t be told this often, if it all, you may never get a real sense of who is reading you, but if you do your research and you are willing to be edited, if you write with sincerity, and if you care about your subject, a lot of people will enjoy and even be changed by what you do. And always reach out for help, checking in with someone you know who has been through the same thing can save you a lot of time, as well as provide some ongoing reassurance. Take a class, do a seminar, start a group (commit to your op-ed groupies that you’ll all write a piece every two weeks!), and reach out online.
What’s an example of an argument that changed your life?
This example may seem a little trivial, but it did change my life. At the risk of revealing what a luddite I can sometimes be, I recall that when my husband wanted to get wifi in our house in our 2002 I thought it was an absurd and unnecessary expense. Still, he made a strong case for it. I don’t remember each point, but they added up to the conviction that it was at least worth trying. Of course, before you knew it, I was on the web in some fashion from ten different locations in the house. Wifi has changed the fundamental design of how we live. I am sometimes on the computer all day and I can’t imagine being tethered by a cable to just one spot.