What explains women’s reluctance to write letters to newspapers? The question was raised with anguish recently by the admirably feminist Observer letters editor Stephen Pritchard. I was subsequently invited to discuss the subject on radio 4. Do women still feel excluded by newspapers, and, by extension, public life? Do newspapers fail to cover subjects that interest women?
I have two theories on male dominance in letters pages. The first is to do with male/ female psychology. There is a phrase which I hear often from men, which is: “ If you ask my opinion….” Women do not presume that anyone has asked their opinion, or would. They are historically more comfortable in private rather than public realms.
‘Women are far more tentative and fatally empathetic’
It is not so long ago that women were expected to leave the room at the end of a dinner, so that men could exercise their opinions on affairs of public importance. Men are not necessarily constrained by lack of knowledge or experience of a subject. They are innately confident of their ability to find solutions. Women are far more tentative and fatally empathetic. They are always seeing the sense in their opponent’s argument. They are also peace makers. None of this encourages letter writing in a public domain.
‘The women who do write to newspapers tend to be those who run enterprises or public bodies’
The women who do write to newspapers tend to be those who run enterprises or public bodies. They are therefore talking in a professional capacity. Men will write in any old capacity and on subjects far beyond their specialism. Women who write for personal reasons are usually motivated by shared experience.
In Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph two women wrote in response to the mother who killed her suffering daughter: “As a sufferer from ME for eight years I can understand the late Lynn Gilderdale feeling suicidal..”And, “ I and my son both suffer from ME, are housebound and struggle each day to cope.”
Health issues often trigger letters from women, although this is also related to age.This brings me to my second theory on the curious absence of women in newspaper letters pages.
The most enthusiastic letter writers are the retired. They have the time and are more reflective. They have a historical sweep, so can contrast, for instance, contemporary anxiety about waste, with war time frugality.
‘Pontificating is a low priority’
If women have disappeared from newspaper letters pages between university and grandmotherhood, it is probably because they have multiple demands on their time. Pontificating is a low priority.
‘The female letter is based on observation rather than opinion, so you miss the sharp, amused eye on the world. It is also practical and without pomposity’
However letters pages are duller without women. The female letter is based on observation rather than opinion, so you miss the sharp, amused eye on the world. It is also practical and without pomposity. The following is one of my favourite letters which appeared in the Daily Telegraph: “ Sir – I find labels in sweaters irritating on the neck. The first thing I do on buying a new cashmere jumper is to spend 10 minutes trying to unpick the stitching of the riveted-on itchy label without damaging the knitwear. Couldn’t manufacturers put the labels low on the side seam, where the laundry instructions are? Eva Hancock, Long Itchington, Warwickshire.
Sarah Sands is speaking at the OXWIB/Cherwell ‘Women in Journalism’ forum on Thursday of 3rd Week, at 8pm in Brasenose.