Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to keep it to yourself

17 January 2021 - 00:00
If the postal service hadn’t already collapsed, Covid would surely have been the end of it.
If the postal service hadn’t already collapsed, Covid would surely have been the end of it.
Image: 123RF/Michael Spring

People don’t post letters to the paper anymore. All our reader correspondence is e-mailed to tellus@sundaytimes.co.za. But actual letters, typed or handwritten on real paper, used to be delivered by a postperson in a peaked cap bearing a burlap bag full of thoughts.

They came in multicoloured envelopes that had been licked and sealed, with a stamp (also licked) stuck in the corner.

The thought of all that saliva causes an involuntary shudder today — if the postal service hadn’t already collapsed, Covid would surely have been the end of it.

Anyone old enough to remember red mailboxes on street corners might recall the TV ad for Ego deodorant, in which an unprepossessing young man is hauled by his tie through the mailing slot and set upon by several ravishing women who have been hiding among the bills and billets-doux.

Of course they weren’t actually assaulting him. They were merely getting him to sign his name on letters they had written to newspapers so that the opinion pages could retain their monopoly of male voices.

Maybe those slinky women squashed into the postbox didn’t think their letters would be published if signed by a female hand. Maybe they lacked confidence in their own opinions, or didn’t want others to know that they in fact had opinions.

This behaviour continues in the electronic age. Women with advanced computer-hacking skills type their comments on current affairs then relay these via other IP addresses so that they appear to have come from the e-mail servers of unsuspecting men.

That is the most plausible explanation I can think of for why almost all the names on letters pages and in online comments sections are male.

In an anecdotal snap survey, friends and acquaintances shared their theories, which ranged from “women have no opinions” (that person is no longer on my contact list) to “women are too busy doing unpaid care work to have time for letter-writing” to “men just like to complain more”.

This is a global phenomenon (women keeping schtum, I mean, not grumpy old men). In the US, an organisation called the OpEd Project, which seeks to increase diversity in public debate, conducted a lengthy survey of the most influential American newspapers and found that only 20% of opinion-related content, which includes letters from readers, is by women.

Last month the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released a report called “The Missing Perspectives of Women in News”, containing the results of a massive study conducted in SA, India, Kenya, Nigeria, the UK and the US.

Though SA tops the list for gender parity in newsrooms (49% of journalists and 47% of top editors are women), we fail as miserably as the rest in some other areas.

The report reads: “Women are up to six times less likely to be quoted in news as experts, protagonists or sources in these six countries. Women expert voices remain significantly muted in high-profile news genres such as politics (where men’s share of the voice is up to seven times higher than that of women) and the economy (where men’s share is up to 31 times higher).”

Oh, I forgot to mention that in my informal canvassing of laymen, another reason cited for the dearth of contributions by women to public discussions was “because they’re too busy talking”.

In a watershed study published in the journal Applied Psycholinguistics, British psychologists Anne Cutler and Donia Scott trash the widespread belief that women talk more than men. Their experimental research showed that although both men and women think this is true, it isn’t. Although “female contributions to mixed-sex dialogues were rated as greater than male contributions by both male and female listeners”, recordings revealed that men had the talking stick for far longer than women did.

Another study, of online discussions, found that six times more men entered into these debates than women, and the comments posted by men were on average seven times longer than those written by women.

There’s nothing wrong with men vociferously sharing their opinions, of course. It should be encouraged (unless they’re wrong) but it vexes me that more women don’t make themselves heard. It most definitely is not the case that women have nothing to say, nor that they don’t care enough about important things.

It might be that women prefer to leave the shouty men to spray vitriol at each other while they get on with practical matters, but I think the real reason women do not speak out more — in print, online and in person — is fear.

All women live with fear to some degree, and for good reason. It is understandable if fear of physical or mental abuse makes us more cautious in other spheres. We keep our heads down when walking in an unsafe street. Maybe entering the realm of public argument makes us feel similarly exposed.

It is true that many areas are not safe for women, but the opinion page of a newspaper is not one of those places. The more visible and vocal women are, the sooner those men who treat them as objects might see the light. I urge you, sisters, speak up! 

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