Kimberly Probolus, whose letter about the underrepresentation of women on the letters page inspired the Women’s Project, reflects a year later.
Over the summer, I attended a party where the hostess introduced me to another guest as the woman who wrote the letter to The New York Times about why not enough women write letters to the editor. The guest, a man, must have only heard some of this introduction, because he started telling me about an amazing new initiative by The Times to achieve gender parity in letters submissions. In fact, this man was so excited to tell me all the reasons women didn’t write letters to the editor that he still did not hear me when I told him that I wrote the letter.
Finally, at the end of “his” story, I gave it one last shot. “I wrote the letter,” I said, to which he responded with the appropriate mix of embarrassment, apologies and admiration. While this may seem like an episode out of Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” the man I encountered was not the least bit arrogant, displaying a boyish giddiness toward feminism. And yet, he could not hear the small blond woman standing right in front of him.
Since the publication of the letter, it’s been exciting to read more women’s letters and to see the efforts by The New York Times to give women a more prominent voice. Like the letters editors, I hope that women will continue to write. But it’s not enough to ask women to speak up: to write more letters, to raise our voices, to “lean in.” The problem is not that women aren’t speaking up. As far back as ancient Greece — when Cassandra warned the Trojans about that giant wooden horse — women have been speaking loudly and clearly. The problem is that men aren’t listening.
Male readers of The New York Times, this is about you. You who call yourselves feminists and attend women’s marches. You who coach your daughters’ soccer teams. Yes, you are trying, but I’m struck by how spectacularly so many of you continue to fail at listening, this most basic of human skills.
Fortunately, there are practical strategies to help men become both better listeners and more active listeners. First, to be a good listener, stop talking. You cannot listen to her story and be present for her if you’re too busy thinking about yourself or your next brilliant comment. Second, active listening means hearing the words women are saying and taking them at face value, even if those words contradict your prior assumptions or your own agenda. Third, being an active listener means asking questions.
Women do not speak with one voice. We don’t all want the same things, which is why you need to ask women what they want and then respect their opinions, even, and most especially, if it means ceding some of your own power in any given situation. Practicing feminist listening is something you can start right now. Look up from your paper or screen and ask the woman across from you, “How can I be a better listener?” Listen to her, and do what she says.
This ask may seem small, but listening must be the first step toward systemic change. Members of Congress should listen to the opinions of their female constituents and prioritize the legislation that they ask for. Organizations should listen to their female employees about what policies would be most helpful to support their personal and professional flourishing, and then take active steps to enact those policies.
Social media should regulate online platforms to safeguard women against harassment and to ensure that their voices are heard. Our legal system must figure out how it can listen to women, particularly in cases of rape. And it needs to respond to women whose identities exist at the intersection, listening to the nuances of what it means to be injured because one is both a woman and black, a woman and queer. Listening will not solve inequality. But progress is impossible if men can’t hear women.
Identifying and vilifying hateful, sexist men is easy. It’s a lot harder to tell the men in our lives who support us and love us unconditionally that they, too, are part of the problem. I hope that they will listen, and I hope that they will change. If The New York Times can do it, perhaps its male readers can, too.
Kimberly Probolus, Washington
The writer is a historian.