The Trouble with Double X

In the 1960s, feminists demanded newspapers take their women's pages -- sections devoted to recipes, fashion tips, and the occasional political article -- and make them gender-neutral. This way, they figured, newspapers would have to find a way to integrate "women's" coverage. One by one, publishers retitled these sections: Features, Style, Life. But they never quite managed to integrate women's issues into the rest of the paper. By 1972, Gloria Steinem had changed her mind about the women's pages. "There is a need for women's pages," she said, but "they should be more relevant than talking about subjects like turning artichokes into lampshades."

Earlier this week, Slate launched Double X, an online magazine "founded by women but not just for women," which bears an eerie resemblance to the women's pages of yore. It is the latest in a series of women-focused online magazines to split off from general-interest news and politics sites. Gawker Media has Jezebel -- a blog founded as an explicit rebuttal to glossy women's magazines that both counters and falls into many of the same traps. Yahoo's Shine and AOL's Lemondrop focus on the traditional women's mag topics of fashion, sex, and celebrities.

Double X began as The XX Factor, a blog written by Slate's female contributors. Several other news and politics sites have created separate blogs for women's issues -- such as Broadsheet at Salon and Woman Up at AOL's Politics Daily -- which have yet to be relaunched as separate sites. And I'm sure there are many more gendered niche sites in our future, as Internet advertisers and publishers alike seek to target specific groups of readers. (Slate publisher John Alderman told Advertising Age in January, "We are doing what hasn't been done, which is focusing on the top of the women's market.")

The proliferation of woman-centric sites raises the sorts of questions that keep a feminist editor up at night. If Slate saw a demand for more content about women, why didn't it start publishing more articles for and by women on its main site? The decision to devote micro-sites to groups that aren't white men -- The Root for black readers, Double X for women readers -- implies that Slate recognizes the need for more coverage that caters to women and people of color. But it doesn't want that coverage mucking up its main product.

"The fight to get women as readers isn't a new one," says Kimberly Voss, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida who studies the history of newspaper women's pages. "I saw The New York Times article about Double X and thought, 'Oh! It's happening again!'"

In the site's introductory video, one of the editors, Hanna Rosin, says, "If you take something like Slate and you have it edited by three women, instead of the people it's edited by, well that's the kind of magazine that we want to turn out." She goes on to say that the articles they publish "don't have to be 'women's issues'" -- she bends her fingers to make air-quotes -- "in the way that people have always defined women's issues. There can be a whole range of issues and you just put them through a slightly different lens." Color me baffled. Wouldn't Slate, edited by these insanely smart and accomplished women, just be … Slate? Couldn't they apply that "slightly different lens" to articles on the primary site and market them to all readers?

When publishers create separate sites dedicated to women or to black people, they are signaling that they don't see a need to have their main site serve these people as core readers. They are, in essence, saying, "We want the ad revenue associated with your readership, but we don't create our homepage with you in mind." In a Q&A with the Double X editors, a reader from Arlington, Virginia, asked, "Does this mean Slate is not meant to be read by women? Slate is a Men's online magazine?"

Meghan O'Rourke responded,

We think of this less as a conversation or magazine just for women -- a pink ghetto, if you will -- than a site that will be able to publish more content than Slate would on a variety of topics that the blog already touches on. Emily [Bazelon] and I both write regularly for Slate, so no, we don't think of Slate as a "men's" magazine. But Slate is already packed full, and doesn't have room to promote all the stories it runs. So, we decided we needed to create a new site. Our hope is that men as well as women will read it -- a hope we have some reason to believe will be reality, given the very equal gender breakdown of readers of XXFactor.

The thing is, even in the olden days of the women' pages, men were always able to open up the paper and read them, too. But they didn't. The women's pages "covered the Equal Rights Amendment, two decades before it reached the national consciousness," Voss says. "Domestic violence was discussed in the 1950s, and they discussed sexual harassment decades before Anita Hill. As long as it didn't alienate advertisers, they could get away with whatever they wanted to. In large part because men never read it." In other words, women's pages fostered a vibrant discussion among women, but they weren't able to push that discussion out into the wider world where it would have a greater impact. When subjects like domestic violence and sexual harassment made it to the news pages, it was as if the conversation on the women's pages had never even happened.

Thanks to the feminist movement and evolving notions of gender, Double X may indeed get its fair share of male readers. (Jezebel boasts a nearly 50 percent male readership.) Even if men are interested and clicking, the problem with branding certain types of articles "for women" is that it still advances a false gender divide. We can all agree that men parent, too. Men and women care about fashion and follow Hollywood gossip. Yet when these articles are primarily housed under a logo that refers to female chromosomes, it perpetuates the false idea that women are interested in Forever 21 and Facebook but not torture hearings or health-care reform.

In the 1930s it may have been clear which topics belonged on the women's pages. But how, in 2009, does an editor decide which articles are of particular concern to women, and therefore more appropriate on Double X? Does she simply look at the writer's gender? O'Rourke assured another reader, "Men will routinely write about kids and parenting. And much more."

But Emily Bazelon's piece about kids who grow up in messy houses shows up on Double X, while another recent article about parenting, written by a man, is only on Slate. One of my favorite Slate writers, Dahlia Lithwick, published a smart piece on Wednesday about conservatives objecting to Barack Obama's search for an empathetic Supreme Court justice. Given that I'd been assured Double X would not hew to a narrow definition of "women's issues," I clicked on over to see if it chose to reprint the article. But unlike the housekeeping piece, the Supreme Court analysis was nowhere to be found. I started feeling very lucky that, here at the Prospect, I don't have to make editorial decisions based on a theoretical reader's gender.

All of this is not to say Double X and its ilk are entirely bad for the cause of women in journalism. These outlets can serve to highlight topics that are under-covered in the mainstream press, give women writers a venue they can more easily break into, and convey debates between women in a more nuanced way. These are all goals the editors have expressed, and more power to them. Having a space where women's voices are dominant is not a bad thing! After all, I write for a feminist blog that deals mostly with issues of concern to women.

However, unlike Double X, Feministing's editorial philosophy is based on a worldview -- not a set of chromosomes. We don't presume to serve the 50 percent of the population that's female and allow men to "listen in." We exist to advance and explore the political and social cause that is feminism. As far as I can tell, there is no ideological aim -- apart from "earn lots of ad revenue" -- attached to any of the gendered spin-off sites.

I would like to say I expect great things of Double X. I have a lot of respect for many of its core contributors, and I believe deeply in the cause of making women's voices more central to the media. But somehow, "smart women's magazines" never seem to publish things that influence the national conversation in the way that smart articles in general magazines do. They may publish some very accomplished writers, but they rarely produce journalists and columnists who go on to find success in non-gendered media outlets. And they don't often succeed in broadening the definition of a "women's issue." If anything, they serve to draw an even brighter line around topics that should concern men as well.

As Voss points out, "We start Web pages that are for women by women, but it's a Band-Aid on the bigger problem, which is not taking issues that relate to women seriously." The women's pages are certainly good for women and journalism in the short term. But long-term change will only come from pushing general-interest publications to be fully inclusive of women readers and writers. The day Slate announces its spin-off site for white men, we'll know we've succeeded.

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