Like other women before her who saw a wrong and did something to right it, Catherine Orenstein decided to act. Rather than just lament that women’s opinions and voices are grossly underrepresented on the Op-Ed pages and in other aspects of the media, Orenstein, 40, founded an organization to correct the imbalance.
In January 2008, she launched The OpEd Project as an initiative to increase the number of women experts who are accessible to the country’s key print and online forums. Orenstein, who is half Jewish and half Protestant, travels throughout the country with other OpEd Project editors and columnists, giving seminars that train women in how to write opinion journalism, a field that is currently “overwhelmingly dominated by men,” she says. In fact, studies show that men account for 85% of Op-Ed writers. (In an internal study conducted by the Forward, data showed that during the first six months of 2010, women fared slightly better: Men wrote approximately 79% of Forward Op-Eds during the time span.)
Orenstein herself is no stranger to the Op-Ed pages. She has contributed thought pieces on women, politics, popular culture, mythology and human rights to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Miami Herald. She is the author of “Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale” (Basic Books, 2002), which explores stories about women across many continents during the past 500 years, and describes how they shape our lives today. She has lectured at Harvard University, and has appeared on national broadcasts. Orenstein has lived and worked in countries, including Haiti, where she studied folklore and also worked for the United Nations on civilian human rights.
When, in 2005, Susan Estrich, a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, initiated a very public campaign to get the Los Angeles Times to publish more opinion journalism by women, and the Washington Post conducted its own internal survey, which found that 88% of its Op-Ed pieces were written by men, Orenstein decided to act. She wanted to provide women with the tools to get their valuable contributions out into the public sphere, and she wanted to get more Op-Ed pieces written by women submitted for publication. She knew that opinion journalism was the field for her to focus on, because, she said, “The Op-Ed pages feed all other media, and the underrepresentation of women here perpetuates and exaggerates the underrepresentation of women in larger ways.”
Although men are five times more likely to submit Op-Ed articles to outlets than women, “I wasn’t so interested in studying in depth the root causes of why women submit Op-Eds so infrequently,” Orenstein said. “I wanted to act to change the way the system works, to change patterns, to increase the numbers through providing access and connections.”
Orenstein does this by working with groups of women from a wide range of backgrounds and professions in public sessions in major U.S. cities as well as ones arranged through partnerships or by invitation from other organizations. She impresses upon them that they are all experts and she works to dispel the notion that expertise resides in academic degrees and high positions. “You are an expert if you know something of value to be shared with others,” she said.
The OpEd Project, a private venture that received 10% of its seed funding from the investing company Echoing Green, charges $300 per participant in the public sessions, but provides up to 40% scholarship assistance per session through a “pay in words” program. The program implements a social justice model whereby those who can afford to pay subsidize those who cannot. Although the company has applied for non-profit status, it also intends to create a for-profit arm.
Often, the most difficult part of an OpEd Project workshop lies in helping the women identify and take charge of their own expertise. Orenstein and her core team of 15-20 trainers, staff and advisers have found that women find it much harder to do so than men because of women’s socially ingrained and habitual reluctance to give themselves credit for their accomplishments. It is even more of a challenge for women from traditionally underrepresented groups — women, as she puts it, who have “been shaken down for years, [and who] have tried to remain unobtrusive.” Once Orenstein helps the participants find their legitimate voices, she instructs them in the more mechanical and procedural elements of writing an Op-Ed piece — a learnable skill, she says — and pitching it to a media outlet.
Orenstein recently traveled from the OpEd Project’s offices in New York to her native San Francisco Bay Area to conduct a workshop as part of a conference organized by Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. Participant Elissa Barrett, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles, was happy with the result, saying that “the OpEd Project’s mission to afford women with ideas equal in weight and vision [as men’s]…is long overdue.”
Fellow participant Rachel Brodie, executive director of Jewish Milestones, a Berkeley-based organization dedicated to deepening the engagement of Jews with their heritage, echoed those sentiments. “The workshop was the most effective pedagogical experience I’ve had since driver’s ed,” she said. “And I mean that as the highest compliment — seven hours of training and more than ‘just’ feeling inspired when it was over.”
Orenstein is pleased that 30% of workshop alumnae have reported that they have successfully published Op-Ed pieces, and she is working to make that rate even higher. A year ago, she introduced a mentor-editor program, whereby 65 successful editors and writers (among them, recipients of a Pulitzer Prize, an Emmy, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship) volunteer to provide feedback to OpEd Project alumnae on their draft Op-Ed pieces. This has improved results, she said, and it is likely to continue to do so.
In addition to Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, the OpEd Project has partnered with the Rabbinical Assembly, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, and the American Jewish World Service, among other Jewish organizations. “Jewish women have the benefit of high levels of education and of being involved in meaningful work,” Orenstein said. “They are in a position to take on a bigger voice and assume positions of thought leadership.”
Now, buoyed by her success, Orenstein has a broader goal: Get women to constitute 30% of oped writers, “which is where most people say a tipping point happens. We’ve done the math and have a good estimate on what that will take — roughly 15,000 additional women submitting to the top front-door forums each year…It is about creating a richer, smarter, more interesting world.”
Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jewish educator, community professional and writer. She blogs at Truth, Praise and Help.