3
The 'gender matters' debate in
journalism

Lessons from the front
Linda Steiner
Do men and women journalists work in significantly different ways – and if so, what are these differences?
In what ways do sex and gender matter in journalism?
What or whose interests are served by claiming that women cannot or do not produce the same kind of reporting as men?

Not merely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but also continuing well into the twentieth century, people heatedly debated the difference that sex makes. Usually the victorious orators managed to explain why a woman can't, in words of Henry Higgins, be more like a man. This claim was certainly applied to journalism. Male reporters, editors and publishers were quite certain that sex mattered a great deal in journalism. Notably, this meant that women could not succeed as journalists. Women could not handle the rough-and-tumble culture of the newsroom; moreover, the argument went, even trying to do so would damage women's health and ultimately 'unsex' them.

The only explicit exception was that women could write about women for women. Rhetorically, the logic was that women had special intuition regarding what women needed and wanted to know. Conversely, men lacked the vocabulary and sensitivity for describing fashion, child rearing, cooking, and interior decor. Some men came close to arguing that men would be 'unmanned' by writing for or about women. High status and professional prestige for men depended on segregating topics and audiences. It required men to monopolize reporting about public affairs, politics, and war; and confine women to women's topics and audiences.1

This chapter argues that an explanation of journalism practices grounded in 'sex' is not as antique as it might at first sound. For more than 30 years, both scholars and non-scholars have avoided explanations based on sex per se. Instead, they have referred to gender or the 'sex/gender system'. But 'gender' may have lost its rhetorical cachet, if not its explanatory usefulness. It's partly the decreasing importance of gender as a factor underlying

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