The editor of the New York Times editorial pages said she seldom addresses an audience without getting the question: Why aren't more women columnists featured in her section? Her counterpart at the Washington Post said recently he's working hard to improve that paper's record -- just one in 10 opinion pieces written by women.
The dearth of female commentators at American newspapers is no secret, but the issue turned considerably more public and more rancorous in recent weeks as writer and feminist Susan Estrich intensified a long-running campaign to get the Los Angeles Times to publish more opinion pieces by women.
The USC professor demanded action by The Times and directed her anger at Michael Kinsley, a onetime Harvard Law School classmate and editor of The Times' opinion and editorial pages.
In a series of e-mails to Kinsley -- some of them copied to journalists, who quickly posted them on the Internet -- Estrich questioned Kinsley's mental powers and judgment, predicting his days at the newspaper were "numbered."
Referring to Kinsley's Parkinson's disease, she wrote that "people are beginning to think that your illness may have affected your brain, your judgment and your ability to do this job."
As a result, Estrich's already icy relationship with the newspaper's op-ed operation has gone into a deep freeze. Kinsley has accused Estrich of "blackmail" and called her comments about his health "disgusting."
"The question of whether the newspaper is giving due visibility to women writers is a legitimate one," Times Editor John Carroll added, in his own e-mail response to Estrich. "The way you are conducting yourself is a discredit to the cause."
Forty-three prominent Los Angeles women signed Estrich's original complaint about gender imbalance, and several interviewed after the furor with Kinsley erupted said they continue to stand by her. They said The Times' shortcomings are proven by recent tallies demonstrating how few women write for the opinion pages.
In the first nine weeks of this year, women penned 20.5% of the paper's op-ed columns, not including staff editorials, which do not carry bylines. That compared to the New York Times, with 17% women writers on its op-ed pages and the Washington Post with 10%.
The confrontation might not have drawn so much attention if the old Harvard classmates did not hold such high profiles, in Los Angeles and nationally.
A former editor of the New Republic and Slate.com, Kinsley helped ring in an era of broadcast punditocracy by jousting with Pat Buchanan on "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. Estrich, who gained national stature by managing Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign in 1988, writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column and provides commentary on Fox Television.
Kinsley, 54, said the fight with Estrich has been a painful distraction from efforts he said the newspaper had already been making to bring more women to the op-ed pages.
"I was on the case already. And now you feel a little queasy about pushing for more women because you think you are being used and you are giving this jerk a victory," Kinsley said. "I have to force myself to sort of look beyond that and do what we were doing anyway."
Estrich, 52, apologized for raising the issue of Kinsley's health, saying she was only trying to "warn an old friend what was being said about him around town." She said that misstep should not be a distraction from her larger cause.
"The minute people begin to count the number of columns by women, [newspapers] can't begin to justify the outcome," she said in an interview this week. "Because the fact is that 90% of the talent is not in men's hands, but 90% of the columns are."
A tenured professor of law and political science at USC, Estrich had been a fairly regular contributor to The Times' opinion page -- with more than 50 bylined columns during the 1990s. But since 2000 she has written only two freelance columns and The Times has not carried her syndicated column.
In 2003, she surprised some of her feminist allies with an essay in The Times that chastised the newspaper for what she called an 11th hour "smear." Just days before the recall election, The Times had told the stories of several women who said that then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped or sexually harassed them.
Since their days at Harvard three decades ago, Estrich and Kinsley had been mostly out of touch. But when Times editor Carroll named Kinsley to head the opinion pages last April, Estrich was soon repeating her complaints about the lack of women.
Over several months, Estrich alternately courted and cajoled The Times' new op-ed man. She invited him to dinner and signed one message "xoxoxo." She threatened to take her campaign to other media outlets or to women on the board of the Tribune Company, which owns The Times. (Estrich's e-mails to Kinsley -- posted briefly on her website -- made those details public.)