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Finding the Power in Women’s Voices

by Hannah Miller

A growing group of organizations work on what is called "media democracy," that is, changing the structure and legal framework of the media so that it reflects something a smidgeon closer to the actual public – including women.

In all its complexity, the media – TV and cable, newspapers and film, magazines and podcasts – can be understood quite simply: it's just a group of people sitting in a circle, talking to each other, debating over the issues they care about.

But in American culture – our common circle – some speakers are deemed important than others. Some speakers always go first and speak as long as they like; some utter a few words. More often than not, it is men who start the conversation, who carry the conversation, who are the very topics, and women who respond, stay silent, or are not discussed at all.

And this is one revolution that we need, on the airwaves and on the page: to give back to women the power of their words.

The media is as much of a creation of specific political policy as is the healthcare or petroleum industries, and with the tremendous power it has over all other political decisions, it is crucial that we liberate it from the small caste of wealthy white males who now own and control it. Their words are not any more important than any of ours – they just happen to have the mike.

This is a nascent revolution, sparked by the FCC's decision in 2003 to relax the legal limitations on media mergers and consolidation. A massive public outcry against the measure included feminist activists, as studies show that media consolidation – the centralization of power in a handful of global conglomerates, such as Disney-ABC, GE-NBC-Universal, Newscorp, and others, almost always disadvantages female ownership, management, staffing and the production of content relevant to women.

Within the Hollywood studio system, for example, it is taken as a given that the most profitable films are those aimed at a 18-to-35 year old white male, thereby marginalizing those who want to write or direct films about female protagonists, or with "female themes." Due to vertical integration, "the studios control most of the screens in the country, and have the first cut of funding and advertising (to support making films,)" said Melissa Houghton, the Executive Director of Women in Film and Video. "Studios are consistently surprised by the number of women who go to films. They don't even think about it."

To combat the marginalization within the mainstream industry, Women in Film and Video is organizing networks of mentors and conducting creative grassroots campaigns, such as email blasting their list when a woman-directed film reaches its opening weekend (the numbers studios look at to make distribution decisions). To go farther than that will require an activist FCC and Congress that begins to take seriously its obligation to serve the public interest – for example, with aggressive anti-trust policies and litigation.

In journalism, the picture is worse. In TV news, local news is the only place where women have job parity with men, according to the Global Media Monitoring Project; it is far worse at the networks and on the op-ed pages (women are tapped for only 18-31 percent of op-eds a year, according to the Op-Ed Project), and the back and forth sniping on cable news. As Jennifer Pozner of Women in the News put it in an interview: "Do we really need 17 Bill O'Reillys? That's all we have."

There is no shortage of possible solutions to the genuine problem of underrepresentation of and discrimination against women in the media: independent ownership, further support of public media, strong diversity policies at the FCC and within companies, universal access to broadband, the principle of net neutrality (that access to the Internet should be protected as a freedom), public access television stations – the list goes on and on. All that is required is the political courage – and committed advocates – to pass them into law.

Dr. Carolyn Byerly of Howard University, whose body of work covers the incredibly low (and shrinking) number of women-owned media outlets has one suggestion: that women who work at TV and radio stations start buying them, and become media moguls themselves.

"Women in the media think in terms of career advancement, not about big business," said Dr. Byerly in an interview. At the highest levels of management, employees often find the capital to buy and operate the stations themselves. "Women have all these career aspirations - why doesn't that include forming holding companies and taking over the industry? Using this industry to promote the status of women?"

In other words - why can't women own the conversation itself?

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Hannah Miller is the National Field Director of the Media and Democracy Coalition. Her background includes 10 years as a newspaper journalist – including reporting for the Los Angeles Times and the Arizona Republic - and as a passionate advocate for political causes ranging from campaign-finance law, to healthcare reform, to electing progressive female candidates. Her website is

Also see Whose Utopia by Mahin Hassibi in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Revolution Lite by Merle Hoffman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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