Yesterday the other Charlotte and I attended a snazzy downtown Washington luncheon sponsored by Harvard University, and there we discovered why there are so few women columnists and op-ed writers compared to men at our nation’s newspapers: The women don’t get enough “mentoring” from newspaper senior editors.

Yes, that’s the reason. A woman can’t write an op-ed piece without someone holding her hand. It was enough to make me, who’s been publishing op-eds in major papers for 21 years with nary a mentor in sight, want to crawl under the table in shame. Why not go the whole hog and say that women are shy, shrinking violets who can’t function without a big strong man to take care of them–and can’t write very well either?

Last February I published an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times lamenting the fact that there are almost no women public intellectuals these days–mental giants (even if I didn’t always–or even usually–agree with their politics) on the order of Susan Sontag and Simone de Beauvoir who opined freely and learnedly on the great cultural and political issues of their day. My theory was that the smart women of today have shrunk their horizons of interest to those of the tiny planet of feminist ideology, so that where we once had Sontag, we now have Naomi Wolf.

The column sparked a furious showdown between then-Times opinion editor Michael Kinsley and ur-feminist lawyer/pundit Susan Estrich, who accused me of being a nobody and Kinsley of refusing to publish op-pieces by great women thinkers like…Susan Estrich (you can catch up on all the down-and-dirty by clicking here for links). This in turn sparked a nationwide debate as to why men seriously outnumber women on newspaper op-ed pages.

Yesterday’s lunch was the latest chapter in the debate. And what I heard there shocked me. First we learned about a Washington Post op-ed editor who had to coax and cajole female contributors who begged off on the excuse that they didn’t know enough about the subject-matter–or who said they couldn’t write 750 words by deadline the way the men did. Then an ABC producer mentioned that when women commentators applied for jobs at ABC, they would often describe themselves at the job interview as not oreally being qualified for the job. Another editor said that when women did write commentary pieces, they don’t “give it 100 percent” and often need more editing than male writers. But gee, with enough mentoring, coaxing, and rewriting, these self-described second-raters could be pushed and pulled to the top. In other words, women aren’t as qualified as men to write for newspapers, but with enough affirmative action–who knows?

Of course I started to bristle. Not only did I have no mentors in my long journalistic career, but at my first and second newspaper jobs the (male) editors I worked for were screamers. Hand-holding was not their thing. Yelling and throwing obects was. I either quit or got fired (depending on who you talk to) from my first job after three months. On the second job, I boldly wrote an op-ed piece as a fill-in for my editor, who was out of town. No delicate little flower, I. My editor was a dyed-in-the wool ACLU-channeler who could be counted on for whatever was fashionable du jour in liberal opinion, whether it was freeing a convicted killer or signing the SALT accords. I, however, fired off a fiery column commending the Reagan Justice Department for removing a local U.S. attorney who had blabbed to the press about a case with national-security implications. When my editor returned and read my column, he became so empurpled with rage that he wrote a column the next day countervening my column. That was my baptism into the world of op-ed writing. So, sorry, gals, you don’t need mentoring. You need the opposite. It’s called toughening up.

Several women at the lunch complained that when they voiced their liberal opinions in their columns–such as how we should be nicer to “formerly incarcerated persons” (evidently the new euphemism for ex-cons)–they received obscene and scurrilous e-mails. These frail blossoms should talk to Michelle Malkin.

The best comment at the conference came from TOC, who pointed out that the supposed lack of women on op-ed pages was a non-problem, as most newspapers are dying to hire qualified women. What the discussion was really about, said TOC, was the lack of liberal women on op-ed pages: Said TOC,”I don’t think anyone here is urging that more papers run Ann Coulter.”