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Charlotte Allen on Outlook Article, Reaction

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Charlotte Allen
Author, "We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?"
Wednesday, March 5, 2008; 2:00 PM

On Sunday, The Washington Post's Outlook section published a piece by Charlotte Allen under the headline " We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?" Responses, most of them angry, flooded in -- hundreds of letters to the editor, more than 1,000 comments on the article on washingtonpost.com and more than 10,000 related blog posts.

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Wednesday, March 5 at 2 p.m. ET, Allen will come online for a special chat to answer readers' questions about her article and the public's reactions and rebuttals to it.

The transcript follows.

Editor's note: An offensive question was removed from this transcript following the discussion.

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Washington: When I read this, I immediately thought it was written ironically. Were you surprised that so many people took it literally?

Charlotte Allen: I wouldn't quite use the word "ironic," but yes, I meant it to be funny but with a serious point -- that women want to be taken seriously but quite often don't act serious. Also, that women and men really are different.

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Washington: You write that you doubt women's representation in such fields as law (the Supreme Court) and medicine (brain surgeons) will rise much in the 21st century. However more women than men currently are graduating from law school and medical school. Could you please comment on this apparent contradiction?

Charlotte Allen: That's absolutely true, but the proportion of women at the highest levels of these fields is going to remain relatively small, I predict.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Yes, women's reasoning is sometimes clouded by emotion, but so is men's. Why is "swooning" so much worse than murderous rage? How are "Eat, Love, Pray" and "Grey's Anatomy" any more self-indulgent and fantastical than "On the Road" and James Bond movies? Are romance novels a less realistic picture of male-female relations than "Big Butt Sluts #23"? In short, why do you consider men's irrational distortions forgivable, while women's are a sign of lower intelligence?

Charlotte Allen: I agree that men do many dumb things, and many men have dumb tastes.

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Memphis, Tenn.: Ms. Allen, I am confused about The Post editors' "it was satire, stupid" defense of your article. Could you explain why (or how) you thought the reader could have (or should have) picked up on the satirical tone? I recognize that this question may provoke a response not unlike the Supreme Court's "I know it when I see it" approach to obscenity, but I have read a lot of satire, and I just don't see it in your article. Perhaps you could give me a quick and dirty review of my eighth-grade English class?

Charlotte Allen: I'm not sure whether I'd characterize the piece as satire, but I'd certainly characterize it as humor: my poking fun at the dumb things my sex does.

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Washington: Why did you write this piece?

Charlotte Allen: Totally for fun.

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Washington: Do you believe caring for children, men and the weak is something that should be valued less in society? I ask because you seem to imply that they are tasks only fit for the dim, and unworthy of an intelligent mind. What do you think about men who are caregivers?

Charlotte Allen: Quite the opposite: I think that caring for children, men and the weak are the most important things that can be done. It's women who have devalued them by mocking stay-at-home mothers, etc.

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Washington: "They Scream, They Swoon. How Dumb Can Blacks Get?" "They Scream, They Swoon. How Dumb Can Men Get?" "They Scream, They Swoon. How Dumb Can Latinos Get?" Ha ha! Very funny. I'm laughing my head off. Inside. Get a clue.

Charlotte Allen: Is this a compliment or an insult?

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Alexandria, Va.: Loved your column -- you spoke honestly about things that most people are reluctant to discuss openly for fear of being labeled sexist or anti-feminist. I think most of the critics don't seem to realize that you were not saying that women were the only ones who could be stupid -- men can be just as clueless, but men and women are usually stupid in different ways, and you just happened to be discussing some of the congenital flaws of the fairer sex. Certainly there have been no shortage of columns in the past dissecting the shortcomings of men!

Charlotte Allen: Yes, men are fair game, and it's considered perfectly okay to make all the fun of them we want. But make a joke at a woman's expense, and -- woo!

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New York: Am I a man? Charlotte, I have never once watched "Grey's Anatomy." I eat at the stove with the shades drawn. Why are you bringing my femininity into question?

Charlotte Allen: I dunno -- what sex are you?

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New York: Do you think women are aware of the hypocrisy with their anger toward this column? Specifically I refer to the whole litany of TV programs, magazines (like Marie Claire) and society and popular culture as a whole that makes humor at the expense of men everyday. Do you feel the angry responses validated your article?

Charlotte Allen: Very much so. I've heard from women with Ivy League degrees complaining that they're oppressed, female graduates of top law schools complaining that they're oppressed. C'mon!

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Takoma Park, Md.: In your bizarre, atavistic little piece, your sole gesture in the direction of evidence -- rather than insults and personal anecdote -- is studies showing that men are better than women at spatial reasoning. If your argument were that women were less likely to excel at engineering and architecture, you might have a point. Yet you extrapolate this to conclude that women are therefore less suited to choosing a president, running a business, or running a campaign -- none of which require any particular skill in spatial reasoning.

Being a good business leader and a good citizen primarily require verbal skills -- the ability to dissect an argument, identify fallacies, choose among differently good options and persuade others. Again, what does the ability to navigate have to do with any of this? I will admit that in your case, the facility for logical reasoning seems underdeveloped. You cite a study showing differences among small minorities at the extremes of the bell curve, while admitting that the vast majority of men and women are equal in intelligence. Yet you use this to exhort the vast majority of women ("nearly all of us") to "relax," stay home and bake cookies, while the vast majority of men succeed in areas that bring them respect and prestige. F in logic for this author.

Charlotte Allen: Actually, I say nothing of the kind. My very favorite female leader of our time is Margaret Thatcher, with Golda Meir running a close second. Yes, verbal skills are absolutely essential for good leadership.

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West Lafayette, Ind.: Your idea of fun is to paint a (horribly inaccurate) picture of your sex as stupid?

Charlotte Allen: How about an accurate picture?

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Providence, R.I.: Tell us about yourself: Are you a mother? Who are your role models and why? What was the last book you read? How do these these things affect the way you write?

Charlotte Allen: I'm not a mother, having married too late, alas. The last book I read was Peter Ackroyd's wonderful novel "The Fall of Troy." My role models: Cleopatra; my college Greek teacher, the late Hazel Hansen; Hildegard of Bingen; and Sister Mary Madeleva Wolff, scholar of literature par excellence. All these things affect the way I write because they're wonderful examples of writing and thinking. Another role model: Florence King (look her up and read her books).

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West Lafayette, Ind.: You said, in reference to women in typically male-dominated fields, that "the number of women in these fields will always lag behind the number of men, for good reason." Do you honestly believe there is any good reason that women are excluded from these fields? As a woman, don't you have any kind of desire at all to see women succeed in the same areas as men?

Charlotte Allen: I don't think women are excluded. They used to be, but no more. And I believe passionately that no woman should be excluded from choosing any career she desires. But I don't believe in quotas, double standards, etc.

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Arlington, Va.: I thought your editorial showed huge insight into the hobbies of the millennial female. You are right -- we are not paying attention and we are self-absorbed. What a guilty relief I feel to know it's just not me. What has surprised me lately though is how many men are shopping at high-end stores and reading People magazine. I'm thinking of the guys at Tysons II with the grateful babes on their arms. Are they so dim they really think that we think those babes are their wives?

Charlotte Allen: I'm not sure what you're getting at with the babes of Tysons Corner, but we do live in an incredibly self-absorbed culture.

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Boston: Do you make any distinction between women (people who are biologically female) and women's culture (the books, TV shows, and products that are marketed to women)? It would seem to me that women are smart, and the stuff sold to women is stupid.

Charlotte Allen: My question then is, why do women buy this stuff?

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Pittsburgh: You weren't "making a joke at the expense of women" or "poking fun" of our foibles. You wrote a mean-spirited, factually inaccurate, vicious diatribe against a majority of the world's population, and expect us not to be offended because you thought it was funny. Guess what: humor is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You really must think us stupid not to realize that funny jokes don't call the listener out as "dim."

Charlotte Allen: You can't please everyone.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Congratulations on a hilarious article. Do you think the hysterical response to it provides further proof that feminists have no sense of humor?

Charlotte Allen: Is the pope German?

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Washington: Okay, you said you didn't see it as satire (and clearly you haven't written satire). Have you ever written humor before? Because you have written articles critical of women who don't fall lockstep into your idea of how women should act. Given your previous writings, why should anyone have thought "oh, now she's being funny"?

Charlotte Allen: I'm not sure which articles you're referring to. Isn't it obvious what's funny and what's not?

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Washington: In the New York Times, Gloria Steinem wrote: "We have to be able to say: 'I'm supporting her because she'll be a great president and because she's a woman.' " Please consider this statement before you call us fickle or stupid for choosing to vote for a candidate we think will be better for the future of the country. It is neither stupid nor fickle, but a rational decision made after weighing the options. Stupid would be voting on the basis of race or gender alone.

Charlotte Allen: I never said women shouldn't vote for Hillary, I just said that she'd been running a dumb campaign (obviously it has improved a bit very recently). If you think Hillary's the best candidate we've got, be my guest and vote for her.

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Washington: I don't think that by being totally annoyed by your article that anyone is refusing to believe that men and women are different. The issue with your article, or whatever it was, is that you make incredible generalizations about all women that were barely funny -- and, from the experience of most women, not true. Most women I know are running themselves ragged trying to keep up with a full-time job, kids, husbands, housework and dealing with the finances. Maybe your friends sit around and read dumb novels, but maybe then you should have specified that your article referred to just the people you know.

Charlotte Allen: My friends are highly intelligent and read highly intelligent novels. Sure, a lot of women lead tough lives and run themselves ragged -- I'm very sympathetic to their plight. But I don't see what that has to do with my article.

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Unbelievable...: I am flabbergasted at your puzzlement regarding the outrage about your article. What would your reaction had been if a man wrote such an article? Would that have been okay? I'm guessing The Post wouldn't have published a male columnist writing that women are stupid. It's really easy to put out provocative, poorly supported ideas and really hard to recover from the damage they do. Shame on both you and The Post!

Charlotte Allen: Why can't a woman make fun of women? Are women such a sacrosanct subject nowadays that they're off-limits for anyone to write about them except in a reverent portrayal of them as victims of men? I don't buy that.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: So, um, after skimming your previous responses, apparently you were somewhat serious in the overall point you were making about women's dumbness. Then my question is this -- how can you think this would be funny, when you're basically regurgitating all the old arguments for women's inferiority, with very little humorous spin at all? If someone were to write a piece like this about African Americans, do you think they should consider it funny? Even something like this about men -- arguably the least repressed group of human beings throughout history -- would be in poor taste at best. So what made you think people would take the disparagement of women's intelligence lightly?

Charlotte Allen: People always are writing pieces just like mine about men. It's called feminist humor. As for African Americans, for heaven's sake! Women aren't a historically oppressed minority; they're half the population or more! What -- are we women always supposed to portray ourselves as victims of patriarchy? That's absurd in 2008, when we have every conceivable opportunity.

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New York: In addition to writing here that women are "dim," at the Independent Women's Forum you've written that Hurricane Katrina might have been "the best thing" to happen to New Orleans, which is full of "whiners ... chiseling us taxpayers" out of money. Is that supposed to be satire too? Your sense of humor sure does seem hateful.

washingtonpost.com: What Really Happened After Hurricane Katrina (Independent Women's Forum, Oct. 11, 2005)

Charlotte Allen: I said Katrina was the best thing to happen to New Orleans because it finally provided an opportunity to a huge number of New Orleans residents living in passive dependency on welfare to get out of New Orleans and change their lives for the better. Thousands of them did exactly that -- which is why there hasn't exactly been a huge flood of those former residents flocking back to live in passive dependency and do just that. New Orleans itself now has a chance to change into a more self-reliant city. As for the "whiners ... chiseling taxpayers out of money," I was referring specifically to the large number of fraudulent claims for Katrina relief -- well-documented in news stories.

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Boston: Did you write your article to criticize women or feminists? You seem quite delighted to have gotten such a rise out of "the feminists" and puzzled by the hostile reaction of "women." What do you think is the difference between the two?

Charlotte Allen: Not all women are feminists, but many women exhibit some of the silliness I wrote about.

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Boston: I hope you saw this piece. Thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: A Dumb Argument (Post, March 5)

Charlotte Allen: Sorry -- I don't have time to read comments without doing a disservice to other chatters in this forum. If you have something yourself to say, please say it.

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Washington: Women aren't a historically oppressed minority? Who are you, exactly?

Charlotte Allen: Huh? I'm a woman, part of a historically attested-to half of the human race.

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New York: "Women aren't a historically oppressed minority." Really? So we've always had the right to vote, not to be raped and have control over our bodies? Can I have some of whatever wacky antifeminist weed you're smoking?

Charlotte Allen: Minority? Not when I last counted. And when did women get the vote -- 1921? 1923? Rape was a capital crime under Roman law. You know -- the Romans, 2,000 years ago. As for "control over our bodies," I guess you mean abortion. Wasn't Roe vs. Wade decided in 1973?

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New York: I get it! Your piece was a stab at Swiftian level satire -- by using clearly flawed logic to assert that women are inferior, you attempted to prove that women are in fact brilliant! Thanks for being such an awesome feminist, Charlotte.

Charlotte Allen: I gather you're making an attempt here to mimic Jonathan Swift.

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Philadelphia: Why do you call women like Elizabeth I and Hildegard of Bingen brilliant outliers? Don't you believe that there could have been many more women like them if women had had the same education, money, power and social status that many men had? Wouldn't that have allowed them to realize their potential?

Charlotte Allen: Sure, there might have been a few more -- and in fact there were many more in Hildegard's time, when there were learned abbesses all over Europe.

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Dallas: I thought your article touched on some very good points, the main one being that men constantly are ridiculed and satirized (Homer Simpson) but not women. However, I've come to the conclusion that we should have a woman president, because she wouldn't feel the need to show her "macho" side every single time a two-bit dictator said something unseemly about the U.S. Do you think that a woman president would have invaded Iraq on such flimsy evidence?

Charlotte Allen: Uh, who voted for the invasion of Iraq? And believe it or not, we live in dangerous times. I'm glad to see macho men around, myself, such as our brave troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Viva Prince Harry!

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Washington: I'd encourage you to pick up Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man" and give it a read. The scientific support for the claim that women -- as a matter of biology -- generally are going to be less successful at math or science or "spatial reasoning" is weak and almost certainly the result of the preconceptions of the scientists and not the actual data. (After all, they're part of our culture too.)

This is important because it means that there are plenty of girls out there who could achieve in science (and medicine and law) but gently and subtly are discouraged from doing so. I agree that women no longer face the same kind of obvious barriers in these fields, but they still suffer from what the president called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." And that is the sort of bigotry advanced by the lazy, backward thinking in your article. Luckily, this all will be swept away and forgotten as women advance into the 21st century and take their rightful place as the peers of men in every field.

Charlotte Allen: I don't think women are at all discouraged these days from careers in math and science, gently, subtly or otherwise. In fact, schools and colleges these days bend over backwards to urge girls and women to take science courses, major in science, etc. I haven't read "The Mismeasure of Man," so I can't comment on it.

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Washington: Were you trying to start a constructive debate with your opinion piece? Do you think that's happened? I think by concluding that women are "dumb" because of real sex differences that exist just pisses people off, and thus precludes any real debate on this issue -- and it's something I think should be explored openly. Name-calling doesn't get us anywhere.

Charlotte Allen: I called no names, but to be quite honest, I wasn't trying to start a debate, constructive or otherwise. I was just expressing my views.

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Washington: Can you please further explain your definition of "historical"? I understand that the feminism has made serious inroads in opportunities for women today, but what about 10 or 20 or 100 years ago?

Charlotte Allen: Women have been gaining equal rights since the 19th century, when laws were passed permitting them to hold and control their own property on marriage. The suffrage movement got started a century ago, and the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against women in hiring, promotions and pay. All good things. But it's now nearly 50 years since those landmark laws were passed, and it's time for women who want to get ahead to quit complaining that they can't get ahead.

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Appleton, Wis.: Could you please explain in greater depth your argument that women are worse drivers than men (because they get in more accidents), if their accidents are less likely to be fatal? Dying seems to be a better sign of a bad driver than a dented fender...

Charlotte Allen: Hard to say: Both, unless not the driver's fault, are signs of bad driving. I don't see how getting into lots of little accidents makes a group better drivers than getting into fewer but worse accidents.

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East Bridgewater, Mass.: You seriously don't even know what year women got the vote? Who on earth hired you to write about women's issues?

Charlotte Allen: Why is the exact year germane to anything?

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New Carrollton, Md.: That article was deliberately inflammatory and so transparent. If Allen keeps this up she may well become the Simon Cowell of news media. What's an action flick without a villain? It generated buzz and some energy for the sister media of The Post in print. We hear everyday that newspapers are struggling. It was a cheap shot that got something started. At least someone mentioned The Post that day, even if the connection was a negative one. I would dare say that if Charlotte Allen believes her own hype, then she is indeed the very incarnation of the persona lambasted. However, I think she was having us on a bit and accomplished her assignment. Only thing is, will she share her bonus check?

Charlotte Allen: Charlotte Allen gets a bonus check? As if!

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Omaha, Neb.: Women aren't satirized? Do you believe that Maggie Simpson and Marge Simpson or Marge's sisters are any less "satirical" than Homer or Bart? And most contemporary sitcoms use gender-based jokes -- including jokes where women wrestle with their own "stupid femininity" -- including "Grey's Anatomy." Making fun of women is nothing new. Why do you think your article has provoked such a different response than this other gender-based humor?

Charlotte Allen: I agree that the humor in "The Simpsons" is fairly sex-neutral, although the show seems to take Lisa quite seriously, and Marge too, to a lesser extent. As for "Grey's Anatomy," it's mostly deadly serious, except for occasional lame stabs at whimsy.

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Syracuse, N.Y.: If men are better drivers, why do insurance companies charge them more?

Charlotte Allen: Young men are worse drivers and get charged more. According to the Johns Hopkins study, however, young men's bad driving is more than made up for by older women's bad driving.

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Washington: Neither the Post nor Charlotte Allen has, in either the original article or in this chat, explained who Charlotte Allen is. Could someone please give me a sense of her background so that I have at least a vague idea of the context in which to judge her work?

Charlotte Allen: Charlotte Allen's background? She was born in Pasadena, Calif., to a struggling trial lawyer and his Peru-born wife who emigrated from New York in the lawyer's Packard when Charlotte's mother was eight months and three weeks pregnant with Charlotte. They lived in a little rental cottage with a big fig tree in the back yard, and were so poor that baby Charlotte had to sleep in a dresser drawer for the first month of her life...

How much of this stuff do you want?

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Ashburn, Va.: I don't think there is anything wrong with the article, starting with because it is someone's opinion. Strong, weak, funny, and not funny opinions are published daily about many groups of people. All of these posters getting so irate is irrational. My question is, how did you come up with the idea? What inspired you to write about this topic? Thanks!

Charlotte Allen: Lots of things: Women fainting for Obama, too many episodes of "Grey's Anatomy" (I was watching it in connection with another article I was writing on a completely unrelated topic), perusing "Eat, Pray, Love" at Olsson's, and alas, that recent Outlook article by the woman who advised women to go to France at age 50 and have an adulterous affair with a Frenchman. All of these things played into the article, along with a conversation with a female friend about how stupid our sex is.

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Kentucky: I've submitted this previously, but if women aren't oppressed than please explain why up until 10-12 years ago, it wasn't illegal in the U.S. for a man to rape his wife? And why more than half of the states still make allowances and give lesser sentences to men found guilty of wife rape versus stranger rape?

Charlotte Allen: I don't know about the allowances and lesser sentences, but it was thought then that cases of spousal rape were too difficult to prove, involving one spouse's word against the other's, and in most cases little physical evidence of rape. Even now, spousal rape is very difficult to prove in court unless the spouses are living separately.

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College Park, Md.: I'm interested to know how the piece ended up in The Post. Did they solicit it? Did Ms. Allen shop it around to different papers?

Charlotte Allen: The piece wasn't solicited. Ms. Allen shopped it to The Post alone.

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Newport News, Va.: Uggh, gender, race, age ... why do we always need to exploit our differences in order to gain attention and stir-up controversy? Perhaps I am a little too out there for Charlotte Allen or The Washington Post, but I actually like respecting people as a "human being" versus playing toward their stereotypes.

Charlotte Allen: I couldn't agree more that every human being should be respected as a human being. That's different from observing group foibles.

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Detroit:"Young men are worse drivers and get charged more. According to the Johns Hopkins study, however, young men's bad driving is more than made up by older women's bad driving." This is not at all true. After the age of 29 the accident statistics between men and women even out. Please don't just throw out random (untrue) facts to support your already-flimsy argument.

Charlotte Allen: All I'm doing is reporting what the Johns Hopkins researchers found. You're making an unsupported assertion.

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Women fainting for Obama: People faint at huge rallies all the time. Usually it's attributed to heat, fatigue, etc. You are the one who make this important by assuming it's not heat exhaustion but "mass hysteria."

Charlotte Allen: Heat exhaustion? One of the faints occurred in Maryland in February.

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Washington: Your response to the person who asked about your background was evasive.

Charlotte Allen: Evasive? What do you want to know -- whether I've been convicted of a felony? If you want to know more about my writing, Google me.

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Crystal City, Va.: I wanted to say thank you for chatting today. It shows courage to stand behind your words -- even though I disagree with about 85 percent of what you wrote.

Charlotte Allen: Thank you!

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Richmond, Va.: What's your take on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)? Still necessary?

Charlotte Allen: No. I see the ERA as a constitutional club with which to beat down state and local laws. It has nothing to do with rights.

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Woodstock, Va.: Oh, come on. What are your credentials?

Charlotte Allen: My credentials? No, I didn't go to J-school. Last I heard, you don't need "credentials" in order to get published. Want to know where I went to college? Stanford University, where I graduated with honors in English and Classics. So there.

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Flushing, Mich.: Dear Ms. Allen: It's pretty clear you could have gotten away with a similar article demeaning men. It's done all the time and any who complain are dismissed easily. It has been pretty clear for some time that you cannot write such things about women. My question is why you thought you could get away with it. Do you have evidence that the taboo is weakening?

Charlotte Allen: I hope that articles like mine will weaken that taboo. But right now, just to hint that men and women as groups have different aptitudes is to risk the fate of Larry Summers. Fortunately, I'm not president of Harvard.

Just looked at my computer clock, and I see that I'm running overtime. Those of you who still want to chat, please send me an e-mail. I respond to all signed e-mails, although I give the rude and/or obscene ones short shrift. Thanks, all of you; this has been quite enjoyable for me.

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Ashburn, Va.: Greatest motivational rant of all time! Charlotte, you seem to be getting a lot of comments that this is satire or ironic or humor. It isn't really any of those. It is a perfect rant on the female gender's progress and regress. I don't think you are promoting women to regress more into "stupidity" -- on the contrary, I take the article to be more angry and motivational. Everyone hates being called stupid, and when someone calls me stupid I could complain and complain, but the underlying message is " change!" Kudos to you. Great Rant! And if so many people are upset about this and are writing into The Post, I think you did a great job of motivating people to change. Brilliant!

Charlotte Allen: Thanks so much for the nice words -- and on that positive (to me) note, I'll say farewell.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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