Waking Up to the News In Lake Wobegon and What I’m Learning About Op-Eds: the Backstory

Yesterday, when the light began to break over the lakes surrounding the Collegeville Institute, I opened my eyes to my usual morning prayer, “Thank you, God, for another day in Lake Wobegon.”


The letter format freed me to be personal and empathetic, the tone I sought.

When I reached for my iPhone, and clicked on the blue Facebook app, there was a message on my timeline from my friend Tony Kraybill and a link to my essay  “A Birthday Letter to Hillary Clinton” published in the Minneapolis StarTribune Oct. 25, 2016 (see article and link below). Throughout the day, other friends posted, shared, and tagged me. It was fun.

I’ve been interested in the Op-Ed form for a long time. I often go to the page opposite the editorial page at the end of the first section of a major newspaper. (Did you know that Op-Ed stands for “opposite the editorial page” and not “opinion-editorial”?)  Neither did I — until I attended a workshop intended to help more diverse voices join the public debate in the media.

I first learned about the workshop from Deborah Siegel when we both participated in a writer’s group led by Christina Baker Kline back in 2012.  Debbie and a group of other journalists had recently founded The Op-Ed Project.

Did you know that the percentage of women writers published in major newspaper Op-Ed pages more or less mirrors the percentage of women in congress and the percentage of women on corporate boards and CEOs of major companies? The range is as low as ten percent and as high as 36 percent, but seldom higher. Part of the purpose of the project is to bring attention to the unequal distribution of voices in the public sphere. Another goal is to help more women and other under-represented groups submit their ideas for possible publication.

Last week I wrote about my first TED-like talk. This week, the Op-Ed form. What these two have in common is speaking to the general public about something one cares deeply about and has a knowledge base in. I’m learning a lot about both forms. Here’s a little list of takeaways so far:

  • a public voice consists of something you know well and care about. Together, these comprise expertise
  • for some outlets, personal experience is part of that expertise
  • an Op-Ed needs a news hook, some connection to recent headlines
  • some outlets value voices from within their regions
  • some outlets specify subjects of particular interest
  • the Op-Ed Project website lists submission information for 150 outlets. So helpful!
  • if you enter the public sphere, you are entering a place of controversy. Check out the 108 comments on my Op-Ed!

I applied the above by researching the date (news hook!) of Hillary Clinton’s birthday and then searching for how my own experience as a professor who taught women’s history classes, a first woman college president, and an informed citizen might relate to the values I believe our country needs more of — something I decided to name the Myth of Redemptive Inclusion. I took a piece of Hillary’s memoir and analyzed it through the lens of my American Studies background.

This photo, taken at the Sir Edmund HILLARY Museum at Mt. Cook, New Zealand, last February, was the germ of the idea to write a letter to Hillary.

This photo, taken at the Sir Edmund HILLARY Museum at Mt. Cook, New Zealand, last February, was the germ of the idea to write a letter to Hillary.

I wrote numerous drafts. Some were focused on the third debate. I submitted to one very large national outlet and heard nothing. So I researched the Minneapolis StarTribune. They actually seek opinions from people living in Minnesota. Perfect! My submission was sent on a Friday afternoon and accepted on Monday with publication left open to either Tuesday or Wednesday.

Thus, when I opened Facebook early on Tuesday, it was my friends who told me the essay was published. Here it is:

A Birthday Letter to Hillary Clinton

On Wednesday, you turn 69 years old — the same age Ronald Reagan was when he became president.

As a woman and another baby boomer, I raise a toast in your honor. Having spent years teaching women’s history, I know that women never break through glass ceilings without meeting bullies. Women historians of the future will study your three presidential debates as case studies of grace under pressure.

Thinking about your birthday, I remembered a story. It’s a story that not only explains why you debated so well but also holds the key to how you might be able to lead after Nov. 8, should you become our next president.

Back in February, you told CBS news reporter Scott Pelley that you were bullied as a little girl. Your mother, Dorothy Rodham, treated you with tough love when you sought consolation and protection inside closed doors. She sent you back outside with the words, “There’s no place for cowards in this house.”

Continue reading on the Minneapolis StarTribune opinion page. Then come back to join the conversation below:

Have you written any Op-Eds? Do you enjoy reading them? Have any questions or observations from reading both the essay and the backstory?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Richard Gilbert on October 26, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Yours is a great Op-Ed, Shirley! You caught something essential in her bullying story—her attempt to make peace, not just fight. The combination worked! And your backstory here is interesting.

    Having published by own pro-Hillary post today, I’m embarrassed I didn’t know it was her birthday! Oh well. As I say in the accidentally well-timed post, something cosmic is at work.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 26, 2016 at 5:21 pm

      Yes indeed, something cosmic is at work. And your post is a must-read complement to this one. http://richardgilbert.me/clinton-wore-white/#comment-50520

      I wouldn’t have known it was her birthday either until I googled it and saw that she would turn 69 before the election.

      I am subtly talking about my new subject of joyful aging in this post, which is the reason I googled her birthday in the first place. The baby boomer women research and the comparison to Ronald Reagan help me talk about age even though I can’t yet claim expertise other than experience in this area.

    • Tracy Lee Karner on October 27, 2016 at 11:20 pm

      I love this piece, Shirley. I’ve hardly had time to reply to the texts from my nearest and dearest–but felt compelled to tell you, I love it! Thank you! Hope to have more time soon for conversation.

      • Shirley Showalter on October 27, 2016 at 11:38 pm

        Thanks, Tracy. Sounds like you and Ken have put together a world-class burger place. Hope to visit and hear your story. Maybe even this weekend?

  2. Laurie Buchanan on October 26, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    Shirley — I’ve been spreading your fantastic Op-Ed piece around social-media-land like sprinkles on a cupcake!

    You NEVER cease to amaze me!

    • Shirley Showalter on October 26, 2016 at 6:03 pm

      And you, Laurie, sprinkle pixie dust everywhere you go!

      Thanks so much for sharing.

      Are you thinking of doing Op-Eds on the basis of your wonderful book about to launch? In Boise or Chicago??

  3. Laurie Buchanan on October 26, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    Shirley — It had never crossed my mind before, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s uppermost in my mind at the moment.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 26, 2016 at 7:14 pm

      Great. I’ve been making Op-Eds my favorite reading lately, and I notice LOTS of them are attached to a recent or forthcoming book.

      You will find the Op-Ed Project website very helpful. AND I recommend their one-day workshops. They have some coming up in Chicago in early December I think.

      • laurie Buchanan on October 26, 2016 at 7:18 pm

        Thank you for that extra bit of encouragement — I appreciate YOU!

  4. Janet Elaine Guthrie on October 26, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    Bravo! Congratulations on this perceptive analysis, Shirley. I love how you tell and interpret the childhood story of Hillary facing the bully: “Your words, backed up by the courage to keep standing, won that day–and many days thereafter.” Let’s stand together, with her, on the side of radical inclusion, and defeat the bully threatening to unleash a vast playground brawl.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 26, 2016 at 7:50 pm

      Yes, Janet. I love standing with you on the side of radical inclusion. We may need to challenge her sometimes when she gets into office, but that’s how inclusion works. Do you have your inauguration ticket yet?

  5. Merril Smith on October 26, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Shirley, it was a wonderful op-ed piece, and I did share it!

    • Shirley Showalter on October 26, 2016 at 9:01 pm

      Yes you did, Merril. Thanks so much. I imagine you have written Op-Eds? Would love to hear your story if you did.

      • Merril Smith on October 26, 2016 at 9:05 pm

        No, I never have, Shirley. (But thanks for the vote of confidence.)

        • Shirley Showalter on October 26, 2016 at 9:10 pm

          You have so much historical knowledge. And your study of rape has so much connection to today’s headlines. Think about it.

  6. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on October 26, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    Wow, Shirley, I couldn’t believe how many comments your article in the Minneapolis Star tribune elicited! There were as many comments against Clinton as for her it seems! This election is really something!

    • Shirley on October 26, 2016 at 9:55 pm

      I know, Elfrieda. The truth is, most of us have made up our minds, and some people are not reading new content anymore. They just spew out opinions they already had. Unfortunately, the kind of conversations we have as a community on this blog seldom happen when the readership gets into the thousands or millions. The trolls come out from under the bridge!

  7. Gloria Diener on October 27, 2016 at 10:07 am

    Shirley, kudos to you for this excellent piece. So well articulated. I like the way in which your writing breathes reality into your concept of jubilación. Eager to read more.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 27, 2016 at 10:14 am

      Thank you, Gloria. I am indeed writing my way into the subject, a new subject, a new reality. Thanks for your encouragement.

      I meant to tell you after the banquet at Homecoming at EMU how much I appreciated your beautiful prayer. Couldn’t find you then. Thanks for giving me this opportunity for connection.

  8. Marian Beaman on October 27, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Shirley, I read your essay from Facebook when it first published and now again here, both times impressed with the quality of the writing (not surprising) and the timeliness. I think you hit just the right tone regardless of what detractors in comments might say.

    I can’t boast of having written an op-ed piece but staff writers, editors (even a cartoonist) wrote/illustrated such pieces in the Florida Times-Union defending my neighborhood’s stance against the encroachment of a Walmart super center. The next year I reported my conclusions in a paper for the Popular Culture Association of the South, a receptive audience of course.

    Thanks for providing us with the backstory that undergirds your reasoning. I too thought op-ed meant opinion – not opposite, a distinction that adds more tension to the definition of this form, I think. Brava!

    • Shirley Showalter on October 27, 2016 at 11:45 am

      What’s better than writing an Op-Ed? Having one written about YOU! I love hearing about your local activism. Good for you for taking a stand and also for reflecting on your experience as an academic. Our education prepares us for much wider applications than many people imagine.

      Thanks, Marian, for your kind words about the writing. We’ve had similar lessons in tone, I think.

  9. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on October 27, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Action, Action, ACTION.
    I picture you swirling with action, and I feel how it is grounded in reflection, in knowing your own stories, in seasons, in taking time to be centered in One Who Sustains the hours and minutes.
    Thank you Shirley.
    For some reason the comparison of Hillary’s age with RR’s age shimmers for me.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 27, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      Thank you so much, Dolores. Yes, these have been very busy days, but they almost always include mid-day prayers, walks in the woods, and conversations. Lovely rhythm. You may enjoy this essay, also published today. http://collegevilleinstitute.org/bearings/how-were-coping/

      And since you mention RR. He and his philosophy influenced all of the 20th century after him. I have hopes that Obama/Clinton may do the same in new directions. I think that is why the Obamas are working so hard on the campaign trail now.

      • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on October 27, 2016 at 3:10 pm

        Ah yes. Poetry too!

  10. Audrey Denecke on October 27, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    I so appreciate your education and encouragement on Op-Ed writing. I also am glad to know about the true origins of the term op-ed it opens the door to the wide diversity of opinion that women bring! And as you know I’m so intrigued by what else you may share in the future on what you have named as the “Myth of Redemptive Violence.”
    I too have shared your superbly written piece to my friends and family. May the celebration of your breakthrough to the op-ed sphere keep on going.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 27, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks, Audrey. You got to see the sausage being made. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing.

      Let’s try to keep living the myth of redemptive inclusion. Thank you for your encouraging words.

  11. Sanna Yoder on October 27, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    Shirley. Thank you for not only inspiring us to think about how we might add our voices but for offering such pragmatic tips for how to do so. The trolls can be scary. But lately I’ve taken heart that they’ve become so woven into the scenery that reasonable people are starting to be able to ignore them. And be brave enough to do the right thing and speak anyway. Now if you will excuse me I am going to go brainstorm some Opposite Editorial content ideas for the La Crosse Tribune. Cheers!

    • Shirley Showalter on October 28, 2016 at 12:33 am

      Sanna, you must know how delighted I am that you are going to try your own hand at this form. I’m sure you will come up with some great ideas. Thanks for being one of the sharing friends and for the good advice not to pay too much mind to trolls. At least in this forum, the blog, everyone is civil, and the conversation is actually enlightening to all.

      I got a personal letter in the mail today from someone who read the birthday letter to Hillary in the StarTribune. Wasn’t that sweet?

      When you get an Op-Ed accepted, come back and tell us!

  12. susan scott on October 28, 2016 at 4:42 am

    I watched Michelle Obama on TV last evening in Florida giving a speech in honour of Hillary. Michelle said that Hillary was orphaned?

    I loved this post Shirley, and read your op-ed and some of the comments. Very interesting to note the divide. I read op-eds in the Sunday paper, and enjoy letters to the Editor which is always a good demographic. I write letters to the Editor occasionally and am always HUGELY surprised when they’re published.

  13. Anne Ponder on October 28, 2016 at 6:22 am

    Shirley, One of our colleagues said that whenever he read something you had written, he wished that he had written it himself. He, another former college president and “English major”, would say the same thing about this birthday letter to Hillary. There is more to learn about “radical inclusion” in the years ahead, from Hillary Clinton and from you. Since you mention the powerful frame of Hillary Clinton’s mother, it makes me wonder what your own mother thinks of this piece. With admiration and friendship, Anne Ponder

    • Shirley Showalter on October 28, 2016 at 9:18 am

      Anne, so good to welcome you to this space. And thank you for your kind words. When I think of the word “gracious,” I think of you.

      And I wonder the same thing about my mother. She’s always been supportive of my writing, and I’m certain she would like the idea of redemptive inclusion as opposed to redemptive violence. However, she’s also voted for a Republican every time she voted. I’ve chosen not to bring up politics in our conversations this year. At age 89, she is too precious to me. I don’t think she is keeping up with the news. If she says she’s going to the polls, I’ll ask her to read this essay before she goes. ? I won’t see her in person before then.

  14. Marylin Warner on October 29, 2016 at 12:46 am

    Superb post, Shirley. And your op-ed is very well done.
    Actually, there are many valid reasons that even today’s women (or maybe especially today’s women) do not trust Hillary Clinton. But those reasons lose much of their strength when compared with Trump as the alternative.
    I am very disappointed in this election. There are so many women and men in both parties who would have me out knocking on doors, writing letters to the editor, making contributions, and being excited, hopeful, and grateful for the candidates on the ballot. I do not like this situation where I’ll be voting for the lesser of two evils, but I’ve done enough research and seen enough of both to be doing just that. My last political smile came when I saw a long hand-made banner strung between two bright red/orange/gold maple trees. It read: Whoever is elected, God is still King.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 29, 2016 at 9:38 am

      Marylin, I love that banner’s message, and there were many times in this brutal campaign when I appreciated one position within the Mennonite Church in America — not voting as a radical preference of choosing the church over the state. God alone, not “I alone” is our refuge and strength.

      Yet I also love democracy or at least the idea of it, however imperfectly we see it enacted in our culture today, and I want to add my voice through my vote and through the op-ed, which tries to see opportunities to strengthen peace in the midst of conflict.

      I have a list of things I don’t like about Hillary’s past actions, and I didn’t vote for her in this year’s primary nor in 2008. However, I believe she will be a good president and that there is no comparison between her steady commitment to the public good contrasted to her erratic and dangerous opponent. May it end soon, and well, and may she be allowed to govern and be accountable to the people.

  15. Kathleen Pooler on October 29, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Fabulous op-ed, Shirley! I appreciate the clarification of the term,too. I never knew and now feel enlightened. You struck a perfect tone. I loved the story of Hillary standing up to the bullies. Her childhood experience has served her well in this divisive election. I have been a lifelong Republican but after this campaign, no more. Despite all the scandal surrounding the Clintons, I am with her. Your piece makes me feel better about it. Thanks for a great post. It is fascinating to see your “Jublicon” journey unfold.

    • Shirley Showalter on October 29, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Thank you, Kathy. I have a number of Republican friends, and my family has been Republican forever it seems. This election is different. I honestly don’t know anyone who is planning to vote R for president this year. If this op-ed helped you and a few other people who have selected Hillary because they can’t vote for her opponent, I am glad. She has grit and intelligence and deep desire to do good in the world. I’m convinced of that. Now lets hold her to those values!

  16. mary gottschalk on October 29, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Very thoughtful … I have never been a strong fan of Hillary, but recognize her talent and expertise, and I think you’ve captured the challenges she has faced. There is no question that she is the only worthy candidate in this election. I too am forwarding your post to several friends.!

    • Shirley Showalter on October 29, 2016 at 10:58 am

      Thanks, Mary! Looks like she has a new “October surprise” challenge from the Weiner emails. Yuk. I like that she called for them to be released. We’ll see what happens. Her opponents will try to make hay.

  17. Elaine Mansfield on October 29, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    Wonderful piece, Shirley, and great op-ed. Important to keep them short so people read. I wrote op-eds for our local struggle with gas storage, but haven’t for a while. My writing energy gets channeled elsewhere–so I wrote a pro-Hillary blog. I’m sad about today’s turn of political events, but should be used to the chaos and name-calling by now. (I’m not used to it, however. I’m still the girl who won political awards in high school because I believed in democracy.)

    • Shirley Showalter on October 29, 2016 at 9:26 pm

      I loved your blog post about why you are voting for Hillary. So clear and fervent. The young girl who believed in democracy is still alive within you.

      As for the latest turn of events, looks like it isn’t as bad as it seemed at first.

      May we find a way to heal after all this!

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