Former StS Blog Editor Sheila McMullin on VIDA and Why We Should Number Up, Part I

Did you know that in 2013, 39 men and 33 women were published in Fence Magazine? Or that, in the same year, Conjunctions published 50 women and 51 men? How about that 55 women and 49 men appeared in New American Writing? And that Callaloo published 78 women and 65 men? Or that 2013 also saw the Paris Review publish 48 women and 47 men?

But why, you ask, are these numbers important?

Because literary publications that achieve near contributor gender parity are in a strict minority. Furthermore, the publications noted above who have actually featured more women than men in their pages are even more of a minority. It is not typical that a literary journal or magazine believed to be a “thought leader” within the arts community will publish or review an equal number of men- and women-identified writers. What is quite typical, though, is that a publication’s table of contents will skew heavily toward male writers. But see the numbers for yourself. Check out the pie charts graphing this male/female dichotomy of writers published and reviewed in our country’s leading creative journals and magazines.

All numbered out?

Some of these numbers are probably worse than what you expected, right? I felt the greatest devastation when seeing McSweeney’s publishing of 13 women compared to 43 men. We know sexism is not dead, but we always hope for the best in people, right? And when it comes to the artifacts we create, we want to believe it’s the art that speaks for itself, not the gender of the artist. But this isn’t the reality. Women’s voices have been and are consistently hidden, and because of this it is “easy” for a general public to believe/assume that the inequality doesn’t exist.

In Sarah Vap’s newest, The End of the Sentimental Journey, a vivisection of language, gender, and poetics, she writes at one point about the severing of a dog’s vocal cords during scientific experiments to prevent the dog from barking. In the silence, those conducting experiments were able to avoid hearing the dog express pain and fear and begin pretending it did not feel at all. She compares this to human to human interaction and to the way minority communities are forcibly silenced to offer the privileged majority a reprieve.

Silencing of a community on mass scales, in turn, encourages complacency and a denigration of our human rights. Bringing those voices back into the conversation is the work of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and it is the tireless volunteer work of VIDAs who have brought you these statistics. For more in-depth reflection on The VIDA Count 2013 numbers read Amy King’s “Lie by Omission: The Rallying Few, The Rallying Masses.”

VIDA is changing the tide.

For four years now VIDA has tallied and published the results we’ve always suspected but did not yet have the hard data to back us up. (It is part of the reason why so many women have chosen to write under masculine pen names.)  In the words of Count Director Jen Fitzgerald, “Each year women from across the country dedicate thousands of combined hours to perform an arduous task: we manually, painstakingly tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews.  We do this to offer up concrete data and assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed.  We do this to ignite and fan the flames of necessary discourse.  We do this each year because our literary community can only benefit from a range of voices.” If you are curious as to how VIDA counts, you are welcome to review the methodologies.

The New Republic publisher and editor, Chris Hughes, responded to the latest VIDA Count saying, “VIDA [has] released a breakdown of the genders of contributors to the major literary magazines in the country, including The New Republic. Unfortunately, we were near the bottom of that list. Our print contributor breakdown looks more like what you would expect from 1964 than 2014, and it must change. We will hold ourselves to a much higher standard in 2014.”

This is tremendous news, and the actual goal of VIDA: to encourage all of us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Check back next week for Part II of VIDA: How We Can Number Up.

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Sheila McMullin runs the feminist and artist resource website, MoonSpit Poetry, where a list of her publications can also be found. She is the Website Assistant for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and Contributing Editor of poetry and the blog for ROAR Magazine. Her chapbook, Like Water, was a finalist for the Ahsahta Press and New Delta Review chapbook competitions, as well as a semifinalist in the Black Lawrence Press chapbook competition. She works as an after-school creative writing and college prep instructor, and volunteers at her local animal rescue. She holds her M.F.A. from George Mason University. Follow her @smcmulli.

Feminism is… pretty simple: Fiction Editor Liz Egan Cuts to the Equality Chase

I did not start identifying as a feminist until I was in my mid-twenties. Like so many women (and men, too), I didn’t understand what the word “feminist” really meant, and because I grew up in a conservative household, I thought I was protecting myself by staying away from the label. I thought “feminist” meant not letting my dad open the car door for me, or thinking less of my mom because she stayed at home to raise me and my brother. I thought “feminist” meant male-bashing and being angry all the time. But as I came into my own as a young woman with big dreams and big ideas about the kind of world I wanted to live in, I discovered the true meaning of feminism—the idea that women and men are equals in the workplace, the home, and society—and I realized I’ve probably been a feminist since before I cut my first tooth.  It feels that natural to me to say I am a feminist, and always have been.

As troubling as it is to see women who hold a prominent place in our culture publicly reject the label “feminist” (here’s a recent round-up), I can also sympathize a bit, because feminism as a movement does have a history checkered with negativity and militancy, and not all women who call themselves feminist actually use that word to mean they value true equality.

Instead of listing all the things feminism is not, I want to showcase all the things that feminism is. By reframing the word in this way, I feel I’m doing my small, little part to dispel the negative energy that surrounds the word “feminist” and to encourage all humans everywhere to embrace the label for what it is:

FEMINISM
IS…

Equality,
pure and simple.

FEMINISM
IS…
For everyone.

It’s more than just a gender binary. Feminism is for all who are straight, gay, lesbian, trans*, bi, or questioning. Feminism is for everyone, because feminism is the belief that all humans are equal, regardless of how they were created.

FEMINISM
IS…

Inclusive.

There’s a brand of “white feminism” out there that ignores the concerns of ethnic minorities. But feminism is a wide umbrella, and there’s room for everyone under here.

FEMINISM
IS…

Global.

It’s initiatives to bring health care and education to women in parts of the world that are struggling to develop these resources. It’s the women who’ve risen to top political roles in countries around the world, and the men who have supported their rise, and the citizens who seek simply the best candidates, regardless of gender, skin color, or sexual orientation.

FEMINISM
IS…

Aware

of biology. That is, feminism is aware that men have penises and women have vaginas. But feminism is aware, too, that biology isn’t always that simple.

FEMINISM
IS…

Most often associated with women, and the ideal that women have an equal place in society with men. Some fights women have won on this front include the right to vote, the right to serve her country, and the right to make choices about her body. These rights are often challenged, and so a lot of feminists carry with them a feeling that their work is never done, particularly in the face of ongoing legal, social, and political challenges from equal pay in the workplace to affordable contraception; from the right choose an abortion without fear of harm or harassment to herself or her physician, to the right to marry whomever you love. (The list goes on…though it shouldn’t.)

FEMINISM
IS…

About believing men are humans, too. A lot of women feminists are perceived to be (or are) anti-men, and that’s not the point of feminism.  Feminism is all humans working together to raise each other up, not tear each other down. It’s a disservice to our cause as feminists to issue ad hominem attacks against an entire gender in order to make our point. (Women sure don’t like it when their gender gets smeared in
hurtful and hateful ways, so why do it to men, too?)

Recognizing equality among all humans means recognizing that men have the same snowflake-like individuality among them as any other human does. Men, like women, are complex beings with feelings, ideas, fears, and dreams. Magazines and blogs are always publishing lists and articles that try to “explain” one gender to another, such as this one, which suggests that what’s true of one man is true of all others (among other offensive claims). These lists are terrible examples of how both genders are demeaned, marginalized and caricaturized in pop culture—and especially in dating culture.

FEMINISM
IS…

A school of literary and rhetorical thought, a lens through which to view and understand issues that affect women as they are depicted in literature. (Feminism is also shelving the works of prominent female writers next to their male counterparts, not off in some other “women’s lit” section.)

FEMINISM
IS…

Supporting the choices of others who are not like you. Feminism advocates for the freedom to make the life choices that are right for individuals, based on their particular, individual circumstances. For women, it’s about ending the “mommy wars” and being supportive of each other’s choices as women: breastfeed or use formula; spring for the epidural, or don’t; give birth at home or in a hospital—or not at all. For parents, it’s supporting those who choose to work, those who choose to stay at home, and those who choose to do both. For all of us humans, it’s about supporting each others’ decisions and abilities to procreate, adopt, or remain childfree.  Feminism is about seeing past cultural norms and looking at each other as real people, with real choices to make, many of which are quite hard. Feminism is understanding that just because someone doesn’t do something exactly the way you would do it, that doesn’t mean they’ve done a wrong or bad thing.

FEMINISM
IS…

Strength
in the face of adversity and courage in the face of life’s challenges. It’s about keeping a positive attitude, seeing beauty in the mirror, and embracing your self-worth. Feminism is a way of life, not just a label. There’s a lot to like about feminism and people who are feminists, and a lot more to be done to shine a positive light on this term that means equality for all. It is my hope that more and more humans will encounter the word “feminism” find within it the warmth and hope for the future that I have found.

 

Reclaiming Agnes: More musings on Fairy Tales by Assistant Editor Christina Collins

The Little Mermaid’s Predecessor That Most Feminists Don’t Know About.

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is a goldmine for contemporary feminist fairy tale re-writers. Regardless of how they choose to respond to the original tale, they find plenty of material to work with. What they emphasize, what they change, and what they reject all together provide insight into whether the little mermaid, as she initially stands, should be considered a positive female figure. One of the tale’s more sensitive issues among feminist writers is the notion that the woman must cater to the man’s world and adapt to his life. To feminists’ disappointment, Andersen’s mermaid willingly adapts.

Most rewriters of “The Little Mermaid,” however, are not familiar with the little mermaid’s surprisingly progressive ancestor, Agnes, from the medieval folk ballad “Agnes and the Merman” (sometimes known as “Agnete and the Merman”), an early literary example of exogamous marriage. In the first half of both the folk-song and Andersen’s tale, the protagonist immigrates to the man’s world, leaving her own world behind. The second half of Agnes’ story, however, will surprise and interest feminists. It is necessary to disclose what becomes of the human girl, Agnes, after she has immigrated to a merman’s world, for her ending may be the very ending that feminist rewriters unknowingly seek.

After Agnes lives with the merman for many years and bears him seven sons, she soon longs to return home. The merman gives her leave to visit the land as long as she promises to return to her “children small” (Olrik 114). Instead of keeping her promise, she chooses to remain on land and abandon her mer-husband and children. When the merman comes on land to retrieve her, he beckons to her: “Heed now, Agnes, what I say to thee! / All thy little children are longing after thee” (115). Agnes’ answer is harsh and surprising: “Let them long as they will, let their longing be sore, / I shall return to them nevermore” (116). Indeed, she rejects her role as wife and mother. Even when the merman tries to exploit her maternal sympathies by asking her to think of their children, Agnes remains firm in her final answer: “I think not of the grown ones, nor yet of the small, / Of the baby in the cradle I’ll think least of all” (116). She rejects all that is traditionally thought to be a woman’s lot in life: marriage and motherhood. By refusing to return to the sea, she rejects the limitations of this ideal, as well as the notion that a woman must cater to her husband’s lifestyle.

Whether or not one agrees with Agnes’ choice, her self-directed and unapologetic repudiation is remarkable. Her ending presents an alternative to the little mermaid’s outcome—the possibility of liberation from the traditional path through a means other than death. For this reason, Agnes’ liberating ending may indeed be the ending that feminist writers seek but cannot find in their revisions of “The Little Mermaid.”  Feminist revisions, after all, seek to expose, question, and challenge the implausibility of traditional gender constraints and social expectations, and, above all, liberate the original text and its readers from those constraints and expectations. Agnes is the embodiment of that liberation—a kind of radical feminism far ahead of its time—but, unfortunately, her story has been lost. Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” as a newer tale of “the double world” theme, was so popular that medieval Agnes was inevitably forgotten. Perhaps feminist rewriters of “The Little Mermaid” are, without realizing it, attempting to reclaim some trace of Agnes. Or if they’re not, then maybe they should be.

Three writers in particular have striven to reconstruct Andersen’s protagonist: Barbara Walker in “The Littlest Mermaid,” Joanna Russ in “Russalka or The Seacoast of Bohemia,” and Emma Donoghue in “The Tale of the Voice.”  They each have something different to offer, but all three respond in some way to the problems of voice and autonomy in the original tale. Interestingly, none of these revisions responds to the original little mermaid’s goal of immortality. All three stories focus only on her secondary goal of winning the prince and attack her pursuit of a romantic ideal. This focus may perhaps be explained by the fact that the romantic ideal and the notion of self-sacrifice for romantic love are dominant in the minds and lives of contemporary women.

Ideally, a feminist version of Andersen’s mermaid would remain able to rely upon herself for success rather than upon another. Perhaps, even feminist revisions cannot break free of certain contradictions; perhaps we still embrace the notion of woman as self-sacrificer. It seems, then, that the most realistic goal is to find a happy medium. Perhaps there is no definitive way to achieve this medium—perhaps Andersen’s mermaid can only be happy in death, and perhaps Agnes’ abandonment of her mer-family is not an ideal model of behavior—but in the end, every little mermaid should maintain the human right to pursue her own ends on her own terms, with her own voice intact to guide her.

Works Cited

Olrik, Axel, ed. A Book of Danish Ballads. Trans. E.M. Smith-Dampier. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.

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Christina Elaine Collins, in addition to serving as So to Speak’s Assistant Editor, is a Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer, an MFA candidate and English instructor at George Mason University. Her fiction can be found in various literary journals such as Jabberwock Review, Poiesis Review, Weave Magazine, and Rose Red Review. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts as well as the Art Commune program in Armenia. You can find her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/CElaineCollins.

 

AWP Dreaming!

Headed to Seattle? Looking for a guide to all things literary and feminist at the AWP conference?

We’re pleased to share the line up put together by poet Sheila McMullin, past So to Speak editor and current VIDA web assistant. Check out her fantastic list of exactly which AWP panels next week in Seattle fall under the feminism umbrella!

“For your feminist appetite I have complied a savory dish of 2014 AWP Seattle feminist panels. How, you ask, do I know these are feminist panels, when few of them self-identify as feminist? Well, identify, rather, identity is going to be the key term here.”

http://moonspitpoetry.com/2014/02/19/awp-2014-seattle-feminist-panel-guide/

Looking forward to seeing some of you at the events. Don’t forget to stop by the So to Speak table for custom buttons and to say hi!

 

Pull-Ups: One Feminist’s Take on the Controversy

photo by Stephen Morton for The New York Times

As a feminist, I was interested in the Marine Corps’s January decision to delay the implementation of its testing standards when 55 percent of women failed to complete at least three pull-ups, a required component of the combat fitness test. This issue stirred up a lot of attention in military and feminist circles alike, as both groups wrestled–and continue to wrestle–with what it means that so many women failed in this endeavor.

The figure that is still on my mind, though, is the 45 percent of women who did accomplish the pull-up requirements. By focusing our attention on the women who failed, we have failed the women who succeeded in rising to the standard. Literally, by pulling themselves up to where they needed to be the required number of times, they thereby demonstrated their capability to serve alongside men in a war zone, where “scaling a wall, climbing up a rope, or lifting and carrying heavy munitions” are life-dependent tasks. That’s something to celebrate, but instead, the Marine Corps will deny them the chance to be considered equals to the men with whom they have in fact demonstrated physical equality.

I’m a feminist in the most basic sense: I believe in equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women alike. In short, I believe in equality for all people, period. As such, I support the presence of qualified women in the military, and I think barring women from service in combat zones is to ignore the long history of women who have always done so, with or without formal recognition of their contributions.

However, I do not support the idea that we should have women in a combat zone simply for the sake of having women in a combat zone. Just as the military screens for the strongest and most physically capable men, so also do I expect the military to screen for the strongest and most physically capable women. Actually, scratch that: What I expect is for the military to screen for the strongest and most physically capable people. Period.

The Marine Corps is in a particularly awkward position regarding the social and political push for a certain quota of women to be maintained in its ranks, because the Marine Corps is unique among military branches in its requirement that all Marines meet core infantry standards, not just those assigned to serve in the infantry. The Corps seems to hope it can achieve this socially and politically demanded quota by “equalizing physical standards to integrate women into combat jobs.”

But I worry that the quest for equality in the military is becoming more about achieving the appearance of equality, through socially and politically imposed quotas, than about upholding true equality of opportunity for everyone—male or female—to serve his or her country if he or she is qualified to do so. I think it is a mistake to hold back the women who have demonstrated their ability to meet the physical standards for serving in the Marine Corps simply because there aren’t enough of them (yet) to meet these superficial quotas.

Lowering the physical standards for women in a euphemistic effort to “equalize” the Corps’ gender distribution is no more equitable than banning women from combat zones. All infantry training programs in the military have a long history of high attrition rates; in fact, many would argue that, for the Marine Corps especially, these high attrition rates are a point of pride, a bragging right, a means of establishing the Corps’ image as physical and mental elites. They’re not known as the Few and the Proud for nothing.

Military service is not something men or women are entitled to. Even in times of conscription, physical requirements still limited eligibility to serve. For example, we did not let blind men fly airplanes in World War II, and I hope we would not have let blind women do so, either. Upper body strength is as important to infantry service as vision is to flight, and we do no one, male or female, any favors by diminishing the importance of physical standards for military service.

The issue, then, is not whether or not we have an appropriately equitable number of women serving in the military, but whether we are granting women equality in the opportunity to prove their qualifications for military service. And prove it many did. As 45 percent of recruits demonstrated in their successful execution of the combat fitness test, and as has been pointed out in reportage of this issue, it’s not impossible for women to do several pull ups.

By fixating on men and women as separate categories, we’re forgetting that first and foremost we are all people. Gender is just one of many factors that plays into an individual’s ability to serve successfully in the military. If sticking to its guns means the Marine Corps can’t attain whatever socially and politically desirable quota of women society would prefer, well, tough nuggets. As for those 45 percent of women who did achieve the physical standard, who can do three or more pull-ups, to those women I say: Ooh-rah. Get some, ladies. Get some.

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Liz is fiction editor at So to Speak and a third-year fiction candidate in the MFA program at George Mason University, where she also teaches in the English department and serves as the assistant director in the Writing Center.  Liz lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland.

 

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