A Welcome Note from StS’s Editor-in-Chief

By Jessie Szalay

Like many people who love school (or have residual nightmares of it), for me, January 1st has never felt like the start of a new year. Rather it’s September, the time of backpacks and book buying, that signals a fresh start. Whether I’m a student, a teacher, or working in a non-academic job, the new school year signals a time for reflection. How do I want to be this year?

Now, as I begin my first autumn as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak, I wonder, too: what kind of feminist do I want to be? Initially, answers are easy. I want to be a strong feminist. I want to treat others—women who are and are not self-identifying feminists, men, myself—equally and with respect. I want to challenge the patriarchy and stand up for equality. I want to spread the message of feminism with both gentleness and strength, through words, actions, and my own thoughts. I believe that feminism, though often made up of individual choices, is also a communal paradigm, movement, and experience. As with empathy, generosity, and random acts of loving kindness, individual feminism—my feminism, your feminism—increases through being a shared experience. It can inspire others, make them think. That is what I want to do: I want to be a “good, strong feminist,” to inspire others to consider or adopt or increase their own feminist lives. I want So to Speak to do that.

But here’s the reality: all through high school, Septembers passed and I never stopped procrastinating on my Spanish homework. New Januaries turn to Februaries and I never get around to eating more kale. And I know that, most likely, October of this year will enter with its orange leaves and swollen pumpkins and I will still be struggling to be the kind of feminist that I want to be.

I’ve identified as a feminist for going on fifteen years, since high school. I can speak of Helene Cixous and Simone deBeauvoir; I support pro-choice causes; I feel comfortable with the notion that one can be feminist and be a stay-at-home mom, and also that one can be a feminist and burn her bra. The concept of what feminism is, and how open it can be, is not especially troubling to me. What is troubling is doing it: turning beliefs and intellectual knowledge into action and attitude.

I am a feminist, but the other day I still thought nastily that another woman shouldn’t wear her short-shorts because of her body type. I routinely make stereotypical assumptions about what men want women to be—agreeable, needless, pretty objects—which are disrespectful and condescending toward all genders. I catch myself thinking that my female gym instructor is bossy and annoying, while accepting a similarly tough male instructor as motivational. But I want to be better. I want to not have these thoughts, and the first step to not having them is acknowledging that I do.

My point is that being a feminist is a journey. It’s filled with obstacles and struggles. Feminism as a movement struggles, and individual feminists struggle within their own minds. We are all on a journey to be better feminists and better people. As a new (school) year starts, I realize that that’s what I really want to be: someone who takes steps on her journey.

That’s also what I want So to Speak to do. Stories of empowerment and success are always welcome, but so are stories of struggle. I invite you, readers and writers, to share with us your stories of setbacks in your feminist lives. Perhaps you’ve taken steps to overcome your problems. Perhaps you’re just acknowledging them for the first time and beginning your walk toward being the type of feminist, the type of person, that you want to be.

So to Speak is a feminist journal, which to me means that at its core it is a human journal. It is a place that celebrates humanity in its various forms—the beautiful and good, the ugly and difficult. I look forward to hearing your stories and engaging with your art, however it explores the complexities of life, and wherever you are on your own journey.

Our reading period is currently in full swing. Click here for submission guidelines for our blog, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry categories. And don’t forget to enter our Spring 2015 Nonfiction Contest!

 

A Christian Feminist Weighs in on Reproductive Rights

I’d like to weigh on matters of faith and reproductive rights.

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s so-called “contraception mandate” or to offer exemptions for religious, for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby. I’m content to let the justices interpret the Constitution; however, as a progressive Christian, I’m also entitled to my interpretation of the Bible.

I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, yet my faith community puts me in regular contact with homeless people and families who live well below the poverty line. Nearly five years ago, an Afghan refugee family sought our community’s help. It was this experience that solidified my strong feelings on reproductive choice.

At the time I met her, Azin* was a 27-years-old mother of three children who had an eighth grade education. Her husband’s hourly wage barely covered the rent.

Azin wanted to attend school to learn English in order to find a better paying job to help support her family, but her youngest was an infant.

Being a small congregation, we didn’t have the means to address all of the family’s financial needs. Our outreach committee felt we could best help the family in the long term, by assisting with Azin’s education. We raised funds that were matched in part by a national religious non-profit organization. We paid tuition for ESL classes through the local community college. We covered babysitting expenses when county funds ran out.

While driving Azin to and from classes, I heard more of her story. She had married at 16 in Afghanistan, where the Taliban threatened to rape unmarried girls. After fleeing the country at 18, she and her husband lived in a refugee camp in Turkmenistan. While there, she had two children. The UN then relocated them to the United States where they had no family and didn’t know the language. After settling in the US, she made the decision not to wear the hijab in order to distance herself from the Taliban’s zealotry, a decision that inadvertently estranged her from many in the local Afghan refugee community.

Born a white woman in the United States to college-educated parents, I know that I had huge advantages over Azin. After earning a BA, I married and started working. My first employer did not cover contraception, but I had access to affordable options through the local Planned Parenthood. I left the workforce when my daughter was born and could afford to attend graduate school while staying home with her.

Azin was ten years younger than I with few material resources. I admired her tenacity and looked for ways to help. I passed down my son’s clothes as he outgrew them, so she could use them for her youngest son. I tutored her daughter in reading one summer. These acts seem small in comparison with the advantages I had by virtue of my birth and ethnicity. Every action that I took to help her humbled me; I did not deserve to have all of the privileges that I had anymore than she deserved her circumstances.

Azin appreciated every small sacrifice. And I discovered that when I had the opportunity to minister to her, I felt a sense a purpose that was far more rewarding than the everyday reality of changing dirty diapers and chauffeuring a preschooler – a reality that in and of itself was a privilege.

“Would you forgive me if I had an abortion?” she asked over the phone one afternoon, three years after I first met her. She feared she might be pregnant.

I paused, holding the phone between my shoulder and ear. I assessed the situation: having another child would stretch the family’s already meager resources and slow her already part time studies. Azin loved her children; she wanted more than anything to make their lives better. I knew how hard it was to attend classes with young children. She was working so hard in a world where the deck was stacked against her. I understood this.

Taking a deep breath, I reassured Azin that her body was her body, not mine. When we got off the phone, I went out and bought her a home pregnancy test to take until she could get an appointment to see a doctor in a low-income clinic.

She wasn’t pregnant. She didn’t have to face that decision, but it did bring to light a huge flaw in our congregation’s mission efforts. It’s nice to compartmentalize a person’s needs: food, shelter, healthcare, education; yet in the end, they are all connected. In order to get an education and find a job to help support her three children, Azin needed reproductive rights.

When I approached our pastor about the pregnancy scare, he offered to pay for condoms out of discretionary funds. I thanked him on Azin’s behalf, but silently wondered about how practical a form of contraception it was for a married couple. Eventually, I came up with a different solution: I would pay for an IUD device that would be effective for five years.  I know in my heart that my pastor and outreach committee would have paid for this if I had asked; however, it was something I wanted to do – to offer Azin the same reproductive rights that I was afforded so easily.

Today, Azin is still attending ESL classes with the help of a Pell Grant. She hopes to eventually become a dental assistant. Her youngest son participates in Head Start and will begin kindergarten next fall. They have a long road ahead. Azin’s desire for an education has inspired her children to do well in school. In the coming years, I look forward to helping her prepare for job interviews and attending her children’s high school and college graduations. She is a blessing in my life.

Having Azin as a friend has solidified my views on faith and reproductive rights: access to birth control helps women shape their futures. For my Christian peers who feel that reproductive rights are contrary to what the Bible teaches, I would point to Jesus’s choice to heal the sick on the Sabbath against strict religious codes of conduct. When the Pharisees approached Jesus about stoning a woman accused of adultery, as per Jewish law, Jesus responded by saying that anyone without sin should cast the first stone. The New Testament contains many more examples of Christ ministering to people rather than upholding dogma.

Paying for Azin’s contraception was one of the most feminist and Christian acts of my adult life; and I will happily continue to support her as she exercises her reproductive rights.

*Not her given name

*opening photo by Kyle Brenner/News Tribune

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Wendy Besel Hahn has an MFA in Creative Writing from GMU. Her nonfiction has appeared in Front Porch, Chaffey Review, and The Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. To find out more about her work, visit her website: www.wendybeselhahn.com.


 

How We Can Number Up: Sheila McMullin Continues Her Discussion on VIDA Count 2013

In 2012 The Paris Review dedicated a very small slice of its pie to writings by women. Fortunately, they took notice of their VIDA pie chart and rang the alarms. This past Count showed The Paris Review to acknowledge and celebrate more quality writing by women.

This is the work of The VIDA Count: to reveal an overall systemic problem and encourage a proactive change in how our leading publishing magazines and journals represent empathetic culture.

Former StS reader and blogger, now VIDA Count Coordinator, Sarah Marcus, says, “I believe that feminism is my responsibility, and being a part of VIDA has meant that I have another opportunity to support and advocate in a way that effectively changes public opinion and creates a positive academic support system for women and female identified people. We spend a great deal of time exposing the literary publishing reality, talking about inclusivity, and thinking about ways to bring our community into a compassionate and empathetic space where diverse and important voices are represented. I am accountable for ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities. Being part of VIDA also means that I am surrounded by a group of dedicated, inspiring, supportive, and empowered women, cisgender, and  non-gender normative people who are working towards a meaningful and common goal. I see this as win, win, win for me personally and for the greater literary public.”

If you would like to be a part of the social revolution working toward gender parity in publishing, here are lots of things you can do:

● It’s an old saying, “Knowledge is power.” Now you know, how will you respond? First and foremost we need to start a dialogue about these numbers on large scale terms. That is why VIDA has recently launched our member-supported private forums, as a troll-free environment for people to speak about diversity, respond to the numbers, and also (maybe most importantly) meet new allies. To learn more about participating in our forums visit here.

● Some concerned writers have cancelled subscriptions and written letters demanding change to editors whose numbers showed to be very problematic. Read Lorraine Berry’s open letter to Harper’s for inspiration and tips on language usage.

● If writing a letter or cancelling your subscription isn’t for you, you might consider exercising your purchasing power to buy a subscription to a journal who IS actively concerned with gender parity and diversity within their pages. Consider Ninth Letter, The Missouri Review, n+1, and The Gettysburg Review, Callaloo, and the list goes on. Purchasing a subscription from these journals will help them continue to do their good work.

● Beware of the gender diversity on your own bookshelves. Be active in broadening the range of stories in your home.

● Read what others have to say about VIDA in the press and start forming your own unique opinions on how you would like to react to gender inequality in all sectors, not just within the literary community.

● VIDA’s mission focuses on gender diversity, but is also concerned with ethnic, racial, sexual (among many other identifications) diversity and wants you to contribute to the conversation of planning how to accurately count writers of these identifications in the journals VIDA currently tallies.

● Submit your work! This cannot be reinforced enough! Write your stories! Share your stories! Submit, revise, submit again women, men, trans*, people of color, EVERYBODY!

This past AWP Seattle, the Peripheral Visionaries: Taking Action to Cultivate Literary Diversity panel with The VIDA Count Director, Jen Fitzgerald, Tin House editor Rob Spillman, Laura E. Davis (of Weave Magazine and Submission Bombers), and poet Ross Gay spoke to our cultural obligation as editors, publishers, and readers to demand gender parity in the material we purchase.

Rob Spillman took a deeper look at our obligations as writers to challenge social constructs that may feel prohibitive when considering publication. This is a loose quote, but he said to the effect that when he sends out encouraging rejection letters (with a major emphasis on encouraging meaning: please, please submit again!) 100% of the men resubmitted work, while only around 50% of the women resubmitted.

We are facing multilayered, complex sexism deeply ingrained into our culture. Spillman wasn’t saying that women just need to submit more, and that’s that. He was speaking to a dark nurturing our society promotes in the psyches of many of our women. On large scales, women are not socialized to be as confident as men. This is not to say, women are not confident. Remember that.

Hearing Spillman’s anecdote shot me into submission action, and fellow women, I hope it does the same for you. Submitting takes bravery, and you are brave.

Stop by the VIDA website for our latest articles, which are published on a rolling basis (contact aking@vidaweb.org with a proposal if you are interested in writing something for the site!)  Introduce yourself, tell us about your publications, ask questions and for advice, participate and mentor! You are welcome at VIDA!

If you missed Part I, be sure to read Sheila McMullin’s Why We Should 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.

 

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.

 

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