Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post By: Michele J, Uncategorized
Last fall, my sister sent me a link to a posting on a website called Imgur (pronounced Im-ih-ger). I don’t remember what the post she sent me was about, but I do remember how I felt I had found a sort of window into the internet. With a swipe to the left or to the right, I could explore all the “most-viral” images on the internet for that day, often accompanied by stories or shared experiences from various Imgur users themselves. Feeding off of the popular, user-generated website Reddit, Imgur focuses on community, with users voting through “upvotes” or “downvotes” what material makes it to the front page of the site.
What one will most commonly find on Imgur is pictures or videos of adorable animals, a funny (or not so funny) meme, a tutorial for how to make the best pepperoni calzones. One can browse the site without ever making a profile or username, and this is what I did for some time, visiting the website through its phone app when I had a spare moment in a waiting room or in line at a store.
I was in bed checking the site when I came across a post that has given me a sizeable amount of unease for the past several months. In it, a group of young women hold up hand-written signs declaring why they don’t need feminism. Their reasons range from, “because I believe in equality and not in entitlements and supremacy,” to “I respect men. I refuse to demonize them and blame them for my problems,” to “I am an adult who is capable of taking responsibility for my own actions.” One can see why I immediately created a username and began commenting on this post like my life depended on it.
What I most wanted to point out was that none of these young women seemed to have any idea of what feminism actually is. Somehow, the idea of equality for women has become tied up with these misconstrued notions about the domination of men, the rejection of personal responsibility, and a culture of victimhood. I can’t say how this transformation took place (it seems to have something to do with tumblr, which is another content-sharing, online community, but I can’t dive into that hole right now), but the fact that there are women out there who outright reject the title of feminist is appalling to me, especially when these women so clearly are feminists themselves.
Equality is the bottom line of feminism. You can respect men without also demonizing them (I do it all the time!). Of course you are a capable adult; you can thank the generations of women who fought against the infantilization of our sex for being able to publically declare such a thing. These young women, who took to a public forum to proclaim their independence, personal responsibility, and strength, are utter and complete products of the waves of feminism that have been crashing against American culture for the past 200 years.
The issue is, however, these women don’t know that. And, they shy away from the “feminist” or “feminism” terms. These words have become tarnished, covered in the muck of misandry and fanatical, misinformed rebuttals. I spoke about this in my last blog piece, where I mentioned how I had to combat these misconceptions amongst my own family members, but the problem with the young women on Imgur is even stranger to me, mostly because they are feminists. Reluctant as they may be to wear that badge proudly, it is still tacked onto their bodies somewhere, albeit under layers of ignorance and/or confusion.
This rejection of the feminist identity leads to an even more problematic aspect of this trend: the self-centeredness of it all. I can only conclude that each of these young women has led a life free of sexual harassment or of judgment based on how they look or on their sexual habits. That each of these young women has never had to worry about accessing an education or a driver’s license. That each of these women has never had her reproductive rights challenged or been trapped in an abusive relationship. How blessed these young women are, and how infuriating that they cannot see past their own life experiences into those of others who may not have been so lucky.
Beyond the problem of being unwilling to accept the feminist title, these young women are spreading the dangerous idea that women have reached equality in the US and in the wider world. What they are saying, by rejecting the mantle of feminism, is that there is no more work to be done. They are turning away from the gang rapes that happen with stunning frequency in India and elsewhere. They are looking past the millions of women who are unable, for any number of reasons, to make choices about their bodies and when or if they have a child (or how many). They are saying, “okay” to the overwhelming number of rape kits that escape DNA analysis. They are saying: If you are not me, or like me, you do not matter.
What is most important for these women to understand is that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself (though wearing the feminist badge like a crown would be a welcome fashion statement). What does matter is that, if they see the rights of other women (of other people!) being challenged, though theirs may not be, it is important for them to say something, to do something, to recognize the wrong where there is wrong and confront it.
There’s a fear that goes along with defining oneself as part of a certain cause with perceived expectations. We prefer to live as sketches, erasing and redrawing the lines of ourselves when we feel threatened or uncomfortable. But, I would argue that the young women on Imgur would have to do very little revising to find that they fit into a feminist way of life. And that’s all I wanted to say to them, and to our readers: Like it or not, you’re a feminist. Now, go out there and own it.
Michele K. Johnson graduated from George Mason University with her MFA in poetry in 2014. While pursuing her degree, she taught Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition at the university, and served as Editor in Chief of So to Speak. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in the Ampersand Review, the Ucity Review, OVS Magazine, THRUSH Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Starring Local Feminists, Uncategorized, Women's Health
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
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.
Filed under: Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Women's Health
Childbirth and Feminism aren’t words that are often paired together in the same sentence. The focus for most feminist movements is on the decision whether to have a child or not, and whether a woman has full agency in the decision when deciding not to carry a pregnancy to full-term. But what about the women who decide to have a child? Where do you find feminism active and engaged? In small feminist circles, you can find women advocating for empowering birth experiences, for doulas and birth plans and a bill of rights of sorts for laboring women. And in even smaller circles, you find women banding together to address the awful truth in this country that if you are a woman of color, simply by virtue of your ethnicity and NO other factor, you are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. Why is this circle so small? Why are we not agonizing EVERY day over this very real fact that our sisters are not all treated equally? Why are we not marching in front of the ACOG offices and in front of hospitals that aid diverse populations of women in childbirth? Why are we not pissed off ENRAGED about this uncomfortable truth?
In honor of International Midwives Day, we decided to shine the light on someone who IS making this her mission in life. Jennie Joseph is a British-trained, West Indian-descent midwife who cares for women in Orlando, Florida at her birth center and who lectures widely on a focused, successful strategy for reducing disparities in childbirth outcomes.
I first met Jennie Joseph when she came to a maternal mortality summit that I and a few other women put together in Washington D.C. a few years ago. I’d heard word on the street that she was a midwife who was doing something about it. I heard her name whispered with reverence, with awe, because damn, she was taking on this often silenced and uncomfortable truth about birth in America, and she was making a difference in the lives of the women who found their way to her birth center.
Jennie speaks with a soft British accent and, surprisingly given the weighty subject matter she tackles fearlessly, a great deal of humor. She’s been known to say, “In America, they don’t expect to hear a funny little English accent coming out of someone with such dark skin.” She may be right. And it may be part of why (and I’ve seen this) she’s able to make American obstetricians sit up and take notice (a sad commentary in and of itself). The outcomes at her clinic are so phenomenal, that I’m surprised that the chiefs of obstetrics from every American hospital are not lining up on the tree-lined street in Orlando where her clinic is located. They should.
It’s hard to pin Jennie down – she’s tireless in her mission to provide good care and tireless with her lecturing on the JJ Way® at conferences across the country. But StS is thrilled to have pinned her down long enough to get her take on the important work that she does:
Sheryl: You were born and raised in England and received your nursing and midwifery training in London. Tell us about your first experiences in the United States. Did you experience culture shock? What do you remember most about those first years?
Jennie: I was very surprised when I arrived in the United States. Unfortunately, I had not done any research. I knew about Walt Disney World and I knew Orlando to be a beautiful city—I was very excited about the possibilities, for my American husband to be and I. I came to America in May of 1989 and was married in August of 1989, and settled in, except that I did not realize that I wasn’t going to get any job in any hospital as a midwife in the state of Florida. I was trained as a hospital midwife and had practiced in both hospital and homebirth settings but did not know that there was such a controversy about midwifery and the midwifery model of care in the United States.
The culture shock that I experienced was that as a Black woman of West Indian descent; I assumed that I was culturally aware and able to manage assimilation into the American experience. I knew about the differences amongst races and I knew about racism, having experienced it myself. I figured that I would be able to understand how to navigate and negotiate the American way. In my personal life I experienced a lot of culture shock and certainly in my professional life on so many levels. It was beyond explanation. I felt alienated and marginalized as a professionally trained hospital-based midwife. I felt marginalized as a midwife who believed in empowerment for women and independence. I felt marginalized in that I wasn’t a registered nurse. I was a direct-entry midwife that had hospital experience and had built a career around access and privilege in the hospital system. I was marginalized from a place of being a Black woman with an English accent.
In many ways it was extremely difficult and I know that I could not have been prepared for it ahead of time. It had to be worked through in real time. I remember feeling isolated and was depressed for a good few years. I got to the point where I hardly ever wanted to say anything because I didn’t want the reaction of shock and surprise when I started to speak. So it was very difficult. I do remember I began to explore the history of midwifery. I began to understand the cultural perspective of midwifery, particularly in relation to the grand midwives of the South and their eradication during the latter part of the 20th century.
Sheryl: What originally drew you to midwifery as a career?
Jennie: I was absolutely called to be a midwife. I knew at the age of 16 that I wanted to pursue that path. I barely knew what it meant and I had no experience at that age.
I graduated from high school and was determined to go into midwifery. So much so that at my age I was told I was too young and had to wait until I was 20, but I managed to get started at 19 because I was so enthusiastic and I wouldn’t let up until I was finally admitted into a program a year earlier than I should have been.
I knew in my spirit that I was going to do this work. I have never done anything else. I’m approaching age 55 and I have been working in midwifery since I was 19.
Sheryl: When did you first become aware of disparities in care for women of color?
Jennie: I began to figure it out two years after I arrived. I was also a victim of those disparities in that within a year of arriving to the United States, the OBGYN that I worked for managed to dictate to me that because of my endometriosis—which I had suffered from for many years—the only answer for me was to have my uterus removed.
As a knowledgeable and informed patient with a background in women’s health, I was still drawn into that place where I felt unable to speak for myself and felt concerned not realizing the industry where women’s bodies have been historically taken advantage for gain and for power. I didn’t understand the racial connotation of hysterectomy in the United States.
At the age of 30, like a sheep to the slaughter I had my uterus removed and he took both my ovaries at the same time.
Sheryl: Tell us about your method of maternity care, the JJ Way®. How did it come about?
Jennie: I developed the JJ Way® model as I grew my midwifery practice from a homebirth practice into a birthing center practice. I realized that there were very few women of color coming into my homebirth practice. I felt that I could reach women of all races and socioeconomic statuses if I could open the idea of taking care of women in the prenatal period regardless of where they wanted to deliver their baby.
My experience was that the women of low income or women of color who were not educated or supported in natural birth felt more comfortable in the hospital environment. For them there was some benefit in having their babies that way. So rather than try to convince them and to cajole or try to force on them my way of thinking, I decided to open a practice where I could provide good quality midwifery care for women of all races that was holistic, patient-centered, empowered, safe, and culturally competent and yet those women that chose to have their babies in the hospital still got to deliver their babies with a physician in the hospital.
That helped me to realize that the benefit of that work was that, regardless of where they were giving birth, they were having healthy full term infants, they were empowered, actively planning their births, and breastfeeding after delivery. So I realized that was something that I could offer and I have developed it into a fully replicable model that could be used by any midwife, physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner in any clinic or birth center setting.
Sheryl: Can you share a few memorable stories about women you’ve served who have benefited from the JJ Way®?
Jennie: Over the years, I’ve seen much change in many of the women and their families. Ultimately, even though it’s intangible—it’s difficult to say if it’s because of a specific aspect of the JJ Way® or the combination of all of the points—something has shifted in the way these women are in themselves, with their baby, with their children and with their families. One woman comes to mind that came to me at 19 years old with her first baby, the father of the baby in tow. They were certainly at least acting excited about the birth and the upcoming pregnancy. They were video taping the first prenatal visit, having a good time. It all fell apart very quickly. It was not a good relationship, they broke up and she was unsupported through her remaining pregnancy and birth. She was very attached to our practice and came to literally depend on us, which is not the goal of the work, but she would call us every day very much wanting information and education—she was soaking it in. She had a very lovely and empowered birth, at term and went on to come back to support the work by volunteering. She eventually started nursing school and she’s currently a bachelor’s nurse. We know that the influence of how we supported her through her pregnancy made the difference for her to be able to empower herself and raise her child in a different way than perhaps she would have with the absence of that work.
Sheryl: What do you think modern feminists most need to know about childbirth in the United States? Internationally?
Jennie: I think all women need to know about having their power in the birth room and the importance of being prepared and educated throughout their pregnancy so that by the time they reach childbirth they know what they particularly want, what helps them feel safe, and what helps feel in charge of the experience—and it doesn’t look the same for everybody.
In the absence of that knowledge, women go into their labor and delivery experience at the whim of whoever is attending. And that is dangerous. In many cases, that can kill you. The lack of knowledge and preparation can put your life in jeopardy because you are so unaware and unable to stand for yourself.
I think that using support such as doula support, having childbirth education and lactation education, involving family and friends in your birth team, and having a very solid plan is the difference between life and death. Internationally, I think women need to understand their specific birthing practices and environments and, again, choose for themselves what they want.
Sheryl: What do feminists get wrong about birth?
Jennie: I don’t think I can address that. I don’t think anybody gets anything wrong about birth. We know what we know and we act accordingly. At this juncture, so many of us know so little that we don’t have a place to stand or any ability to make that difference for ourselves or for our sisters in birth. With that we are somewhat left helpless and at the whim of those who do have power and information.
Sheryl: Tell us about your vision for the future of maternity care.
Jennie: I believe that we can transform maternity care in the United States by changing the way we approach birth in the first place. Until we can embrace the idea that birth is not an illness but actually a transformative time in that woman and her family’s life. Until we remove the fear, because this is a fear-based industry, and provide women with the tools to navigate this fear-based industry we will not be able to see a change.
I strongly believe from the grassroots up we can influence and bring about the necessary changes to re-empower birthing women and families in America. We need education at a level that is accessible, that is warm, non-judgmental, non-punitive, and non-lecturing where women can share stories and experiences, as well as learn from an angle of understanding that is pertinent to their lives.
The educators need to change. They need to be the same women from the communities from which they hale so that there are peer level educators as well as more formally trained educators, but everyone working from the same place.
Finally, if we cannot break down the system that stands—and it would be a very difficult and arduous task—then we need to create a system outside of that for those women that are healthy, low risk and are not expecting complications in their birth. That system could be midwifery, but it could also be public health. It could be private hospital-based services, birth center-based services, or community-based services, or of course, homebirth.
I have a very broad and hopeful vision for the maternity care system in America but I believe it has to be purposeful and collegial. We have to work together to bring about a change, but before that we have to agree that there is a need for change and at this point I don’t think we have that.
Jennie Joseph was born and raised in England and received her midwifery education from Barnet School of Nursing & Midwifery in affiliation with Edgware General Hospital in London. Always a pioneer for women’s special healthcare needs, Jennie brings 26 years of combined expertise to help pregnant women achieve the birth of their dreams. Visit her on Facebook and check out her website.
Filed under: Literary Resources, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Sheila M, Starring Local Feminists
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 email@example.com 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
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.
Filed under: Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheila M, Starring Local Feminists
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.