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.

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.

 

The Artist Activist Online

Former So to Speak Poetry and Blog Editor Sheila McMullin on the history of the StS blog and using online platforms to advocate for social change:

On March 8, 2011 I launched So to Speak’s blog with a simple one line post. No in-depth journal and provocative claim, just a quick message with the beginning word “Celebrating.” With this word began So to Speak’s interaction as an online open forum for discussing feminist issues as they pertain to art and artist communities. In those early days our editorial circle saw the blog as a supplement to the print journal, providing a space for our contributors to speak in broader terms on their creative process and artistic and feminist intentions in relation to their printed pieces. The blog was an opportunity for the community at large to engage with our activist-driven organization and find in us a community of peers who understand the importance of celebrating feminist dialogue, a safe space to explore identity relations, questions, and build new relations. It was a space for those curious to learn. A place for those skeptical to debate. It is no secret that women and those who don’t identify as cisgender are unproportionally harassed and denigrated on the internet. In launching a blog dedicated to feminism in the arts, I with Blog Co-editor Alyse Knorr were fulfilling a lack we saw in So to Speak’s organizational structure, and stepping up to fight against the notion that women aren’t allowed to play. Of course feminists and budding feminists waiting for a call to action were on the internet. And So to Speak needed to find them and bring them together. We believed that to meet the needs of our feminist allies we had a firm obligation to participate in the online community.

Today StS is still all these things under the care of the current editorial circle, and better, more expansive, more in-depth, more provocative. I am eternally grateful to Blog Editor Sheryl Rivett and her Assistant Blog Editor Paula Beltran for continuing and fostering StS’s online presence. One thing many people don’t really yet understand about encouraging online communities through dedicated and consistent blogging is that it takes a whole lot of energy  and a s**t-ton of time. With open minds embracing online opportunities So to Speak has been able to be more of an engaged feminist advocacy group expanding its reach to promote gender parity in the arts and in our communities at large.

That beginning celebratory word on StS’s fresh blog, jumpstarted my personal endeavors of becoming more involved in utilizing web presences for social causes within organizations dedicated to advancing gender parity. I want to celebrate creative bravery. These days many of us engage in online communities through various social media sites that encourage surface level and sensationalist interactions. With sites like Facebook the tendency becomes to showcase only the most thrilling, titillating side of ourselves. These kinds of interactions can at times be a reprieve or fun, but if taken too seriously can interrupt crucial opportunities for empathetic human interaction. Similarly to how hyper-sexualized advertisements and media affect our collective conscious on definitions of “natural” and “beauty,” our most popular social media sites can actually make us feel more lonely, more isolated. Through these sites we have been trained to compare our behind the scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel, a well-worn yet accurate phrase. I don’t deny that sites like Facebook and Twitter play huge roles in providing low-budget socially-conscious groups opportunities to advertise, promote, and connect. These are often the hubs individuals go to see what’s the latest and check updates on news and events. But sites like these can also encourage an ego that denies the validity of another’s identity because of the lack of an ultimate goal of interacting in offline spheres. We forget the avatar on our screens represents a beating human heart, with just as many complex emotions and needs as we have.

I like using the internet very much. It is fun, serves a knowledge-based purpose, and connects me to like-minded folks and family and friends all over the globe. And while the internet allows me to stay in touch with people I love and explore the world without necessarily leaving home, it is still incredibly important to remember that the surface level of interaction while on the internet is through an inanimate object.

As I have become more involved in online communities I understand more the complete necessity for my online presence to directly influence my offline actions. The internet is a tool to make my material and physical life more fulfilling, more understanding, more substantial. So, for AWP 2014 I wanted to bring together creative literary thinkers who actively engage online in platforms they either built themselves because they saw a lack and wanted to fill that space with positive community-focused interaction or significantly monitor and update a unique platform with a socially conscious action-orientated mission for creative thinkers who want to learn to engage online in meaningful, nourishing ways and to talk about how to do so in productively.

On Saturday, March 1, the panelists and I will discuss building unique online platforms, or participating in already existing platforms to shape a cyber presence that provokes actual social change and propagates dissemination of educational materials in the physical world. We’ll discuss and explore opportunities for using our online platforms to evolve typical trite conversations, to change language, to vocalize inclusivity, reform out-of-date sexist traditions, and push out of comfort zones to empower individuals. Through our conversation, I hope we can come together to celebrate our unique visions and encourage users to create an internet that moves away from trolling, harassment, anxiety-provoking sites and moves toward representing the diverse cultures we participate in and the diverse human beings we are.

For you, in the cybersphere, who are ready to start using your online platform to advocate for social change consider what it means to blog with integrity, and focus on opportunities for offline activism by providing links at the end of your posts to others’ organizations or groups who argue for similar productivity you do and could benefit from a charitable donation or some type of volunteer action.

Now go write and share!

Headed to AWP? Be sure to check out the panel that Sheila is moderating!

So You Want to Build a Platform: But What is It & Why Do You Need One? Women Writers & Editors Speak Out (Sheila McMullin, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Molly Gaudry, Sheryl Rivett, Arisa White)
Room 608, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
Saturday, March 1, 2014

10:30 am to 11:45 am
While women’s voices are underrepresented in print publishing, online activism can balance the scales. Cultivating an online presence is not as easy as DIY and shameless self-promotion tales make it look. Creative thinkers, to highlight minority and emerging voices, develop unique online resources to build ever-expanding communities and celebrate accomplishments. Panelists explore empowerment, utility of web-based writing, maintaining professionalism, and ways to keep viewers returning and sharing.

Representations of the Feminine Body and Psyche: An Interview with Lili Almog

Photo by Lili Almog

I first discovered Lili Almog’s work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, where her stunning images illuminated an intimate stillness in women’s faces and poses, each emotionally naked before the camera. When confronted by the images, I knew I had been invited into a conversation, a conversation about gender, about societal roles, about faith and culture. An energy pulsed from the stark, stripped view she captured through her lens.

Born in Israel, Lili Almog worked as a photojournalist before attending the School of Visual Arts, graduating in 1992. Her vision as an artist has taken her into people’s bedrooms; villages in Western China; Carmelite monasteries in Israel, Palestine, and the USA; and beyond. Increasingly, she stretches the boundaries of her photographic training to include drawing, sculpture, and video in her art. She has exhibited her work in galleries around the globe; published two monographs, Perfect Intimacy and The Other Half of the Sky; contributed to four books; and won awards. One curator says of Almog, “In times when the tides of aggression seem high on the horizon, an intimate seeking for the feminine without gender characterizes Lili Almog’s work.”

We invite you to share in this intimate conversation with Israeli artist, Lili Almog:

Sheryl: How would you define your role in the artist-subject-viewer relationship?

Lili: My intention as an artist is to enter an extremely private space without disrupting the delicate essence of communication between subject, their experience and the viewer. I wish to move beyond documentation, to preserve the private moment by transcending limits imposed by preconceived ideas, cultural stereotype and prejudice so that people may speak their stories to me.

Sheryl: You grew up in Israel and studied art at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. How did your childhood affect your art vision, which developed in art school?

Lili: My upbringing Israel was a creation of the powerful dynamic between women. I grew up surrounded by my mother, grandmother and sister; men left no permanent trace on our lives. Was this a kind of feminism?  Perhaps in Israel it was, since the greater society surrounding us was very traditional male-centric values. Living in a home created by, and for, women, and we were always aware of the tensions between our family’s modern feminine values and the traditional Israeli society around us. My art reflects the female bonds that were so vividly present in my childhood, and the compelling and dynamic clash of traditionalism and modernism in the culture around me.

Sheryl: Who are some of your feminist influences?

Lili: I will have to start with my mom; my mother was a model of the modern feminist woman, with all the difficult choices she had to make in order to give me a foundation to be an independent and free thinker. But I admire so many women in so many areas of life: I respect and am influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s theories of the “other gender.” Sarah Schenirer, an early orthodox Jewish pioneer of education for young women is someone I admire greatly because of the changes she made in religious Jewish society.

Sheryl: What personal factors do you feel inform your art?

Photo by Lili Almog

Lili: My art focuses on creating representations of the feminine body and psyche.  I try to capture the cultural and spiritual identity of women set in their private spaces. My images combine elements of history, social class, and personal experience in surroundings that have timely significance.

My subjects are often from remote cultures not experienced with mass media exposure. I utilize a variety of photographic means — portraiture, landscape, and video camera —as testimonial recorders, to emphasize the individuality of my subjects, their enduring dignity, their sense of self worth and their traditional values.

Sheryl: Many of your photos are poetic, stories onto themselves, and they invite interpretation.  If there were one piece of which you’d like to tell the story, which one would it be? What is that story?

Lili: Here is a story about a nun who I photographed during my “Perfect Intimacy” project.

Photo by Lili Almog

On the way to the monastery in Bethlehem we stopped for lunch. I observed a nun fixing her habit, with a fairly large cross made of brass sticking out of a little pocket in the center of her chest, under her scapula. I asked her if her cross had a special meaning and she told me that each sister has her own personal crucifix that she receives on the day of her Profession of Vows.  Each nun receives her Profession Crucifix from the Prioress and always carries it next to her heart. This nun held her cross very gently and lovingly as she showed it to me. I was deeply moved by this and Somehow for me it became a symbol of their relationship with God From that point on, when I would photograph a sister I would ask her to show me her personal Cross.

Sheryl: You’ve travelled around the world and captured women in many different environments. Is there one culture that has affected you most?

Lili: In my project, “The Other Half of the Sky”, I created portraits of minority women in the countryside, small cities and villages in China with an emphasis on Muslim women in China. The Mosuo women are one minority that I encountered in my visits to China. They are one of the last matriarchal societies existing in our world. Geographical isolation enabled the Mosuo society to preserve their matriarchal way of life until the 1970s, when a road built into the mountainous area opened up the Mosuo culture to the outside world.  In recent years, the traditions of the Mosuo society have been severely challenged by modernization, which has brought an invasion of tourists — and tourist dollars to the Mosuo region.  Traditional practices are being abandoned for more financially lucrative opportunities, for example, farmers are leaving their fields for tour-guide jobs and women are charging money for dressing up tourists in traditional clothing. Some male tourists come to the region for sex. In the Lake Lugu red-light district, prostitutes from other parts of China dress up as Mosuo women and offer their services. The younger generation is starting to abandon tradition for all things modern; older Mosuo wonder how much longer their unique culture will survive. My work documented the Mosuo struggle to hold on to their unique matriarchal practices despite the erosion of their culture by modern society.

Sheryl: What are you working on currently?

Lili: My focus has shifted from the private space to more global space. Currently I am exploring the broad spectrum of changes in culture via landscape.  I have been working on a project, “Beyond Presence and Absence”, which documents topographical change in a kibbutz in Israel due to a natural catastrophe. Although I live in New York, I personally identify with the intimate kibbutz community and the way it deals with change so differently than we do here. I am also documenting massive change in the American post-industrial landscape from a local topographical perspective. The visual questions I am exploring are boundless . . . and intrigue me.

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Lili Almog is an Israeli-born artist based in New York whose work in photography and video investigates female identity. Her exhibition and book, The Other Half of the Sky, portray women in rural China. Beginning in 2006, Almog traveled to remote Chinese provinces to document women of diverse backgrounds and societal functions such as members of the Muslim minority, tile factory workers and farmers. She produced portraits in six distinct geographic sections: mountain, lake, factory, street, backyard and land. Recent solo exhibitions of her work include The Art Museum of Lexington, KY; the Emmanuel Valderdorff  Galerie in Köln, Germany; and Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York.

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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