VIDA: Women in Literary Arts recently released several large pie charts comparing how women and men are published in some of the largest literary magazines—who's reviewing books, whose books are being reviewed, and who's being interviewed. Out of 40 charts, women outnumbered men on only two of them.
VIDA writes, "The truth is, these numbers don't lie. But that is just the beginning of this story. What, then, are they really telling us? We know women write. We know women read. It's time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don't reflect those facts with any equity."
At the Rumpus, Stephen Elliott finds "presumption" in VIDA's statement. "Do women write as much as men? And probably more importantly, Do they submit their work to literary journals?....We love you VIDA, but we want a little more." I find presumption in this statement. It's too easy to say, "women just don't write as much as men," or like science as much as men, or direct Academy-Award winning films as much as men, instead of examining the cultural attitudes surrounding these fields.
The first thing I thought of after seeing VIDA's findings was Anna Clark's 2008 Bitch magazine article, The Ambition Condition: Women, Writing and the Problem of Success.
For starters, Clark pointed out the lack of female reviewers for the Virginia Quarterly Review (they had a gender ratio of 5:29 in the 2006 byline), and was told by the editor that "We don't get enough quality submissions by women." But Clark goes beyond numbers: the discouragement of female writers is unquantifiable.
There's no simple gender indicator for the weird fusion of insecurity and ambition, of the feigned nonchalance and quiet competitiveness that's common in writers of all sorts. But these traits are complicated by the cultural caricatures of ambitious women and the uneven historical patterns that have dictated whose talent is rewarded and whose isn't. Whether they write novels or cover stories or op-eds, even the most talented women writers often aren't validated in the same way that their male counterparts are.
I highly recommend reading the entire article for anyone who's wondering where the missing numbers are. Clark examines how female ambition is punished in pop culture and reality alike (remember the backlash to Emily Gould's New York Times Magazine feature?), the "I'm not a poet, but..." sentimentality, and she traces a history of women being hard on themselves and deferring their dreams:
Emily Dickinson's younger sister was the first to discover her poems; the first collection was published four years after the poet's funeral. Zora Neale Hurston—who once wrote to her patron, Annie Nathan Meyer, "Oh, if you knew my dreams! My vaulting ambition… I dream such wonderfully complete [dreams], so radiant in astral beauty. I have not the power yet to make them come true. They always die. But even as they fade, I have others"—died in poverty with all her books out of print. Even Dorothy Parker, who published copiously in her lifetime, was prone to disclaimers that convey the same tentativeness of so many writers who apologize for their work before they share it: She suggested "Excuse My Dust" as her tombstone epitaph.
In my personal experience as a writer in the publishing field (a field that's filled with women, by the way), I see young writers doing this a lot—women speaking humbly and in self-deprecating terms of their own writing (myself included), while male friends of splaying their latest work onto their various blogs, Facebook pages, or Twitter feeds. While there is great work from both, there's no doubt in my mind who is getting their name out more and who feels validated about their work (and are more likely to submit it to journals).
VIDA wants to know what you think. Here's some more ideas on what to do: Check out She Writes and other online writing communities, question the literary canon (See: Chally's recent Iconography Series), and make an effort to encourage all the writers in your life—yourself included.
Shameless Subscription Plug: Bitch magazine features a majority of women writers reviewing a majority of books written by women! Subscriptions are $5 off until February 11th!