If women working as writers becomes a normal idea, maybe the idea of women being valued members of any profession will become normal, as well.
Once, when my oldest son was in first grade, he gave me a pretty stellar dressing down regarding a Dr. Seuss party at his school. I’d volunteered to do the decorations, but was also on deadline that day. I spent the morning working at my desk, then took a break in time to run out to the school to decorate before the kids came in from computer lab. I was giddy. I loved the emphasis the year’s curriculum was placing on author studies in a way that was fun and engaging for the kids.
In the darkened and empty classroom I got to work hanging streamers and tying balloons in Seuss-style primary colors. When I was finished there were enough streamers left over for me to play a little joke on his teacher, so I used the extras to do the party-favor equivalent of toilet papering her chair. The moms who were in charge of food started to arrive and laughed as I finished wrapping the chair before I left to sit in a nearby coffee shop to finish the day’s work before carpool.
Jr. seemed unmoved when he got into my car that afternoon. As we got going I finally said, “Hey. What did you think of what I did to your teacher’s chair for the party?”
“That was you?”
“Of course it was me, silly. I did the decorations, remember?”
“Oh,” he said and became quiet.
“What’s up, cutie?” I asked.
“Well, you weren’t there for the party. The other moms were there.”
It would’ve been great if he’d stopped there, but he lit into me because I was the only mom who didn’t stay for class parties (not true, by the way—I’d stayed for a couple, and was pretty on par with most of the other parents there). I let him finish his tirade before beginning a corrective lecture. I started to explain that different moms do different things. Some moms stay home with their kids, some moms have jo…“YOU DON’T HAVE A JOB!” he cut me off.
I almost whipped the car to the side of the road, pissed-off Southern mother-style, to straighten out his mind about women and choices. Instead, I kept on, my hands gripping the wheel, and explained that I did, in fact, have a job, and I had work to turn in for that job that very day, which was why I couldn’t stay for the party that two other moms had hung around for.
From that point on I started talking about my workday with the kids each night. I didn’t really think they’d be very interested in the minutiae of writing an arts and culture column for a tourism website or the ins and outs of the lifestyle/culture blog I was running at the time, but I did it because I wanted him to know that I wasn’t just sitting around all day. Apparently Jr. did take notice, however, because at the end of the school year his teacher told me that he’d been proudly telling anyone who would listen that his mom was a writer.
These days when my younger son, who’s 4, is asked what his Mommy and Daddy do for work he says, “Daddy goes to Wun-don,”—which usually isn’t true—and “Mommy’s a writer and likes to pway twains,”—which is about 50% true. It’s important to me that I have my office in my home because I want my boys to see what I do, even if at times it’s because I’m feeling guilty about the mess strewn throughout the house. Most of the time, however, it’s about the way I want my kids to see me. They have a handsome, Paul Newman lookalike dad who leaves home in a suit most days to go to an office or visit far-away clients, and a brown-skinned mom who does well to change into yoga pants and find her missing pen in her hair as she meanders into her office next to the kitchen to dole out opinions and reviews. Most of the other adults they see on a daily basis are white, buttoned-up professionals or white stay-at-home moms. I want the boys to experience my reality as part of the usual framework of the things that grownups do instead of as the seeming anomaly of a black woman who is a working writer.
A couple of weeks ago VIDA: Women in Literary Arts came out with their 2014 count. The VIDA Count’s role is to do exactly as the moniker indicates: count the number of women writers getting their work into or reviewed by the upper echelon of magazines, which often steer conversations within the industry. While the numbers were pretty dismal for 2014, they were slightly improved from previous years. This was the first year that the organization made a grab at recording contributors of color within the larger count. Those numbers were rather horrifying. Fifteen publications were analyzed, including The Atlantic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Tin House and The London Review of Books. VIDA admits that its first attempt to quantify publication data for women of color was flawed. Out of respect for people’s right to self-identify, the organization put together a survey allowing perceived women of color to act upon that right, resulting in “no fewer than 45 self-identified race categories.” The result was a distinct lack of hard statistics. This flaw goes beyond the individuality of the survey participants, however. It also exposes the fact that the magazine industry as a whole does not monitor its own inclusion.
Here’s a little bit of what we do know from VIDA’s WOC Count:
- The Boston Review showed the most diverse statistics amongst the 46 female writers who returned the WOC survey, with 34 identifying as white, 4 identifying as “unsure,” 3 who identified “only as a woman of color,” 2 who identified as Asian, 1 identifying as American Indian/Alaska Native, 1 identifying as Black/African American, and 1 writer who identified as Hispanic/Latina.
- Of the 25 female writers who returned the survey at The Atlantic, 21 identified as white, 3 identified as Asian and 1 identified Black/African American.
- Harper’s reported an increased number of female writers, up 6% from last year.
- The New Republic raised its number of female book reviewers from 7% in 2013 to 22% in 2014.
- The Paris Review saw its numbers slide from last year, with 40% of its writers being female, compared to 51% in 2013.
- Over at The Nation, 20% of the writers are female, compared to 16% in 2013.
Why do we have such parity when, if you walk around a writer’s conference in almost any part of the country, there seem to be at least as many, if not more, female writers around than male?
I recently met Amy King, a member of the VIDA executive board, and Sheila McMullin, one of the website’s editors. We all agreed that the problem stems from a widespread issue within our culture. It isn’t (always) overt or purposeful racism that leads editors to choose contributions from more white male writers than women and women of color. These choices have more to do with the American culture’s tendency to maddeningly revert back to old habits.
Let’s say you were an editor who needed something written about the alleged abuse of authority by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents in the cases of University of Virginia students Elizabeth Daly and Martese Johnson last March. If your first job out of journalism school years ago involved covering boring city council meetings in Richmond (no offense, Richmond!), you probably spent a good deal of time commiserating over beers with a fellow newsroom grunt after the agony had ended for the night. Now you’ve both moved on and grown up, but your friend is still in Richmond working as a freelance journalist. It’s pretty likely that this person will spring to mind as you consider writers for this piece. Now let’s say that you’re a white male, as most editors are at top tier publications. Even if you have friends of varying shades today, most 18 – 22-year-old white males spend their guy time in packs of dudes who look like them. Most likely, that friend you call is going to be white.
When we’re young, insecure, and feeling our way through the world on our own for the first time, most of us look for people who remind us of ourselves. It’s a safety mechanism. But it’s a primitive mechanism—and we were supposed to have moved on from primitive behaviors long ago.
When my son was chiding me for making excuses for neglecting my duties as homeroom mom, he was relying upon an imprint that had been made upon his perceptive little brain about what jobs are for mommies. He’s witnessed me at my desk every day since he would toddle in as a 2-year-old from his obscenely long naps. My youngest has experienced it since I could lay him across a Boppy pillow and hammer away at my laptop while he nursed. As they’ve grown, most of the writers my boys have encountered through school lessons or social gatherings have been male and white. That day in the car the idea of my writing being a job did not compute because I was one of two female writers Jr. had learned about in real time, and I was the only one who had brown skin.
Top-tier cultural institutions often help set the tone of America’s widespread cultural conversations through a sort of trickle-down (or water-down?) effect. As discourse begins at a highbrow, intellectual level, it eventually seeps into entertainment that gets distributed to broader circles. It’s said that the characters from The Simpsons’ bring the philosophical musings of Kant and Nietzsche out of the lecture hall and into the living room. Modern Family makes gay marriage look like no big deal. In many “highbrow” cultural settings such occurrences and experiences are seen as normal before the rest of us see them that way.
For all the talk about equal pay and gender equality, it’s high time for the upper ranks of the literary world to put some reality behind their words. When more women and women of color are seen within such ranks, kids like my sons will grow up without having to stretch to connect the idea of their mothers, sisters, and aunts with their mental image of what a writer should look like. If women working as writers becomes a normal idea, maybe the idea of women being valued members of any profession will become normal, as well.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.