By Randy Susan Meyers
The first time I looked for a job, Help Wanted was divided into three sections: Men, Women, and General. If memory serves me (I doubt it) men’s jobs were the professional ones, women’s were the handmaiden ones, and general included dishwashers and drivers.
Trust me, the career paths were separate and not equal.
I remembered those categories while writing this post (which I wish I wasn’t writing) when I came across the terms microinequity and micro-affirmation, first coined by Mary Rowe, who defined micro-inequities as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’”
A micro-affirmation, in Rowe’s writing, is the reverse phenomenon. “Micro-affirmations are subtle or apparently small acknowledgements of a person’s value and accomplishments. They may take the shape of public recognition of the person, “opening a door,” referring positively to the work of a person, commending someone on the spot, or making a happy introduction. Apparently “small” affirmations form the basis of successful mentoring, successful colleagueships and of most caring relationships. They may lead to greater self-esteem and improved performance.”
On the front page of today’s Boston Sunday Globe is an article entitled: “About-face at Harvard: A push is on to make the portraits on the walls — white men, almost all — reflect the diverse face of the university today.”
In this article, Tracy Jan reports: “There’s a significance to portraiture, in demonstrating to people of all backgrounds that their presence and contribution are appreciated,’’ said Dr. S. Allen Counter, director of The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which for eight years has been quietly commissioning portraits of distinguished minorities and women to hang in Harvard’s hallowed halls.
“We simply wish to place portraits of persons of color and others who’ve served Harvard among the panoply of portraits that already exists,’’ Counter said. “We will not displace any portrait, just simply add to them.’’
A micro-affirmation of great proportions.
Also in today’s Sunday Boston Globe are four full reviews of books by men, no full reviews of books by women. (“Short Takes,” a column of brief reviews covered two books by women and one by a man.) Monday through Saturday, during the past three weeks, there were 17 reviews of books by men and one review of a book by a woman.
Last weekend, when I briefly touched on this on my Facebook page, a friend asked “but how many books by men vs. women are published?” I’d love to know and spent too many should-be-writing hours looking, but I wonder if the question and answer would beget a chicken-egg quandary. In addition, there is the question of equality in marketing, book covers, etc—a topic well covered by Lionel Shriver (winner of the 2005 Orange Prize and a finalist for the 2010 National Book Awards).
To repeat: I didn’t want to write this post. I’m frightened of writing this post (but impulse and passion control has never been my strongest suit). I’ve had very fair shakes from newspapers and radio—great reviews and mentions in The Boston Globe, The NYT, and NPR (referenced below). They are my main and beloved news sources. I’ve subscribed to both for enough years to have bought a shiny new car.
The last thing in the world I want is to bite the hand . . . but I have two daughters and a tiny granddaughter.
When women write about this phenomenon, they can usually count on the eye-rolling responses, the sigh that says “isn’t this topic getting tedious” and wild assertions that women run publishing. Disparaging responses such as, “Unfortunately, what gets lost in this smokescreen is the more important (and dangerously tricky) question of “Why isn’t there more serious literary fiction being published by women?”” by bloggers such as The Grumbler who assert that women don’t deserve reviews in serious media.
Thankfully, I also find great hope. The Economist took a sharp look at this question, noting how reviews written will translate to books read, writing, “All readers are gently trained to empathise with white male narrators.”
In private, most female writers talk about mainstream media (and often non-mainstream media) review numbers, but we’re terrified to go public, easily imagining the scenario that could result:
“Oh, so you want a review, do you?” asks Important Editor after hearing about your . . . whining. “Fine. Here’s your review. Read it and weep.”
Do I truly think an editor would be that crass? No, but there is that ingrained awful fear about not being a good girl. About being called a whiner, a baby, and a jealous harpy. When Jennifer Weiner and Jodie Picoult talked about this they were accused of ugly motives as well as having their talent denigrated, and they’re best-selling authors. Thus, why would any woman want to go there? Why do I?
Would it help if men joined in this?
Does it matter? Does it matter that in 2009, Publishers Weekly didn’t include a single woman in their list of the Top 10 Books of 2009?
Carolyn Kellog writing in the LA Times on Dick Meyer’s NPR list of 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century (a list that included only 7 books written by women) quotes Meyer as saying “My taste is probably medium-brow, male and parochial in many ways. Tough. It’s my list.” In response, Kellog asks, “but it begs the question: can one imagine a female writing for NPR having a nearly all female Best Books List?”
Does this matter? According to NPR, “As NPR’s executive editor, Dick Meyer shapes and oversees NPR’s worldwide news operation on-air and online. Meyer plays a critical role in integrating NPR’s on-air sound with its dynamic and growing online and mobile platforms, and in fostering the organization’s distinctive storytelling and enterprise reporting.”
That sounds to me as though his opinion very much matters.
The number of book reviews of women is indicative of a micro inequality, which piles up to matter quite a bit. Julianna Baggot captured it well, writing in the Washington Post, “So how do we strip away our prejudice? First, we have to see prejudice. The top prizes’ discrimination against women has been largely ignored. We can’t ignore it any longer.”
Some not only ignore it, they deny it. Writing about this issue, Slate.com wrote: “The bookish blogosphere continues to debate whether the New York Times—and, by extension, other cultural gatekeepers—really does give white male fiction writers preferential coverage over authors of the distaff and ethnic variety . . . So we decided to gather some statistics in order to determine whether the Times’ book pages really are a boys’ club.”
You can download the actual spreadsheet at Slate, but their conclusions boiled down to this: Of the 545 books reviewed in the NYT between June 29, 2008 and Aug. 27, 2010:
—338 were written by men (62 percent of the total)
—207 were written by women (38 percent of the total)
Of the 101 books that received two reviews in that period:
—72 were written by men (71 percent)
—29 were written by women (29 percent)
In 2002, the Complete Review of Books admirably took themselves to task for their miserable coverage of books written by women authors at 12.61%.
During that same period, they examined the track record of major literary papers of record:
|Reviews of Books by Women|
|London Review of Books||40||15.00|
|The NY Review of Books||76||18.42|
|The NY Times Book Review||120||30.00|
|Times Literary Supplement||130||24.60|
If women’s books aren’t reviewed, when women’s books are declared “less literary, and when women’s books on family are declared women’s fiction, while men’s domestic books are declared brave and eye-opening, it adds many pounds to the micro-inequality pile.
Do we care enough to fight about this?
I think it comes down to this: people in power rarely give up power voluntarily; sometimes they don’t even recognize that they have the power. I think it’s up to us to join the brave authors like Julianna Baggot, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, and Lionel Shriver, who are willing to talk about this. We need to tell ourselves and ask the men who are our friends, who are the fathers of daughters and father of sons who will marry daughters, that it’s time.
It’s time to rid ourselves of micro-indignity, and remember that men and women each hold up half the the sky.