One of the conversations floating around this year’s AWP (Association for Writers and Writing Programs) conference was a study just released by Vida, an organization for women in literary arts. Vida tracked several newspapers, commercial magazines, and literary magazines to compare the rates at which men and women have been published. If you’ve been following the recent debates about this issue, you won’t be surprised to learn of the enormous inequality, favoring men.
In light of this, I attended a panel called “Founding Women: Publishers and Editors from Across the Literary Landscape.” The discussion was moderated by Jennifer Flescher, editor of Tuesday; an Art Project. Other participants included Amanda Johnston, Executive Director and Editor of TORCH, an online journal featuring the work of African-American women; Rebecca Wolff, Editor and Publisher of FENCE Magazine and Founder of FENCE Books; Rebecca Morgan Frank, Editor-in-Chief of Memorious; Beth (aka C.E.) Harrison, Editor of Spinning Jenny Magazine and Founder of Black Dress Press; and Brigid Hughes, Founding Editor of A Public Space.
In hearing why these women created their journals, I was immensely moved by their courage as well as their frankness. Ms. Johnston stated that as an African-American woman, she was always opening publications and looking for herself. In fact, she admitted, even at this moment she was looking for herself in the audience. (There was slight laughter when only one African-American woman raised her hand.)
With TORCH, Ms. Johnston has created a forum for African-American to enter the literary conversation. Her voice cracking with emotion, she told of receiving the first story submission two weeks before the magazine became officially open to submissions. On the cover letter were written the words, “I couldn’t wait.”
In contrast to Ms. Johnston, Rebecca Wolff’s motives were more “selfish.” She described her desire to start a journal and press as a hunger for power, a discomfort with the role of supplication in which so many beginning writers find themselves. Interestingly, Ms. Wolff identified this discomfort as a result of her privileged upbringing. As an upper-middle class white woman, encouraged from a young age to pursue poetry, she entered the scene feeling entitled to power. Only later, after years of working in publishing, did she come to see herself through a “gendered lens,” as a woman in a predominantly male field.
The other three editors, Ms. Frank, Ms. Hughes, and Ms. Hoffman, shared their experiences—enlightening blends of anecdotes and statistics, ranging from discrimination in publishing to one very disturbing encounter at this year’s conference. (When Ms. Frank approached a group of male editors to congratulate them on the success of their books and the growth of their careers, they responded by asking her how she felt about the words “panties” and “pussy,” and what advice she could offer about getting a young woman to take off her clothes.)
Needless to say, throughout the discussion I was at turns moved, shocked, intrigued, and inspired. These women have successfully advanced their own careers while also creating opportunities for countless other women. These editors strive to achieve gender parity in every issue (except Ms. Johnston who only publishes women.) And each editor said she is thrilled to see new work by women, encouraging the audience members—99% women—to get out there and show their work.
Near the end of their talk, however, one problem presented itself. While I found their stories inspiring and their message encouraging, I was dismayed by the solution offered. When asked what women could do to fix this evident problem in publishing, the editors replied, “Submit more!”
A similar rallying cry was enforced by another panel, “Women Writers and Rejection: How to Get Published and Avoid the Slush Pile.” The copy for this panel (in the conference guidebook) claims, “Women writers don’t submit enough; we’re too cautious and we take rejection too hard. This is a panel on how to toughen up and choose wisely…It’s all up to you, baby. You can be as published as the boys, and we’re here to show you how.”
It may be true that women are shyer about showing their work, more reluctant to network with editors, and may take rejection harder. But before we suggest that women go get a personality makeover, that they “toughen up,” “try harder,” and “submit more!” there are important factors to consider about the reality of women’s lives.
For instance, women still earn 77% of what men earn. And in spite of what we see in shows like Sex and the City, the majority of women work in low-paying service sector jobs. Though we might see one grace the cover of Money magazine every so often, only 5% of the Fortune 500’s top earners are actually women. Additionally, white men are three times as likely to get management jobs as black women. As a matter of fact, poverty rates are higher for women than for men across all ethnic groups.
While submitting to journals is now often free through online submissions managers, not everything is quite so accessible. Writing contests, conferences where one can network with editors (or listen to them on panels), and even books like Writers’ Market, which lists literary magazines and their editorial preferences, are all resources available exclusively to people who can pay for them.
Then there’s the issue of time. Recently, when I told my memoir students—all over the age of fifty—that my boyfriend washes dishes in our home, they looked at me like I was speaking another language. I feel fortunate that a new generation of men seems to understand the importance of making the bed, sweeping the floor, and ironing their own d*mn clothes.
Still, many women continue to bear the brunt of housework and childcare, even as they hold full-time jobs. (This is to say nothing of the 9.8 million single mothers in this country, many of whom receive no child support.) How the multiple responsibilities women bear affects their mental and physical health is the topic for another article. But certainly for a woman who works full-time and comes home to do laundry and cooks dinner for her children and stays up paying bills, eking out the time to write anything at all is a magic act unto itself, letting alone finding the time and energy to submit to literary magazines.
Then, of course there’s the media. Oh, sigh, the media again. I know. But it’s worth mentioning because it’s through what we see, read, and hear that we cultivate our social selves, or at least the perception of the selves we think we ought to be. It’s not just that women’s bodies are exploited and commodified in order to move merchandise. That’s an old story. Perhaps more insidious is the manner in which bodies are used.
In Ways of Seeing, writer and art critic John Berger tells us that men do, while women are. It’s as true for 19th century paintings as it is for 21st century ad campaigns. Men are encouraged to be active–to sail, hike, lead, take charge. Meanwhile, women are meant to concern themselves only with states of aesthetic loveliness—beauty, youth, sex appeal–in which being observed and desired is key to a sense of self. This message, that women’s primary concern ought to be with their way of being, is anathema to the active work of submitting to be published.
What the editors on this panel—Flescher, Johnston, Wolff, Frank, Harrison, and Hughes—have done within the literary landscape is outstanding. Their words were inspiring and their stories well-told. Furthermore, that such a panel exists at all is a testament to the possibility of these discussions growing and actually making a difference in people’s lives. I certainly don’t have all the answers (if I even have any), and I can only hope this conversation will continue to grow through blogs, editorials, websites, and, of course, literary magazines.
But as it grows, we need to understand how complicated these matters truly are. While women should and must continue to submit their work, fighting doubly and triply hard to share their stories with the world, we need to keep in mind that the inequality in submitting and publishing cannot be explained only by women’s bad thinking habits. Telling us to “Toughen up!” or “Get out there and submit more!” is wonderful and encouraging advice. But we must not lose sight of the larger forces—economic, social, commercial—which act against women who wish to be artists. To those women I would like to say, “By golly, if you’ve made it this far, you’re pretty damn tough already.”