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Submitting Work: A Woman's Problem?

February 6, 2011 Books, Writing 31 Comments

By Becky Tuch

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.”


Currently there are "31 comments" on this Article:

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kelly Anderson, sillystoryideas. sillystoryideas said: Submitting Work: A Woman’s Problem?: By Becky Tuch One of the conversations floating around this year’s AWP conf… [...]

  2. Leslie Greffenius Leslie Greffenius says:

    “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 …” Thanks for shining a spotlight on this problem which seems to exist for women at every level of the publication ladder.

  3. Randy Susan Meyers randysusanmeyers says:

    Great article, impressions, and insight, Becky. It scares me to think of women taking up the ‘submit more’ cry as the answer. The numbers shown by VIDA, for reviews and gender disparity, reflect a serious problem with editors taking women’s work as seriously as they do men’s work. “Submit more” as an answer would be like saying “apply for more jobs” as the answer to inequities of hiring based on race and gender.

    • Necee Regis Necee says:

      I agree with Randy, it seems absurd that the solution would be “submit more.” Kind of like saying: Whap your head against the wall some more.

      Nice report, Becky. Thanks for sharing.

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Backspace, Kathleen Crowley. Kathleen Crowley said: From @TheReviewReview — conplex issues around gender inequity in publishing. At Beyond The Margins. #writing [...]

  5. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Becky –
    Thanks for not only updating us on the conversation at AWP and the Vida study, but also putting the issue in the larger context of gender and race inequality.

  6. Susan Zakin says:

    It’s fine to start your own magazine and I certainly understand why someone would. But we need to storm the barricades of Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. This is where careers are made. I believe if Vida continues getting buzz, at least one of these magazines can be embarrassed into hiring a woman editor in a top position. That won’t solve the problem but if she’s the right editor, it might be a start.

  7. Becky, thank you so much. I really needed this today. I was reading through the first draft of my novel because I have a rare 4 hours when my son is in his part-time day care, my baby daughter is sleeping, and I don’t have any freelance copy editing deadlines in the next few days. While reading, I got rather depressed thinking about the coming year and my desire to have a submittable draft of this novel by the end of it. When the hell am I going to have the time to *make* it submittable?!

    Yes, maybe women need to submit more. But I think you’ve nailed a lot of the problems here. I don’t let rejection deter me. I keep writing, keep working, keep submitting. But the time I’ve got to do any of the above is seriously limited by the realities of life: small children, house, freelance copy editing to pay for part-time day care. That is not to complain. I did choose to have children. But it does seem that, just like in other women’s careers, it shouldn’t have to be all-or-nothing with regards to kids and house. And that’s me speaking, who’s able to pay for part-time day care. Not all writers are so fortunate.

    Paris Review had a blog entry about the “Best Writers Under 40″ or whatever it was a while back, and it really made me think about the women writers I enjoy reading, and how many of them published seriously or at all while they had small children. Not many, was the answer. That didn’t mean they weren’t committed to writing, but that on a daily basis they had to choose between writing and being a present, semi-decent parent. I know the feeling.

  8. Cathy Day says:

    I think this essay by Carole DeSanti speaks to the same underlying forces. ” First of all, where are the early readers, amanuenses, advisors, and general factotums who have always guarded the literati—today’s equivalents of Dorothy Wordsworth, Sophia Hawthorne, Sofia Tolstaya, and Cynthia Thoreau; Leonard Woolf, Alice Toklas, Elizabeth Fowles, and Gabrielle Kerouac? Where are those who used to read drafts, shore up doubts, shush children, cook meals, endure writerly tantrums, encourage the wild experiment, agree to move abroad, hold salons, point out plot glitches, and bring the writer back to her heart’s desire?”

  9. I’m not convinced that “submit more” isn’t part of the answer. As well as being a writer, I edit a small twitterzine, 7×20. Because of VIDA’s count, I’m in the process of looking through my submission records. I publish almost exactly half women, though not by design (I try not to pay attention to anything but the work). I’m still collating results and haven’t looked at 2010 submissions yet, but so far men are submitting about 2/3 of what I receive. Science fiction and fantasy magazine Strange Horizons reports they get a similar breakdown.

    I wish the big magazines would provide stats for submissions, but as far as I know they don’t. If they receive 25% of submissions from women and publish 25% women, then the gender parity problem comes down to figuring out what prevents women from submitting (and I think you describe some possibilities). If they get 50% subs from women then it’s a whole different discussion. For an individual woman, “submit more” still seems to be sensible advice, even if incomplete as a strategy for the industry as a whole.

  10. [...] Becky Tuch restored my faith in humanity with this piece over at Beyond the Margins: … we need to understand how complicated these matters truly are. While women should and must [...]

  11. Advice to “submit more” places the onus on women as if it’s something about women that created those statistics rather than a power imbalance that goes back a long way, as you point out with the stats on earning power, etc. Not only that, but while I applaud every woman on those panels, the solutions they’ve come to aren’t new either. The Women’s Press in Toronto was founded in 1972 for the same reasons. In the mid to late 80′s, it began placing more emphasis on publishing material by the then current term “women of colour.” These are all good things, but they weren’t enough a generation ago to make the changes we’d all like to have seen today. I don’t know what the answer is, but there needs to be some new ones.

  12. Thanks for this, Becky. Those are the sessions I would have loved to attend if I could have gone to AWP.

    Did you see this piece in The New Republic? Same terrain—fascinating.

  13. Jeanne Leiby says:

    Hi. I’m Jeanne Leiby, editor of The Southern Review. The VIDA numbers and the article in TNR made me run TSR’s numbers today. I’ll post them on our blog tomorrow. But the upshot is this: In my eleven issues, we’ve published 40% women, 60% men. Our slushpile contains 40% women and 60% men. It gets a little bit more interesting when you break it down by genre. Our managing editor, Cara Blue Adams, and I have been talking about publishing disparity since she joined the staff just over two years ago. We have more questions than answers, but I think we’re both pleased that our numbers worked out the way that they did. We didn’t plan it. In fact, our only goal is to make sure that our journal has a rich tapestry of voices. But as we work through our numbers, I’ll let you know what we find.

    Best, Jeanne

  14. Judith Podell says:

    Most English majors are women. Majority of MFA students are women. More women read fiction. Male Gatekeepers are not interested in fiction by women unless it’s about manly pursuits or sex. The majority of gatekeepers are men. They consider themselves liberal.

    IN the Seventies, half the regular writers for the New Yorker were women. More women wrote for New York Review of Books .The Village Voice featured many women. Now, only Vivian Gornick and Katha Pollit remain. .

  15. Jeanne Leiby says:

    Hi. We posted a breakdown of the authors we’ve published by gender and genre (for the last three years). We’ve also posted the breakdown of our slush pile. You can read our findings at

    Best, Jeanne

  16. Caralyn says:

    I am a female writer. Over the past two years I have submitted short stories and personal essays to literary journals and magazines 116 times. I have received 91 rejections and am awaiting responses for the other 25 submissions.

    I’ll admit outright: My writing could suck. I might not be good enough to be published.

    I have some anecdotal evidence to the contrary. My pieces have been well-received by classmates and my teacher in my (non-MFA) writing classes. Two other published authors/writing teachers have reviewed my work and suggested I am publishable. And I have received two honorable mentions from Glimmer Train during this time period.

    But so far, no acceptances.

    Do I imagine literary journal editors walking around saying, “Women? We don’t publish no stinkin’ women!”

    No, I do not.

    But I do wonder if I simply don’t fit their vision of what literary fiction is, and I do wonder whether male writing styles have shaped that vision. I understand that each publication is trying to maintain a certain aesthetic, but perhaps it’s time for editors to push themselves to think outside their traditional boxes when seeking to meet that goal.

    That still might not get me published, but it definitely would give me hope.

  17. Michael says:

    A very thorough, sharp article. It’s the subtle nature of the whole thing that has made it so important to highlight and discuss how women are still marginalized in publishing. I think what Amanda shared about that first cover letter Torch received – “I couldn’t wait” – is the exact response we all need to have. Kudos on all this great, thoughtful coverage.

  18. [...] that week the blog on which the article was posted broke the record for site visitors. Nineteen people left comments, [...]

  19. [...] last blog post was about women and submitting—my thoughts on why women may submit less frequently to literary [...]

  20. so interesting. thanks for blogging about the theme. it’s a topic i pondered on and wrote about recently, too, including my experience as editor of an online magazine, the text then became part of Luna Park’s series “Race, Class, Gender & Sexuality in Indie Publishing” – thought i share both links, here a short introduction with links to the essay, and the whole series:

  21. [...] Submitting Work: A Woman’s Problem? — Becky Tuch @ Beyond the [...]

  22. [...] all relate to gender disparity in literary publications. Of them, I think I ally myself best with Becky Tuch’s “Submitting Work: A Woman’s Problem?”, in large part because she stresses the complexity of the problem over easy fixes. I also have to [...]

  23. Becky Tuch Becky Tuch says:

    I am absolutely floored by all the insightful, thoughtful, and inspiring comments here. Thank you to everyone who has tweeted, reposted, commented, and generally gotten involved in this discussion.

    I do think submitting more is part of the solution. If these debates have inspired you to submit more (as they have indeed inspired me), that’s wonderful.

    But, at the same time, if you haven’t been submitting work, don’t have time to submit work, or have been submitting but have not gotten published, don’t beat yourself up over it.

    Success and failure do not live in vacuums. Rarely are these the result of individual effort alone. In my opinion, proper social conditions are required for any one individual to find success with his/her work. At the same time, social inequality is often a cause for what may appear, on the surface, as a single individual’s failure to achieve something, whether it be in his/her writing career or elsewhere.

    Thanks again to everyone for leaving comments and participating in this conversation.

  24. [...] among submissions have observed that an equal gender balance arises naturally. This phenomenon was commented upon by Jeanne Leiby of Southern Review, Rebecca Morgan Frank of Memorious, and Joanne Merriam of [...]

  25. [...] among submissions have observed that an equal gender balance arises naturally. This phenomenon was commented upon by Jeanne Leiby of Southern Review, Rebecca Morgan Frank of Memorious, and Joanne Merriam [...]

  26. [...] but I suspect it’s not very different, especially since according to this article, men submit their work more frequently. Then I looked at a recent post by  journalist Porter Anderson who says that he notices far more [...]

  27. [...] doing the selecting at magazines and publishing houses.  Here’s one thoughtful follow-up:  Be sure and read the comments [...]

  28. Thank you so much for this post. I especially appreciate that you pointed out the barriers that many women face to submission – that is, finances. I’m in a pretty good place in my life to *write*: my kid is grown, my partner picks up a good deal of the housework, I work only part-time, and I have a room of my own. I have finished an 85,000-word memoir, written several essays, and regularly post to my blog, “Nerdy Words.”
    However, I don’t have the other half of Woolf’s dictum: money. As you pointed out, contests charge submission fees, and workshops cost money – for an adjunct English professor, a great deal of money (not to mention time off work). Until more workshops recognize what a significant barrier this is, and offer more scholarships, they will continue to exclude otherwise qualified writers.
    I also second your call for more mentors. I used my meager tax refund to pay for an excellent editor, but how much work could have been saved if I would have had those literary friends you speak of, who could honestly critique a manuscript, offer suggestions or even introductions to editors?
    My hat is off to you!

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Becky Tuch

Becky Tuch
Becky Tuch is the founding editor The Review Review, a website dedicated to helping writers navigate the world of literary magazines. The Review Review has been listed by Writer's Digest Magazine as one of 101 Best Websites for Writers. Becky has received literature fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and the Somerville Arts Council, and her fiction has won awards from Moment Magazine, Glimmer Train, Briar Cliff Review, and has been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize. Other fiction has appeared in Hobart, Graze, Folio, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She has blogged for Virginia Quarterly Review, Grub Daily, and is one of the founding members of Beyond the Margins. She teaches at Grub Street in Boston. Learn more at Read Full