Writing Equality

Every Saturday I have a writing date with Margaret where we struggle to put words on the page and then cheer each other on when we submit things or come up with ideas we are merely grasping at. Last Saturday she asked me about a contest that I had entered back in December. Grand prize was 2k and the prompt was to write about a man-made natural disaster in order to bring awareness to environmental issues. I fell madly in love with the story I wrote. It was exciting, it felt right, I knew it would be a contender and how often does that happen, really?

When Margaret asked about it, I said they hadn’t made a decision yet. But I was wrong. Kamel did some searching online and came up with a winner’s page posted back in Jan. This particular site is run by Gawker, not particularly known for it’s literary merit to say the least. But 2k was on the line, and they couldn’t even send a notification email out? They had just over 250 applicants – which tells me they could have easily sent out emails and also slightly embarrasses me that with such a small pool of competition I didn’t even get an honorable mention. But then I looked at the winners and I understood why. Both main winners, male. The excerpt from the winning story – a strong male voice, incredibly fact based (a focus more on terms and science than on good story telling). The only mention of female participants? Both in an honorable mention capacity, not even as a runner up. The site is mostly read by men, and science based writing is culturally viewed as a men’s genre, but don’t even tell me that women don’t write sci-fi as well as men do, don’t even tell me that there just aren’t as many women writing it as men. My frustration doesn’t come from losing, it comes from a sub-par winner that happens to have a quick Hemingway-esque style and no imagination. Main character is a reporter? Reporting on a natural disaster? Wow, color me shocked.

If you have spent any amount of time in the literary fiction world as a woman it becomes clear there is a glass ceiling. I felt it subtly throughout undergrad in my creative writing classes – those who were treated like the best writers in the class? Almost always men. (With the exception of me, of course… I’m not even going to lie about that.) When I was teaching a Women’s Lit Survey course at USF, I was shocked to have students tell me point blank they didn’t read women writers, that they thought male writers were more interesting, told a better story, that women only write about romance and feelings. They said this without a flinch, to my face, all while I was writing a novel about death, about taxidermy, that was irreverent and complicated.

When I told Margaret this she asked me how I hadn’t punched them in the face. Well, as I got to know them, I also saw that they didn’t know very much about a lot of things, so I figured it was a bit of a lost cause. I am a writer, I think I’m pretty awesome, maybe I could teach by example?

So Margaret and I had a common chat about typical sexism in writing, how frustrating it is, how – yet again – men are the predominant winners for contests, for fame, and for publication. And then Margaret wrote a fabulous blog about the issue. She says,

Gender inequality that has nothing to do with writing is going to affect writing. That’s what it means to live in patriarchy. Everything is touched. I don’t think it’s a mark against any literary journal or magazine to acknowledge that.

This isn’t just two lady writers bitching about not getting published. I’ve received countless denial letters, it’s par for the course of any writer, regardless of gender. It’s about a constant preference for a male voice. To say it more clearly – how many books to movies can you think of with a strong female lead? Not an ensemble cast, not the girl who moons over the vampire, but a movie with a dynamic female lead that came from a novel. Even if you name 5, there are 50 more for men.

These are the numbers that Vida collected and put into pie charts. Go ahead and click on the link, scroll through the page, it will take you 5 seconds to see the SHOCKING inequality. I knew it was there, as a writer I feel it in the air, but to see that if I submit to Harper’s I don’t just have the slim chance of every other writer to be published there – I have less than 25% chance whereas a man has over 75% of the field. It honestly makes me want to cry. It makes me want to rage. And it makes me want to write and write and write and write and submit until I get published again and again. But will I even make a dent? The glass ceiling is there, waiting to stop me.

Green Eyed

Recently I’ve had something on my mind that I can’t quite shake. It came out of a conversation with Meg at A Practical Wedding, and this post in particular. She was writing about the self, and how women tend to undervalue themselves, and she briefly touched on how women also seem to hold each other down, or at least fail in lifting each other up, in surprising frequency.

Meg’s post was (I think) supposed to leave me feeling empowered, or at least remind me that I need to work on valuing myself more, expecting more for my talents and wares, etc. Instead, I’ve been chewing on anger and frustration.

The people who commented were great, uplifting cheerleaders for strong women everywhere. Some of them mentioned how they were just having this discussion with themselves in their own heads, or with friends. They mentioned how they struggle with balancing all of their lady-hats (mom, wife, employee, employer, writer, designer, etc) and how even with all of that juggling they never feel they are doing enough, or at least doing enough to deserve anything beyond a certain point with money. There was a resounding cheer of “yes! we need to acknowledge that we a) have a problem with valuing ourselves monetarily and b) we often judge other women for working too hard or being too focused on motherhood or even (dare I say) getting paid too much (what did she do for THAT raise, I wonder?).”

So why am I so frustrated? What she is talking about, and what all of those comments said were good and progressive. But maybe I’m inpatient. They were just comments. And it’s easy to say “woo hoo!” on a blog post and then turn around and judge the other woman in the office for getting the promotion, or the other mom who is on her blackberry while she takes her kids to the park, or the woman who has dogs and no children but a stunning business career because “she really must have such an empty life without a family”. What is wrong with us? Seriously. Men can be single forever with boats and ridiculous cars that cost more than a large house, and unless he’s a total ass hole, nobody finds that odd or sad. Men actually help their buddy’s in business, that’s why they call it the boys club.

And maybe I’m still pissed and shocked by one experience in college (way back somewhere between 2003-2006) that summed up a lot of smaller instances I’ve seen for my entire life. I was taking a women’s studies course on language and rhetoric (it counted for speech without having me actually get up in front of anyone). On the first day of class the professor asked how many people in the class considered themselves feminist. The class was about 30 people large. I was the only person to raise my hand.

I was the only person to raise my hand. The only one.

And when the professor asked some of the women in the class why they didn’t consider themselves a feminist, they said because we didn’t need to feminists anymore, that it meant being a man hater, that saying you were a feminist meant you wanted to be better than men, that you were a lesbian, that we were already equal so what more could women ask for?

There is this whole perception in mainstream America that women are silly. We like romance novels, and twilight movies, and shoes, and over sized bags and over sized sunglasses. We’ll know more about eyeliner than world events, and god forbid you show up to our door with anything serious, like the news, we may just have a spell.

I freaking love shoes, and I read every single twilight book, but I have educated opinions, two degrees, I deserve equal pay for doing the same work as the guy next to me, and the only thing that makes women silly is when we don’t have each others back, when we keep each other down by feeding the fire of “you don’t deserve that”, when we are too jealous of the lady next to us to allow her the chance of breaking through the glass ceiling. It’s hard, but it doesn’t actually start here, reading this. It starts when you can feel the jealousy for another woman’s successes and instead of wishing that she fails, you push her up even further, you push yourself further to match her success without pulling her down, when you’re faced with putting something or someone down because it’s feminine, don’t. Be stronger than that, we all need to be stronger than that. And it really has nothing to do with lighting undergarments on fire.