Representation and Responsibility

Women have a representation problem. This in itself may not be news, but many of us are now realizing the problem is much bigger than we’d thought. Back in February, VIDA’s 2010 Count quantified the gender disparity in some major literary publications and the results were devastating. Now, with the recent release of VIDA’s Best American Count, which examines the gender balance of authors published in the Best American anthologies in essays, fiction, and poetry, I’ve again found myself absorbed in spreadsheet data, disparities, disappointments, questions, and concerns. At the same time I find myself in a terrifying cultural moment, every day more cause for alarm. And within this dizzying swirl of imbalanced publishing norms and cultural wars against women lies the significance of these numbers. In response to VIDA’s 2010 Count there were many responses along the lines of, These are only numbers, or, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s true. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they might reflect, enable, embolden, or sustain a story. And that would be the story of women, as told by others.

Beyond the straight numbers, the “simple” issue of gender parity in publishing, lie deeper questions that ought to be asked about marginalization (gender, race, sexuality, dis-ability, class, etc.),  in literature and in contemporary culture. And we ought to be asking how these issues in culture and literature mirror and perpetuate, or exacerbate, one another. In the first five months of 2011 in the US:

there has been a massive political assault on women’s rights;

the horrific gang rape of a young girl in Texas highlighted how rampant and vicious our society is in its victim blaming and how careless and callous is our culture of rape;

the recent Strauss Kahn rape charges reveal more victim blaming/shaming, racism, classism, stigmatization;

a sixteen-year old-cheerleader who’d been kicked off her school’s cheerleading squad for refusing to cheer for one of her rapists must now pay $45,000 to her former high school for its legal fees after the Supreme Court refused to hear her case;

in some Georgia counties, public breastfeeding of toddlers over the age of two is now banned by legislation which allows women to publicly breastfeed their infants (under the age of two) as an exception in the counties’ public indecency ordinances banning lewd acts in public places;

and, most recently,

The House Committee on Rules recently blocked a vote on an amendment to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that would have allowed military women who are raped coverage for an abortion through their health plans. As it stands, servicewomen who are raped and become pregnant must pay out of pocket for the procedure unless their lives are in danger. Medicaid recipients, federal employees, and women serving time in federal prisons have coverage for abortions in cases of rape and incest under their federal health plans. More than 3,000 cases of rape were reported in the armed services in FY 2009, and the Department of Defense estimates the actual number to be much higher since most assaults go unreported.

In Kansas, GOP Rep. Pete DeGraaf, on the requirement under new legislation that women purchase a supplemental “abortion plan” for insurance to cover the procedure, likened it to planning ahead in life for the unexpected. He told the Kansas House,  “I have a spare tire on my car.”

The message to women: just as car owners should plan ahead for a flat tire, as the owner of a vagina, you should plan ahead in case someday you’re a victim of rape. Violent crime against women is presented here as metaphorically equivalent to getting a flat tire. And to fund your preparedness for a violent crime potentially being committed against you someday,  you’ll need to use your own wages, which are probably less than your rapist’s.

You can pay for the insurance coverage for abortion or for the procedure itself, but either way the implication is clear: it’s your responsibility. In our victim blaming culture, no doubt the purchase of an abortion policy would eventually be used in a rape trial as evidence that the victim “wanted” or “invited” it to happen, or that it had been consensual—she’s clearly a promiscuous woman, the defense would say, the sort who purchased an “abortion policy” to cover the expenses of her unwanted pregnancies. That a woman must buy a separate insurance policy (in advance) to cover an abortion if she is impregnated by her rapist, or must fund her own abortion if raped while, and likely because, she is serving in our military, further indicates that in our culture women are assumed to be responsible for their own rapes—whether by inviting it or being expected to prepare for its possibility and/or finance the unwanted and traumatic consequences that may result.

Elsewhere in the zeitgeist:

The “Don’t Say Gay” bill recently passed the Tennessee Senate.

Over 1 million LGBT families in the US do not have equal rights or protections on matters such as marriage, health care and benefits, adoption, and more.

Psychology Today recently published an article by Satoshi Kanazawa on its blog,  in which he claimed African American women were found to be “objectively” less attractive than European American, Asian American and Native American women (which was later removed from the site, his finding disputed by an independent analysis of the same data).

The first study of crime against people with disabilities undertaken by the United States Justice Department shows that the number of violent crimes committed against girls (over 12) and women with a disability was nearly double the number committed against girls and women without disabilities. Do you remember seeing that in the news? Have you read any essays, stories, or poems addressing this issue recently?

Look at the media and political landscape on any given day, pay attention to how gender, race, sexuality, dis-ability are treated, and evaluate who is addressing the issues, whose issues are even being addressed, and whose issues are being decided without their voices or participation. The OpEd Project’s byline surveys have revealed that op-ed articles by women authors account for only 15-25% of those published in top U.S. news outlets. In the 112th Congress, women comprise only 16.8% of the total membership (91 women 448 men: 74 in the House and 17 in the Senate). According to the 2010 US Census, women make up 50.8% of the U.S. population (ironically, a number of news releases regarding the new census data have headlines such as, “Men Narrow Women’s population Advantage” and “U.S. population aging, edge of women over men shrinks”).

As I am writing this today, there is a headline on Huffington Post— “Women’s Voices Missing From Federal Budget Negotiations”— and as the article points out, “There hasn’t been a single woman given a seat at the budget negotiating table, despite the fact that many proposed cuts would hit programs that disproportionately affect women.”

Women’s Voices Missing. That is what I’m getting at here. Do we really believe that the gender imbalance in publishing (and the imbalanced representation of diversity of all kinds) is a self-contained problem—one that does not have much wider implications if it is not addressed? What if the voices, stories, experiences, issues, sensibilities of women were represented equitably in books and journals? If work by women, about women, from women’s perspectives, representing the voices of many women (not women as “a” woman, a universal she who stands in for all women) were given equal weight and value? How might it effect the larger landscape if the voices of the marginalized stopped being marginalized in what gets published, what we read?

Writing is political even if we don’t recognize it as such— language itself is political and writing is done by people. By extension, editing and publishing are political acts, as well—even if not recognized as such, even if we may wish they were not. Editors and publishers filter what voices are heard, what and whose stories are told and from what perspective, whose work is valued (or devalued), who gets the professional benefits of publication, who can or cannot advance in careers which depend on publication. What is published decides not only what is available to be read, but also what is available to be taught, and often who may teach it. What gets published determines whether or not a particular population is included in what is available to be read and taught, and if so whether or not that inclusion is reductive. If as writers, editors, and publishers we find our cultural and political climate at all alarming or problematic, and we fail to address the imbalances that currently render groups silent, invisible (or accepted mostly when “passing” as the status quo) in what is read and taught, we are guilty of inaction, if not of enacting the same sort of silencing as occurs in our political and cultural institutions and mainstream media.

As writers who also identify as women (and not only those whose work is written exclusively for or about women), we must write and submit our work, relentlessly. And keep sending out. Even if we don’t see publication numbers increase immediately, we can eliminate the “we don’t get enough submissions from women” excuse for the imbalance. As writers, our job is to do our work, do it well, and do our best to get it published. As women, our job is to advocate for ourselves and one another, to not be silent about the black hole the Count numbers suggest most of our submissions will fall into. Keep sending, keep counting, and keep asking.  Force publications to “own their bias” as Eileen Myles puts it in “Being Female.” It’s our responsibility—not only to continue to push, but to increase the weight and force of our push—demand presence and voice. And demand that it come in a way that is not tokenized, separatist, or framed by androcentrism.

As editors and publishers, we can take responsibility for what we solicit and publish, examine our biases and how they may impact our perceptions of what constitutes “best” or what we believe to be “important” work. Nobody’s asking editors and publishers to accept sloppy or “unimportant” work. We are asking them to re-evaluate the personal, learned/accepted/inherited filters through which they determine what is “best” and “important.”

Embracing diversity and creating equality mean eliminating “otherness,” not “permitting” it or relegating it to a “special feature.” If your journal isn’t getting an equitable number of submissions from men and women, if it generally lacks diversity, that is a problem, not an excuse. You need to ask yourself why, and what can be done?  If your journal publishes 70% male authors and 30% female, do you expect 50/50 submissions? Writers generally evaluate whether or not a journal is an appropriate venue for their work before submitting. If you’ve solicited women authors and your submission numbers are still falling short, solicit more. And if women aren’t responding with submissions when you solicit them, rather than explaining it away as some deficiency on the part of women writers (they don’t send enough, don’t follow-through enough, don’t pursue enough), why not drop them a line and ask why they didn’t send you anything? That’s what someone who really wants to understand a situation and take action to remedy it would do. It’s not so hard. If you want to know why women writers aren’t sending you work, ask a bunch of women writers why they aren’t sending you work. It may be that your numbers seem prohibitive, it could be the content or aesthetics, or it may have nothing to do with your publication at all. Certainly there are many cultural factors that could be responsible: the wage gap, uneven division of domestic responsibilities and parenting duties, raising children with special needs, work demands, etc. But you’ll never really know unless you ask. My guess is you won’t get a single reply saying, “I’m just unambitious so I don’t write or send out much. But thanks for checking in. I’ll send you some work if I ever get around to it.” Not asking is not acting and if you’re not willing to act, at least own it. Don’t make it sound like the case has already been decided before the investigation is complete and it’s clearly the fault of the women themselves (sound familiar?).