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Where Are the Women Writers? (ASME Edition)

The cofounder of VIDA's byline inequality survey weighs in on the dude-centric list of 2012 National Magazine Award finalists.

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
At the New Yorker, women write less than 29 percent of the articles.


Update: MoJo's editors discuss the controversy with ASME chief Sid Holt.

They called it the Count, and the concept was simple: Tally up how many women get published in some of the world's top literary magazines and journals, compare it with the number of men gracing those pages, and slap the results into a pie chart. Red for men, blue for women. The result was a lot of big red pie slices. First published in 2011, they conveyed a clear fact: From Harpers to The New Yorker to The Atlantic, it's still very much a man's world. Roughly 65 to 75 percent of the space in the prestigious magazines went to male writers.

The Count is the brainchild of two accomplished poets, Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu. In 2009, the duo founded VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, a nonprofit that acts as part online community, part advocate and agitator for women of letters. The idea, Belieu says, came in a "moment of loathing and terror and revolutionary spark."

They intended the Count to be a conversation starter, and it certainly has been: After they published the first round, some major magazine editors slammed the numbers as unscientific or meaningless by themselves. Others took them to heart and vowed to work harder for parity. "We've got to do better," New Yorker editor David Remnick said of his magazine's results. The conversation heated up again this February, after the second tally was published. (Turns out that Mother Jones has done better: We weren't included in the VIDA tallies, but we surveyed our own print pages and found just as many women as men contributing to them.)

Half of MoJo's bylines are women's.: Samantha OltmanHalf of MoJo's bylines are women's. Chart: Samantha Oltman

And now the problem has once again reared its head: On Tuesday, when the 2012 National Magazine Award finalists were announced, exactly zero women were nominated in the big brass-ring categories—reporting, features, profiles, essays, and columns. (Some women did get nominations in other categories, most encouragingly two nods in public interest journalism, although more typically for pieces about breast cancer economics and "mommy tucks.") "The National Magazine Awards have sent a pretty clear message," Belieu says. "When it comes to a career in journalism, chicks should stick to writing about chicks."

Mother Jones picked Belieu's brain at a steamy outdoor bar in north Florida. She's enjoyed some successes in the literary world: A celebrated poet who's worked with Robert Pinsky, Derek Walcott, and Adrienne Rich, she currently teaches creative writing at Florida State University. She also raises a son—and works at expanding VIDA's reach in whatever remaining time she has.

Mother Jones: What was your reaction to Tuesday's National Magazine Award nominations?

Erin Belieu: Courtesy photoErin Belieu Courtesy photoErin Belieu: Not to denigrate the genuine accomplishments of the small number of women who were nominated, but it's interesting that they're acknowledged for what Ann Friedman identifies as "service" writing—the vast majority of their nominated articles concerning "women's issues"—on breast cancer, under-aged brides, women's body image. These are all worthy subjects and the nominations are well deserved, but it does beg the question: Do women journalists only want to write about "women's issues"? Or is that the only thing for which they're commonly rewarded? Why is it that the nominated men wrote about such a variety of topics that don't seem to be strictly defined by the equipment they sport from the waist down?

A friend of mine defines this kind of intellectual segregation as the "tits and nether bits" ghetto, a place in which women only speak to other women. Meantime, men are allowed and encouraged to speak to whomever they want. These issues and questions are ones we at VIDA hope editors may think through in the future when assigning articles to reporters. And we also want to give women writers the confidence to say, "Hey, I can write about whatever I want. I have authority. I have expertise. I have a unique perspective as a person, first and foremost."

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MJ: Give us the background on VIDA and how it started.

EB: Cate Marvin, my co-conspirator, was feeling frustrated with the fact that she had a panel rejected that was the very first feminist panel that she proposed for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. She was looking at some of the other panels on new criticism and how to publish a poem, and she just sort of felt like there wasn't a conversation going on that she could feel good about. She was at her house—she's a single mother by choice—and she was provoked by folding tons and tons of little tiny infant clothing. She had a gigantic pile of laundry. She suddenly had this vision of herself as the character in Tilly Olson's "I Stand Here Ironing."

She had this moment of loathing and terror and revolutionary spark. She hit a level of frustration where she decided to write a now slightly infamous email, saying: "What the heck is going on? Why aren't women's issues being discussed, what does it mean to be a writer, why am I the only woman feeling this way?"

I got Cate's email, and it was an amazing email. The text of it was truly a kind of revolutionary document, and incredibly heartfelt and smart. I stayed up for hours forwarding it to hundreds of people. The next morning her inbox had just collapsed with all of these people who in a 12-hour period had written back to say, "Hell yeah, I feel exactly the same way. What are we going to do about it? Let's do something." That morning I got a call from Cate saying, "You're the one who forwarded this to everyone, you're going to be my co-conspirator, my cofounder." I was like, okay, let's start an organization.

"Is it because women are inherently slothful? Most of the women I know are busting their asses. They're not standing around eating bonbons."

MJ: What else does VIDA do to further the mission?

EB: We've spent the last few years building a board of directors, building up an advisory board, teaching ourselves about fundraising, connecting with other programs. In the meantime we've been doing the Count, because Cate and I always saw this as one of our central missions. But it's not enough to just point out the inequity. I think we're now getting ourselves in a position where we can do some mentoring programs. The first things we really want to work on are mentoring workshops, where we have women mentoring each other. One of the realities for women writers is that sometimes you'll start strong, but as you see people go up the ladder, working in their literary lives, getting prizes and awards and the better teaching gigs, women tend to sort of drop away. That's one thing we want to understand.

The other thing that we feel really strongly about is providing VIDAships—we're not going to call them fellowships. We're going to put our money where our mouths are and provide financial opportunities that'll make a difference in women's lives, provide time and space to do great work.

MJ: Much of VIDA's work is focused on the creative writerly arts and journals of opinion. Do you see problems among general-interest and consumer magazines, too?

EB: If you go off into general-interest magazines, often women are being shoved aside into various ghettos that perpetuate the problem. Women's interests are specialized, they're secondary; they're somewhere over to the side of the serious work that's being done. Throughout history, there have been ladies' magazines, ladies' journals, and for years there have been women writers who would refuse to participate in women-only sort projects because of that stigma. And you've got Peter Stothard at the Times Literary Supplement saying women "are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS." He was basically saying, "Women aren't interested in heavy issues; we do heavy work."

I know there's a part of the feminist world that is like, "Hey, screw 'em, we'll do our own thing over here," and I can see there's a value in that. But a kind of nudgy part of me thinks: No. I want access, and I want my daughters to have access to the exact same thing, because we all know there's no such thing as separate but equal.

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