The first man to join She Writes was my founding partner Deborah Siegel's
dad. (Sorry, Dr. Siegel, for outing you here!) The best part is, I was the one to approve him, and I had absolutely no clue who he was. This was in the first week of She Writes' explosive entry into the world of cyberspace, and we were approving hundreds of members a day. But when I saw the name "Allen Siegel" it stopped me in my tracks. Why on earth would a man join She Writes?
I wondered. I looked at the answers he supplied to his profile questions. He'd written a book. He didn't have a creepy picture. (There was no picture at all, in fact.) He seemed legit. Knowing that I was setting an important precedent for our group, I took a deep breath, trusted my gut, and hit "accept."
What compelled me to say yes that day, and has led me to say "yes" ever since? I could think of plenty of reasons to say no. I'd never had a moment's hesitation about starting a network for women, about women, and by women. What made that choice, for Debbie and me, so clear? The simple fact, as one member of She Writes put it to me in a series of private messages pressing me on this question, that "the WHOLE WORLD is He Writes!" The (white hetero) male perspective, and the male writer, is still treated as the universal, the default, and the authority on all of human experience; the female perspective, and the female writer, is still treated as the other and the exception, her authority as a representative of the human condition constantly, insultingly challenged and undermined. As the British novelist Maggie Gee put it in her "Five Questions" interview
with Elaine Showalter on She Writes: "...after three decades in the literary world, I certainly see the persistent marginalization of women’s writing. Male critics still unconsciously look at us as a separate group: 'X is the best woman writer this year,' as a fellow Booker prize judge once unwisely said to me. Women are very often reviewed by women, reviewed in bundles, and (this is my special bugbear) reviewed in terms of their subject-matter rather than their art. Male writers are described as 'great' much sooner in their careers, while women can win many prizes, publish a huge amount, and still be called 'promising' at age forty-two."
When the late Diane Middlebrook
and I founded the all-women literary salon that gave rise to She Writes, we thought for a minute about including men. But only for a minute. "Some people won't like it being all-women," Diane observed, "But it must be if it is going to work." I agreed with her then, and I agree with her now. Every day I see anew the need for women writers to band together, organize, mentor, support one another and, all too often, let out a collective SCREAM for reasons global and intimate, big and small. It puzzles me that men would feel the need to be in these "rooms" too, particularly when, with a name like She Writes, they are so clearly not our intended audience.
On the other hand, She Writes is not
a literary salon, taking place in my home. She Writes is a more ambitious and public attempt to empower women writers, raise their profiles and provide them with the tools they need to succeed in their work. And to be honest I'm far more interested in the possibilities for power and influence She Writes contains than I am in She Writes as a refuge. Writers are radical, they are public, they are daring. I don't always feel like all -- or any -- of those things. Sometimes my skin feels very thin indeed, and I admit that a certain kind of man is capable of making me feel vulnerable in ways that women don't and never will. (A certain kind of woman can have me quaking in my boots, too.) I also know that other women
are uniquely capable, and in fact indispensable, to strengthening my resolve to write, to be public, and to dare. It is the women here who make me feel safe in the big, wide world -- safe enough to take all comers.
And finally, why deny Debbie's dad the opportunity to show his support for his daughter and all women writers by joining this community? And why miss our chance to show him a thing or two? I have two sons, and while they are much too young to follow the goings on here, I can't think of a better education in the issues facing women writers than reading and thinking about the conversations that take place on She Writes. I would be so pleased to know my sons had been exposed, for instance, to the International Women's Day reading list
--the list of international women writers that this community generated in honor of International Women's Day--and had had their minds, hearts, and horizons expanded by its mission and its scope.
That being said, respect and boundaries are essential to the success of this community. And those are things over which, using this technology, we can have a powerful say. We control who joins She Writes, and we have declined a fair number of men (and some women) whose profiles are nonsense or whose intentions seem murky at best. We can ban any member at any time whose contributions are flagged as threatening or insulting, and this helps us ensure an atmosphere of safety and civility on the site. One member told me she worried the presence of men "might discourage women from feeling safe to write or say whatever they want," and I am sensitive to that concern, but I am also confident in the power of this technology. Each of you has the power to set your privacy settings as you choose
, to participate only in private groups if you wish, to start private writing groups
yourself, to decline friend requests and to block messages from any member from whom you'd rather not hear. Choice is of the utmost importance here, and the functionalities of this network -- a work-in-progress, to be sure -- preserve it relatively well.
I know some of you have very strong and passionate feelings that men should not be permitted on this site. I also know that some of you are men! (What do you
think?) It's important to open this discussion to our community, and I welcome a spirited debate. How do you feel when you see a man on the site, in your group, or participating in your discussion thread? How often does that happen? (From my observance, hardly at all.) What would you propose She Writes' man-policy should be? How might banning men weaken or strengthen our efforts? How might it impact our capacity to grow, both as writers and as a force to be reckoned with in publishing? And to all She Writers: what do you see as the key advantage of this being SHE Writes, and not something else?