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  • Why We Need She Writes Press. (Just The Facts, Ma'am.)
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Why We Need She Writes Press. (Just The Facts, Ma'am.)
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
August 2015
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
August 2015

I had coffee recently with a woman who founded a literary organization. I'd been looking forward to it for a while: two writerly founders, getting together, talking shop. We had an enjoyable round of getting-to-know-you, and then she asked me, with a look of only faintly concealed, puzzled disdain, why I'd felt it necessary to "limit" She Writes and SWP to women. Like I was afraid of something. Like I was running away, instead of stepping into the ring.

I get asked this a lot.

VIDA's count, begun six years ago, provides hard data that makes answering this question much easier. Women are consistently, unquestionably, irrefutably treated as second-class citizens when it comes to serious critical reception of their work, whether it's being reviewed, being asked to write reviews, or being awarded major prizes. Before VIDA's count, everyone knew this, but it was easy for those invested in the status quo to call it unsubstantiated whining. After The Count, it was hard evidence that couldn't be ignored. I mentioned The Count to my fellow founder, which helped, as it always does. But I'm sorry to say that in the weeks since we met, several additional pieces of evidence have come my way that further support the need for She Writes Press and other publishers like it: publishers committed to championing women's voices by publishing work that agents and the publishing establishment reject (with men and women both, oftentimes, succumbing to unconscious bias) because work by women has to be that much better than similar work by men to surmount the instant handicap of the authorial "she". 

Some of the latest?

Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under A Male Name. A female novelist submits the exact same novel, with the exact same cover letter, under a male name, and a third of the agents ask to see the manuscript. When she submitted under her own name, Catherine, only one in twenty-five asked for a copy. 

Books About Women Don't Win Big Awards: Some Data. As it turns out, not only is it a strike against you if you are a woman writer, it is a double strike against you if you are a woman writer writing a book about a female protagonist. Men can write books about women, but women, if they want the big prizes, have a much better chance if they write books about men. (Thank you to SWP author Nancy Kricorian for sending this link my way.)

Young, White, Male? The Role Is Yours. As The New York Times' Manohla Dargis put it in summarizing the findings of a study, "Inequality in 700 Popular Films," that came out just a few days ago,"The numbers are stunning: From 2007 through 2014, women made up only 30.2 percent of all speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films released in the United States." Only 1.9 percent of these movies were directed by women, and in 2014, not a single title in the top-grossing 100 fictional films starred a woman over forty-five. The stories movies tell and the protagonists they feature shape our conceptions of who and what matters in our culture, and yet women and people of color are barely allowed to speak, let alone drive the story.

When Deborah Siegel and I founded She Writes, we didn't make it only for women because we wanted to create a safe haven, or a refuge, or a hideout, for women who couldn't hack it with their (more talented, apparently) male counterparts. (We also have welcomed male members from the beginning--if they are here sharing their knowledge in support of this community, we are glad to have them.) We focused on women like ourselves, who, in a world where male privilege extends into every facet of our society, from the sciences to teaching to high tech, wanted to do two things: 1) help one another become the best possible writers, publishers and self-promoters (yes, that too!) we could be; and 2) create new institutions when the existing ones weren't serving us. That's why She Writes Press.

Now I have a blog post I can send anybody who doesn't get it.  And so do you.

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  • Mary Ellen Latela, enjoyed your comment. Yes, men make more money and get more attention in every field, including science. I see you worked in STEM at one point. I made a living as a scientist--but was paid a lot less than male colleagues, as I found out when I was ready to retire. Still, two generations before my time (the '60s), it was virtually impossible to be a female scientist with a husband and children. I did, however, have a few congenial male colleagues, which made it all tolerable for a while. I got around the male-preference problem in publishing scientific articles by using just my initials when I submitted. It worked. Many colleagues, when I met them at conferences, thought I was a man.

    I recently posted a blog on the ups and downs of being a female scientist, partly as a tribute to a couple of the men who made it possible.

  • Mary Ellen Latela

    Tami, I'm surprised at the response of founder 2, in a way. I love your statement: "We focused on women like ourselves, who, in a world where male privilege extends into every facet of our society, from the sciences to teaching to high tech, wanted to do two things: 1) help one another become the best possible writers, publishers and self-promoters (yes, that too!) we could be; and 2) create new institutions when the existing ones weren't serving us. That's why She Writes Press." I'm trying to figure out how to make a mural in my office with similar sentiments (but I rent).

    As  a woman who was bowled over by Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (which also saved my life!) I have been here a while. In grad school, we had a group session in which we talked about writers who had influenced us and I said, "Betty!" One of the "kids" said, "Oh, I think my mother read that!" Strike one, Strike Two,....

    Your little essay, Kami, hit the truth of how women have to struggle to be fully themselves, as long as they do the diapers and the cooking, and squeeze in some time (midnight to two am) to write. Hubby comes home, grabs the paper and perhaps a drink, and I have to pull the crunched up news from his hands to recycle it.

    I have worked in STEM (in the bowels of the Yale Sterling research lab) and in the scarier rich kids' schools in Massachusetts. I did this to get scholarships, so that I could concentrate somehow on my writing. I was acknowledged for my writing, but not with a pile of money.

    Male privilege is still strong. They make more money for the same work. Women make great teachers and we all know how well that pays.  I think like is very good, but I would warn that being complacent is NOT an option.

    Best Wishes, Mary Ellen

  • Debra Bokur

    Great books to help with the process, especially when encountering creative block: Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and Turning Pro.

  • Yeah, Cate, I hope you know I wasn't challenging your notion. Frankly, my book budget is slim enough that I get what I can second hand--Little Free Libraries, anyone? It's just that I've spent so much time recently researching the Civil Rights movement, seeing how long hard fight to make change is often like fighting a river--you may change the river's bed and think that's a victory, but the river still flows and may shift back any time. Or like watching antisemitism's ebb and flow. I grew up after a great waterfall, and in a fairly innocuous place, but things can change back. . .

  • I was moved by a panel on this topic at the last (and my first) AWP Conference. It's flat-out silly that a book about women by men gets taken seriously when a book about women by women is "a woman's book." It's flat out bigotry to think that books by men are more important than those by women.  But how do we change it? How do we, each of us, work to change a biased system? Through protest, boycotting, Mind by mind by mind conversations? (I do find conversation very productive when discussing racial or religious bigotry, though conversation is time-consuming, and must involve listening as well as talking.)

    Cate's suggestion is interesting. Will it make substantial change? I guess I resist ideas that call for quotas or for punishing male writers. What we want to do is open the doors to women, not shut them for men. 

  • Joan Z. Rough

    I like your suggestion, Cate.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Cate, good idea! :)

  • Patricia and Charlene, that sounds like a plan. I already mostly buy books by women authors, but I'll try to be even more selective from now on! I'm in a book club that's half male and half female, so I'm sure I'll still buy some books by males, but...

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Patricia the thought had crossed my mind, also...what if? All of us refused to acknowledge male writers and instead just purchased work by women...it would change the market place, fast!

  • Patricia Robertson

    Reflecting on  Charlene's comments from Wednesday - as women, we have a lot of purchasing power. What would happen if all of the women in the world only purchased books by other women? Not suggesting we do that, but is something to think about. Could be one way to change male bias in publishing. 

  • Thank you so much, all, for the encouragement and for the very thoughtful comments. This really makes me feel so supported and encouraged in the work we are all involved in! Keep writing, everyone. What better remedy...?

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    to your list Jo Anne Valentine Simson, I have to add: all the "religious" pedophiles and frauds in all traditions, Tibetan Buddhism included. I may change my handle CD Jones sounds...well...

  • I have a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences, and I found it much easier to get a paper published in the scientific literature if I used my initials instead of my full name when submitting. A few colleagues I met at scientific meetings were surprised to find out I was a woman.

    It's just so hard for me to understand how people can possibly consider men superior to women! Look at all the rapists in our society. Look at the proportion of the prison population that is male! Look at all the lying, cheating, arrogant, sociopathic businessmen and politicians. What's superior about all that? 

    It's both amazing and appalling. I'm glad this (SheWrites) is a safe and supportive place for women.

  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    Well said, Kamy..thanks for this.

  • Lene Fogelberg Writing

    Thanks Kamy for sharing this. This is why I am so impressed by this writing community and She Writes Press. Thank you for everything you have done to create and develop this platform!!

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Agreed Cate: "Extreme ideology always surfaces when the tide is about to turn." Here are some thoughts about rape, that viperous creation out of the nest of Patriarchy: rapists are puerile and impotent. We who have been raped know that the rapists was unable to engorge properly...in the man's world, that is the most important activity in the world and to be unable to achieve it means being less than a man. Sooo what do rapists do? They brag to other men about their exploits, hinting, suggesting they "changed her mind" etc etc and women, ask the men in your life about the times they stood listening as one among them bragged in just such a way. Watch then as their eyes glaze over as they recall being in that exact situation and saying, doing nothing.

    Thus every man supports rapists. When men no longer support rapists the one in every 17 minutes rape here in Canada stat will go down. Not until. 

    What does this have to do with publishing? Publishing is about speaking our inner experiences. Kaye Curren names the unwillingness to publish: fear. The same fear that gags all of us. When we begin to understand rape thrives in an environment of fear, we begin to acknowledge everything about our experience as women demands public platform. Thoughts? Ideas? 

  • Kaye Curren Querying

    Interesting.  I just had a conversation with my group, Women Writers of Ann Arbor/Ypsi, about a conference in October, highlighting the challenges of women writers in getting published.

    Half were excited about the idea.  Others wanted to stay in that safe cocoon of just reading to each other and not venturing out -something some of them have been doing for 20-30 years.

    My viewpoint is that were need more, not less, aggressive education and mentoring of women to pull them out of that safe zone - I call it fear. And these articles confirm that.  So after one more reading, I am changing the game plan.

    I cannot erase the joyous faces of those who come to me with their first or latest publishing success after years of hard work. I am not giving up.

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    How I see these informative bites, Kamy is from a different lens, perhaps. I see that because we are unfairly represented within the hierarchical status formations like awards programs, we will seek each other out and create strong in numbers platforms; because we are not represented by the last snap of the dragon's tail of a publishing tradition going down faster than a teen boy's wet dream we stick together, amass in numbers; because we are the left overs, also rans, if counted at all, we begin, here in this fabulous non space to shout out, call out, hang out, describe, rant, write, love share in all the ways we always have as women (very distinctly historically different from men) and as the old system's towers and elevated places become increasingly useless, outdated, not needed, they will melt down down down and face the huge numbers of our faces, standing there, already winning...is this a clear vision or am I caught in my own head? Love to hear from anyone else and btw THANK YOU Kamy and everyone for creating this mass amazingness...

  • Great research, Kamy, but shameful findings....Thanks for providing this great avenue!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!
  • The evidence of bias is certainly sobering, though we all know and feel it in our writing lives. Calling it out is the only way to combat it. Thanks, Kamy, for doing so.

  • Joan Z. Rough

    Thanks for sharing the stats, Kamy.  I'm so looking forward to working with She Writes Press.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for writing this, Kamy. It's super important and I'm always braced for this question, too, which I've been getting now for the past ten years since I started at Seal Press, and certainly with the continuation of She Writes Press. It's sort of like asking why do we need all-girls' schools, when it's clear that girls (and later women at all-women's colleges) thrive in environments where male privilege is just out of the way, over there. Funny enough, though, the other question I get just as often from men is, "What would it take to publish on SWP? Can I publish under a female pen name?" I appreciate how well-intentioned these guys are and that they don't ask Why don't you publish men. Kudos to those guys. A lot of them get it. But yes, now we have those post for everyone else. :)

  • Amen siSTAR!