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In the Company of Women
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
February 2014
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
February 2014

Yesterday morning, I took a shuttle and a ferry boat to Whidbey Island--the home, for twenty-five years now, of the Hedgebrook Writers' Colony, a retreat for women writers. I am here for a pre-AWP pow wow with Brooke Warner, the publisher of She Writes Press, Amy Wheeler, the Executive Director of Hedgebrook, and some of the women of VIDA, including Cate Marvin, Amy King and Jennifer Fitzgerald. (Jennifer and Cate had to excuse themselves yesterday morning to do an NPR Morning Edition interview about The Count, one of the most important advocacy tools for women writers anywhere. So cool.) Sometimes I feel like my life is a parody -- I am the co-founder of the New York Salon of Women Writers, board chair of Girls Write Now, a founder of She Writes and She Writes Press, formerly of the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford and fiction/nonfiction editor for Women's Studies Quarterly, and now I'm thinking about starting a chick poker night at my place on Fridays.

Any reasonable person might ask: is there some reason I don't want to be around men?

The fact is that I enjoy men, a lot. I am dating the best one I've ever met (yes, we are still in that phase--after five years of being single in the post-divorce wilderness I am madly, stupidly in love), and I've got two little men-to-be living with me who are on track so far to be the most wonderful, and most feminist, men ever. My son's friends are delightful, and so is my father, my brother, and the many other men I call my friends. But when I need the space to be creative, or want to bring people together to build something new or help me solve a problem, it's almost always women I gravitate to. 

I can trace this back to my first meeting with Diane Middlebrook in London more than ten years ago. I had always been a feminist--my mother made sure of that--but Diane was the one who brought me definitively into the she-space by inviting me to be her co-host in founding a salon of women writers. (You can read more about Diane and the salon's role in seeding She Writes here.) I remember vividly sitting on the deck of her flat on Warrington Crescent, the white balustrade of the terrace bright against the leafy green trees below, the two of us at a small round table, imagining what the salon might be like. The vision that emerged (really, Diane's) was to bring writers of all generations and genres together at her home or mine to discuss the craft and the business of writing. The mission was unabashedly practical: members of the salon would leave each evening better educated, more inspired, and better connected, than when they arrived. And it would be for women only. Diane observed that some of the women we planned to invite wouldn't like this--they would feel we were creating a second-class salon, a place for women at the kids table rather than at high table with the grownups, aka men. But when I closed my eyes and imagined who we would ask to speak to us, and who would dominate the discussion that followed, it was as clear to me as it was to her: if men were there, it wouldn't be what we wanted--or, more important, needed--it to be. 

And what did we need it to be? Two seemingly contradictory things: a place where we could forget about being women...and never be asked to forget we were women, either. Having only women in the room made this possible. On the one hand, it freed us, from speakers to attendees, from the "woman writer" prism/prison women are inevitably seen through in a world where "women's writing" is treated as a sub-genre of male Writing-with-a-capital-W. Diane, a biographer, kicked off our first salon talking about the peculiar ins-and-outs of fair use as they pertained to her work on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and was free to fully immerse herself in her topic without being the token woman on a panel, for example, or being asked how, as a woman, she could be so admiring of Ted Hughes' poetry. (Both of these things happened to her often in other venues.) At the same time, we could quickly and easily convene a panel to address the Chick Lit label, featuring women like Alix Kates Shulman and Laura Miller of, and feel free to have a passionate discussion about its impact on us as women writers without being accused of whining or being told shut up.

I need both of those things. I need to be a writer without being a Woman Writer. I also need to be able to candidly discuss and strategize with other women about being read, reviewed and treated as a Woman Writer, because I will be whether I like it or not. The places and spaces where I can do that aren't ghettos or hide-outs. They are fueling stations, where I power-up and increase my power-to's. I come to them not to escape the world, but to fortify myself to flourish in it.

Maybe someday women won't need or want to gather exclusively in the company of women anymore. But for me, that time hasn't come yet.

How about you?

Let's be friends

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  • Karoline Barrett

    I don't feel the need to gather exclusively in the company of women. I find most women are too busy eating yogurt and swooning over Oprah. Ick.  I actually feel sorry for Caucasian (as opposed to white since no one is really white) males. They are the victims now; portrayed as beer swilling, golf playing idiots; unable to open their own refrigerators without their wives (wearing the prerequisite yoga pants) glaring at them.  I write for women, but I don't want to lock myself in a room full of them for hours on end!

  • Jennifer L Myers

    I agree that men (particularly white men) tend to take for granted that people listen to what they say & that what they say is right (even when it isn't). Women do not have this luxury, as mentioned by Mardith, it can take a lot of repetition & overemphasizing of a point, as well as extraordinary patience to make things clear or be heard. In some instances, I don't bother if it isn't worth the time. Often a conversation on 'how to listen' can help (i.e. With a partner, spouse, family member etc...). I've never considered books written by women authors to be a sub-genre of male writing & I wasn't aware that anyone else did either until now. I don't believe we should ever limit ourselves as women or see this as a disadvantage. Sexism is definitely something to be aware of and to take into consideration. But if we allow it to defeat or limit us, we are still leaving the men in charge. It's up to us.

  • This weekend at AWP there were a few times that people came to the booth and asked why we need to have a women-only press. One woman today timidly admitted to me that she thought that publishing on She Writes Press would be ghettoizing her work, even though it tuned out she was writing a diet book (clearly for a female audience). Having worked in female-only publishing now for one decade (wow, that went fast), it's very clear to me why we need women-only spaces. First, women writers (and all creatives I think) want, crave, and need the support of other women. Second, while women are clearly the vast majority of the people attending writers' conferences and working on their craft with coaches and in classes, we are still somehow the minority voice. Men, by and large, are reading men. It's not that they necessarily mean to. They just do. At the Hedgebrook table, the Hedgettes were asking people, "what will you do to support women's voices this year," and one man stopping by said he would read books by women. He couldn't remember the last time he'd read a book by a female author. It probably hadn't been since college. Once you get on this conversation it's hard to stop—but the cultural sexism runs so deep that it's hard to even see it, unless you're awake to it. And this is why we need these spaces so badly. We need them so we can create and explore and grow and celebrate together. And it's not that men don't need this, but men have many fewer issues with giving themselves permission than women do. So yes, Kamy, I agree! And it's always a treat to get to spend one-on-one time together. I loved reading about the history with Diane here too. xoxoxo

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Loved reading this. Have been a member of co-ed writer's group (organized around nobody having a chance to dominate the conversation) and have participated in local Red Tent events. I would love to spend some time at Hedgebrook sometime soon, too.

    Thank you so much for the inspiration!

  • Mardith Louisell

    Kamy, a great post and remembering Diane Middlebrook was interesting. I completely agree.  Not to mention the extra tension that emerges when a woman feels that, to be heard by a man or a group with a man in it, she has to emphasize her point to the point of overemphasizing, having learned through many years  that unless a point is made perfectly (a huge burden) and forcefully, it will not be heard accurately if at all. That tension means the mind is taken up with other unnecessary issues in the group and then people/women have to enter into the fray, should they defend the man, side with the woman, try to mediate?  A related, but different point, is how many women do not consider women writers as good as men, even many pro-women women. I once went to a friend's house, a friend who had felt belittled and cowed by male colleagues in her work world, and saw  no books by women on the book shelves. I asked her about this and she said she didn't know any good women writers. I knew then that if I published a book, she wouldn't buy it if she didn't know me. Partly her lack of knowledge is due to media coverage and the big names often being men, old, middle-aged and young and partly the perception that men deal with "big" problems, society, politics, etc. and women want to be seen as and be in the know. Oy.

  • Katherine Ashe

    I'm a woman writer who happens to like to write about men: to explore why they do what they do, how their minds may work. I've exercised this interest in writing an historical novel on the 13th century life of Simon de Montfort, keeping my writing as close to the surviving original documentary evidence as possible -- albeit with a preference for pro-Simon material.

    This raised a major problem. When the manuscript (granted daunting at 1,650 pages) was accepted by Random House in 1985 it was with the condition that Random House also have the paperback rights. That was fine with me, but the paperback department came back with the absolute demand that I make the main character a woman. My intent was historical accuracy -- what Simon really did and why -- and there simply was no woman historically in a position for me to plausibly set as the main character. (What Simon did was get into a lot of trouble with his king, Henry III of England, and eventually he created parliamentary government as we know it.)

    I refused to depart far into fiction to make a woman the central figure. From 1985 to 2008 I received the same demand over and over again that I make a woman the main character. By 2008 my agent couldn't get anyone to even look at my work, though all I was offering then was the quite romantic first 250 ages.

    Although Elizabeth Chadwick's and Alison Weir's works would soon make a dent in the notion that historical novels had to be about women, by that time I'd turned to self publishing. The added 23 years for getting the book in print gave me lots more time for research, so the final 4-volumes of Montfort, still an historical novel but with footnotes in an Historical Context section at the back comprising 10% of each volume, is a work that's gotten gratifying praise from scholars as well as hist/fic readers, but it's had to overcome the onus of self-publishing.

    I can well understand the need to bolster the history of women. History, from Gilgamesh to the time I was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, was almost entirely of the doings of men. Redress was needed, and support of the idea of women as interesting and capable beings. Yet I could not help wondering, as a woman writer, that the feminist movement would not stretch to include women's views of men.

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    I so agree! I've been in a writers' group for over three years now, composed originally of women. A few months ago, with the consent of the members, a male joined the group. He's a nice guy, even sympathetic to women. But it has been a struggle to maintain the equilibrium and equanimity we once had. Without even realizing it, he tries to dominate the conversation and tell the rest of us what we're doing wrong, although he has less actual writing experience than about half the group.

  • GillianAlex

    I totally agree..the energy can be soo good...

  • Evalyn Lee

    In my life, and to my surprise, the shared perspective & strategies discussed in a single sex environment have always been more dynamic and helpful to attaining my goals. The 'how' of handling work/life balance, children, aging parents, plus the onslaught of hormones (pregnancy or menopausal) becomes a source of laughter and not something to be hidden and the goal to organize life to do your work is obvious and supported. I agree with Kamy that in a single sex environment there is more listening and support -- because the conversation often allows for vulnerability without criticism. For example, SheWrites has been an amazing platform for me personally -- leading to new friendships and and new levels of professional advice, giving me the chance to connect with amazing women, like Brooke Warner.  So here's to not being told to shut up. Rock on, SheWrites!  And for everyone's reading pleasure and really worth a read here's a link to a great essay by Mary Beard on 'The Public Voice of Women' --

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    You're right Sally. And I do think men can contribute to the conversation...perhaps first by listening carefully to it. 

  • Sally Whitney

    Until women's writing is no longer treated as a sub-genre of men's writing, we need to work together strategizing how to advance our work within that context. I'm sure some men could contribute a lot to this conversation, but there's also a lot to be gained from women's shared experience. Women are so diverse, we bring a multitude of perspectives on our own.