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  • The Salonniere: Why SHE Writes? Tackling The Man Question.
The Salonniere: Why SHE Writes? Tackling The Man Question.
Written by
The Salonniere
March 2010
Written by
The Salonniere
March 2010

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 you'd rather not hear from. 

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. 

Let's be friends

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  • Naomi Thiers

    Wow--a toughie!! I'm not completely sure if I'm pro- or anti- men-on-the-She-Writes site. I think I come down that it's better NOT to exclude men in general, although to vet profiles and activities on the site very carefully.

    BUT some niggle in my gut still says if this site was created as a nurturing space for women writers and women's writing, having men involved in the group dilutes it. I've been in so, so many great, rich discussions in mixed gender groups, but there's an energy I really dig in woman-only conversations. I don't completely agree that "any open space becomes a male space"--that depends on the kind of space, and the kind of men and women hanging aboutin it--but I think I know exactly the dynamic people are getting at when they use that phrase. In a mixed group, I often perceive that there are one or several men who try hard to dominate conversation, who may be swift and sharp to put down those who disagree, and who want to be seen as authoritative and deferred to--and we women are too oft ready to defer!! I haven't been in enough serious online forums to know if that happens more or less online, but I would fear it.

    Dr. Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist who writes in a very balanced way about the few seemingly "hardwired" gender differences (and there are very few) scientific research has found, writes that one diff. is that males almost always behave more competitively than females, even in low-stakes lab trials. So would discussions, blog posts, forums become more competitive if She Writes were co-ed? Maybe it wouldn't happen w/ a few good men in a midst of women talking with positive and generous energy, like on She Writes? Or would more competitiveness on a site like this even be a problem?

    I do wonder why a man would want to join a Web site set up for women writers to communicate w/ and support one another. If men want to be supportive and cheerleadery for the women writers in their lives--as Sandi's husband did so well--there are a million other ways to do so (cook dinner or drive your daughter to her meeting so your woman can spend an hour online, help her create a sonnet-launching home office, etc., etc.)

  • Sandi Johnson

    Wow, this is a tough issue.

    Like many others, my first question would be "Why would a guy want to be a part of something so definitively girlie?" Why would "he" want to be a part of "she" in this context?

    However, then I think about my husband and the kind of man he was. Not to be offensive to anyone - but he was the gay-est straight man I've ever known. Not in a feminine sort of way, but in his sensitivity towards women. More than half of his friends were women. He was the kind of guy other women didn't mind having at a baby or bridal shower. He was the kind of guy who let us girls have our fun while he faded into the background and ran the bar, refilled food trays, etc. He wanted to be there, not to be one of the girls, but to help do some of the legwork so the girls could relax and just have fun. He wanted to help and do what he could to enrich the overall experience for the women he cared about.

    My brother-in-law is the same way. He's supportive, uplifting, and does whatever he can to help celebrate what makes us woman who we are. He's the kind of guy who would chauffeur the bridal party on a bachelorette's night out. Not to bodyguard, spy on, or keep anyone out of trouble - but so that no one in the bridal party would have to worry about skipping out on a cocktail to be the designated driver. He'd simply sit in the car in the parking lot, waiting for the girls to tell him the next stop. Heck, knowing him? He'd be in the car with WiFi searching up the next fun spot for the girls to enjoy, calling ahead to the bartender to have a special table, the finest champagne, and a welcoming committee waiting. Again, just to enrich the lives and experiences of the women he cared about.

    These kind of men I wouldn't mind having as members of SheWrites. These are the kind of guys who would be here to participate in the supportive, safe environment we're seeking. Not for themselves (although I'm sure they'd get some benefit out of it & that's a good thing) but to celebrate with us, to support us, to be our cheerleaders.

    Those kind of guys go back to the male-dominated world and tell their uber-macho buddies not to forget the power us gals have as a community. They're the ones who set the examples for the men we all want our sons to be. These are the guys who make other men stand up and take notice of the better man they, themselves can and should be.

    If we were to become completely exclusionary, we'd loose the ability to connect with and welcome those guys who can be our allies, our biggest supporters, our embassadors in Maleville. Not that we can't speak for ourselves - be our own allies and advocates - but it always helps to have someone "on the inside" pitching for you too. For that reason alone, I think we would do ourselves an extreme disservice by completely excluding men.

    Like Kamy said, we have the power to block, unfriend, and ignore anyone (male or female) in this community. We have the power to exclude any individual who doesn't contribute, or worse yet harms the community. I'll take filtering out the bad to have a chance to save the good any day of the week.

    Looking at the kind of men I've be privileged to have in my life? Looking at the examples I gave of things my husband and brother-in-law either already have, or most willingly would do? My first thought is that I'd hate to have had my girlfriends miss out on the extra attention my hubby or my brother-in-law offered just because they are "guys."

    I remember how surprised and grateful one of my girlfriends was when Frank showed up to take over hostess kitchen & bar duties for a bridal shower she was throwing. She got to sit and enjoy the party, rather than spend half the time running back & forth to the kitchen or the bar. Drinks and snacks just appeared at the right time. Game supplies magically materialized when she mentioned them. We hardly even saw him.

    By the end of the party, the trash was already taken out & gift baskets were already waiting under everyone's coats. By the time good-byes were said & everyone walked to the door, the kitchen was clean and leftovers were in the fridge. She said it was one of the most effortless party she'd ever thrown. Can you imagine if we had told Frank no - just because he was a guy? We would have been the ones to suffer, not him.

    Okay, down off my soapbox now. :) I do understand wanting to preserve our space. I get not wanting to let guys interfere. I do, and I agree that this is SHE-Writes, not WE-Write. It's ours & I don't want to share. However, I seriously think being completely exclusive would be a mistake. I think we would be the ones to miss out on the few guys who are genuinely supportive - like Dr. Siegal, my husband, my brother-in-law, and the multitude of guys out there just like them. That's my 2 cents...worth what you paid for it.

  • Jacki Zehner

    Wow tough issue and I have enjoyed reading the comments. Like many I think that this site is for women and is meant to help level the playing field since yes, any open space seems be definition to become a male space. That said we need men as allies. I like the idea of adding a few good men and perhaps limit them to being no more then the percentage of women on corporate boards, for example... tough issue.

  • Sari Maree Smith

    I would be very sad if men were included in this site. I notice that when the inclusion of men comes up, women start to apologize straight away, so careful not to be seen as ''bitchy'', anti-male etc. These issues are not the point. I have a much loved and supportive (male) partner and a son. Still not the point. As a writer and academic, I have seen over and over again the lack of confidence shared by so many talented women. I have seen over and over the sense of entitlement, aggressive pursuit of self-interest and so on, by male academics and writers. (Horror! So many of these people are making decisions about who gets prizes, opportunities etc) and yes, I know women can be capable of these things too. However, whilst there are many wonderful supportive men, I think just once in a while -for things to really heal and for us to trust again- we need men to do just that: SUPPORT US, not compete, join in for a piece of the pie, etc. I think we could have honorary supporters but I think women need this women-only space to think from our own viewpoint (after all, we spend our lives "translating" and accommodating), to really relax and finally get and give the support we need. I personally have been supported by a couple of men, professionally, but I know this is the exception, not the rule. By and large, I write for other women and the few enlightened men... but if I have an internalized male audience, I quickly become self-critical and blocked.

  • Sherry Christie

    Well said, Kamy! I'm for keeping She Writes as a women-only zone for the same reason that I feel there should be women-only colleges and women-only investment groups: because many of us learn better in a collegial, mutually supportive environment. When men (who are typically more assertive and competitive) enter the picture, participating in a community suddenly requires more effort, energy, and self-confidence. So, hey: we don't come to SheWrites to get dates, do we? It's all about learning. Who wants to fight her way through male egos to get the help she needs? P.S. I like guys, too, and there's a place for rough-and-tumble unisex competition. Just not here.

  • Christina Brandon

    A really thought-provoking post! A few weeks ago, I was talking with my boyfriend about something I had come across on She Writes and he (also a blogger and aspiring fiction writer) expressed interest in joining the site. He also expressed hesitation-- that he didn't want it to seem like he, The Man, would be barging in and disrupting a space for women.

    I wasn't sure what to tell him. I know he's an introspective, thoughtful person that hardly ever "barges in" anywhere and wouldn't knowingly do anything to make a woman feel uncomfortable, but he's still a man. And this is She Writes, a space that women most likely joined because it's She Writes.

    It seems to me that any man who would want to join and genuinely participate in the community would be more respectful of this space as primarily a space for women writers. I mean, the men that would drop their male privilege on us, through sexist comments or whatever, probably wouldn't even bother to join up in the first case since we are, after all, a bunch of women.

    I dunno, maybe I'm wrong on that count, but my point is, I think She Writes has a good policy right now that finds a Middle Way so-to-speak between the two sides. I hesitate to be completely exclusionary, because I think it'll ultimately do more harm than good, even if it's an image problem, like Elizabeth mentioned. If problems to arise with a (male) member, there are steps we can take to fight back. But this space should definitely put women first and I'm thrilled to see all these blog posts and discussions driven by women. (I've only seen one discussion with a man in the months I've been a member). It's one of the reasons why I enjoy coming here.

  • Julie Jeffs

    I wholeheartedly agree with Jennifer and Elizabeth. And while I don't want to put the stick in the hornet's nest I have a comment and question. It seems to me, in the little bit that I have viewed the profiles of the men on She Writes that the few that are here are using this site as a platform for their own businesses, i.e., agents, publishers, etc. I have not, to date, seen any men comment on any post or anything else. That being said my question is, isn't there a way that men can be members but with only limited access to the site. If the members on this site want to avail themselves of the services/businesses that these men are promoting, or if there are ideas that those male members want to put out to the group they may have that ability, but the most significant portion of the site remain for women only, a place where they can connect in a safe and supportive environment for all the women here. There are plenty of places where women who want to join a community with male writers can do so, other than this one. My two cents.

  • Elizabeth Hilts


    Like Jennifer, I love a number of men—some of whom are valued writer-friends whose ideas and opinions about the craft (and my work) have been very helpful. As a writer, I certainly hope to have an audience that includes men. But this place? This place feels as if it should be...different. In fact, one of the reasons I so enthusiastically requested membership here was that the very idea of finding connection with other women who write seemed like such a valuable gift. How great to have interactions with people who really understand the complexities of my life as a writer, a woman, a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend...in a way that even the most sensitive men I know simply cannot (any more than I can truly understand what it's like for a man).

    Since I've never actually "seen" a man in any of the discussion threads I've participated in I can't address what that's like—though I suspect I would think, "Really? Buddy, don't you have your own communities/groups/networks? It's not called 'We All Write," is it?"

    At the same time, I worry that by banning men this community could end up perpetuating the idea of woman as "Other," that in order for women to be authentic we must be separate because we are "too delicate" to deal with men challenging our ideas.

    There's a part of me that believes we are strong enough to confront any attempts to dominate the conversation or sway opinions that any man might decide to try.

    My question is: why should I have to, on a site that's for women, by women, about women?

  • Jennifer Lauck

    Kamy: Great post, great question and equally great conversation.

    I don't have an answer for this question. I do feel compelled to write that I love men and I love everything about men (well, not everything but that is another conversation).

    The bottom line is that I have a son, I have a lover, I have an ex! And I've had a father--in fact I've had a couple fathers, not to mention priests, spiritual teachers and plenty of male friends. So this is not about how I feel about men in general. Men are wonderful--in the right context. (As I write all this, I feel a bit like a like a multi-faith person professing an appreciation of Christ to a Christian!)

    With that disclaimer aside, I also want to say what I love about She Writes is the connect with women. When I see a man here, his photo grinning out at me with his very amiable smile--I'm a little--I don't know--unnerved. It's like seeing a man in the women's locker room at my yoga studio. If such a thing happened, which it hasn't (yet), I'd scream or grab a towel or cancel my membership--or perhaps all three.

    I feel suspicious about men being here. My gut response is: "What are you doing here? It's not enough that you rule the world, dictate all corporate, religious, legal and governmental policy, have all the money and have been dominating women for lifetime, you have to show up here too???"

    I guess my question is--what is sacred for women? Where is our safe sisterhood? I don't want a man around when I am confessing my heart to my sisters. I want the love of women and the power of women. And that's the potential of She Writes.

    In my sense of things, women are on the rise. We turn to each other, we need each other, we inspire each other and it's our time. Men--it's great to have you but I'd personally appreciate it if you took the back row and listened for a change. A "Here, Here" is welcome but I personally don't need more insight, opinions and web sites that are filled up with The Man.

    I hope that doesn't happen at She Writes and I have no sense that it will. We are clearly more She than He.

    Kamy, thank you for this conversation. You have a good and generous heart (more good and more generous than a whole lot of men). Bravo!

    xo Jennifer

  • The Motivator

    Great post, Kamy. Thanks. Having just written a piece about the power of allies, I welcome men who understand and wish to change the fact that women are among those who remain on the periphery of the writing world. Developmentally, I think it may be important for a movement to go through a separatist phase, but that phase is rarely the end goal. It seems that She Writes can do both: welcome writers of all genders who understand the values of the site, and create a safe place for all by being selective about the consciousness of men (and women) who might degrade or put at risk the wholeness of the community.