Old Dominion University M.F.A. Creative Writing Program student Wendi White attended the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference in March. She queried a diverse group of women writers on how they have navigated the rocky waters of composing a writer’s life. She spoke with women authors of varying genres and ages about the empowerment strategies they have used to break through the barriers that women writers still experience. These conversations also explored what is needed for women to make continued progress in the profession.
Recently, I have pondered how fortunate I am to have that pen, paper, or iPad lying next to me on the table, ready to catch any fresh meaning I might squeeze from life. I realize that such easy license to write hasn’t always been available to women. In the not too distant past, a woman who wished to write was considered an oddity or a nuisance by her male peers. Nathaniel Hawthorne described the female authors of his day as those “damn scribbling women.” Samuel Johnson most famously shot down women speaking publicly with this critique, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Why was Johnson so surprised to hear a woman’s voice in church? Because 18th century English girls were rarely educated outside the home and thus were effectively silenced. If they learned to read (but not to write) in Puritan New England’s common schools, it was only so they might open the bible.
It used to be, not long ago, if you were a woman lucky enough to have a liberal arts education, raising your voice to engage the issues of the day through essays, novels or poetry was very dangerous business indeed. A lady risked her reputation; she might be deemed un-marriageable, divorced, or separated from her children and sent to an institution where she and the books that caused her “nervous anxiety”, her strange desire to stand on her principals and speak, would be locked away.
Despite this history, there have been exceptions across cultures and epochs where women’s literary contributions were encouraged. Naturally, such inclusive times produced some of the greatest literature, by both men and women. At this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, which took place in Chicago during the first week of March, I interviewed the accomplished poet and professor of creative writing at Illinois Wesleyan University, Joanne Diaz. She kindly reminded me that it stands to reason that Sappho was not the only female Greek poet of the 6th century. If we have her fragments, she must have flown from the shoulders of other women writers. No doubt she shared a sisterhood with other artists that allowed her to imagine herself as an author, and certainly the ancient Greeks and we, their cultural descendants, have been enriched by the permission to write Sappho enjoyed.
Diaz also offered the English Renaissance as an example of “a period when women were writing all the time…they were also literary patrons…so that there was culture where women were very prolific. I don’t presume that social sanctions have been the story of every woman writer’s life.” And to back this statement up with examples, Diaz referred me to Queen Elizabeth, Mary Sidney, Mary Wroth and Aemilia Lanyer. These powerful literary fore-mothers are well remembered when I feel tempted to succumb to a victim’s mentality, “Oh, how can I ever have anything to say, no one ever listens to women!” And I don’t have to draw my courage to pick up a pen from the Classical era and Renaissance alone. I have more recent role models to thank who struggled and succeeded in being heard, making my life as a writer much more likely.
For example, in Mary Wollstonecraft’s, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” written two hundred and twenty years ago, Wollstonecraft argued compellingly against the “nattering naybobs” of her day, who saw women as fit only for the domestic joys of diaper-changing and husband-helping. She radically opined, “. . . that women are capable of rationality; it only appears that they are not, because men have refused to educate them and encouraged them to be frivolous.”
Today, in liberal arts classrooms across our country, you can draw a direct line from Ms. Wollstonecraft’s courageous refutation of gender bias through the first and second waves of feminism to an undergraduate student body that is now more female than male. The line that separates those who may speak from who may not has clearly shifted.
Diaz affirmed women’s progress, especially for the middle class students she teaches, by sharing that not only are her creative writing classrooms’ gender demographics at a 50/50 split, but also that the achievements of the young women she mentors are second to none. “They are incredibly focused, confident, attentive and engaged . . . They are meeting their male peers or exceeding them.” Diaz’s concerns are not for white middle class women authors “In the United States, white middle-class women have been the direct beneficiaries of a wide range of educational and cultural opportunities. My bigger concern is whether women of color and working-class women have the same access to these opportunities.”
In another interview, this time with women’s rights activist, poet and founder of the lesbian press, Arktoi Books, Eloise Klein Healy, I was cautioned not to assume that complete parity for women writers has been achieved. Healy responded to my data on women making up the majority of undergraduate and writing student as a sign of gender equity in the writing profession with the following caution: “To have more women in creative writing classes is not the same thing as being equally published. In fact, I can’t think of any journal where women authors predominate . . . and if you do get published, they don’t review you as much.”
I agree with Diaz that I enjoy a great deal of privilege as a white, woman writer from the middle class. No doubt the fact that I can hop on the internet and shout my truth to the world without fear of reprisal is a sign of great progress, but after speaking to Healy, I wanted some hard numbers. I went directly to the VIDA website to browse The Count. VIDA is a literary association that, according to their website, was “founded to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.” The Count is an annual spreadsheet compiled by VIDA tallying the number of women’s essays, books reviews of women’s work and women’s poems that are published in the leading American literary journals.
What I found there confirmed what Healy had intimated, though it did not break out women’s publication numbers by ethnicity or class. Nonetheless, out of 13 publications not one had an equal number of women writers as men. You should check it out yourself, but to give you a taste, The Count pegs the New York Review of Books at 143 women authors to 627 men in 2011. After reading the count I concluded that women may have “come a long way, baby,” but not far enough to get them even a 25% publication share.
Healy has taken women’s unequal access to the publishing field seriously. She says that such inequity persists because of barriers to “networking, familiarity, and knowing the right people…The suits are not seeing women as writers because women are not being invited in to their clubs.” Her sense of the struggle was formed in the seventies when she claimed permission to write from reading and working with women like Audrey Lord, Margaret Atwood (the keynote speaker at this year’s AWP conference), and Adrienne Rich. “They gave me a sense of community and literary history. We taught ourselves to press our own books.”
Now she urges second wave writers like herself to “seek friendships with younger women, to create some dialogue so there is a place for (young women) to start from,” so they remember the victories won in their name. “After the first wave of feminism, much ground was lost because women did not recount their struggles and pass the baton to the next generation”. To avoid repeating that mistake, Klein Healy, of the second wave, mentors and publishes women from the third wave (and beyond), nurturing their belief in themselves because “the bigger rewards still go to the brothers.” (VIDA has those numbers, too.)
In mentoring, publishing, and teaching, both Joanne Diaz and Eloise Klein Healy are actively developing the next round of women’s voices headed for the stacks. But beyond their work with young writers, both poets have through their craft exemplified the best of what I would dare to call a woman’s aesthetic. Diaz’s poems are sensual and grounded in the body’s way of knowing. When I asked why her poems imagine the taste, smell and feel of things more than their appearance, she responded, “The body is how we know our world.” Healy’s poems, on the other hand, map out territories and divisions between genders, spheres of work, and realms of power often using the Greek goddess Artemis as a figure of womanly struggle.
In my final analysis, both poets lay claim to important aspects of a woman’s way of knowing and writing and their perspectives on our progress as writers complements rather than contradicts each other. After all, when you are up against boneheaded views of the sort that Samuel Johnson once spouted, you need confidence rooted in past victories, but you also must know that the struggle won’t be won in your lifetime. In both cases, there’s a story that has to be told, a poem that must be written, and a space that must be preserved for women, their words and the future.
Wendi White is an M.F.A. candidate in the Creative Writing Program at ODU, and the 2011 recipient of the ODU Graduate College Poetry Prize. She writes poetry about our only planet, imagining how we might live more mindfully upon it.