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Inside the women's lit gender ghetto


Retro image of woman writer

I was recently invited to a conference about contemporary women writers. One of my favourite American authors was delivering the keynote, and I jumped at the chance to attend. 

This author delivered a lecture about the changing face of the publishing landscape in terms of gender representation, asserting that there was what she termed a 'new universality' in the world of letters. The (masculine) old guard, she said, is on the decline, and is being replaced by a younger, and more gender-balanced type of media comprised of mastheads like n+1, The New Inquiry, and Jezebel, many of which are edited by, and regularly feature, young female journos and essayists, as well as their male peers.

'No one reads Harpers any more except for people in doctors' waiting rooms,' she added. And it was a heartening to hear. Except when you began to consider how Harpers still pays per word, and The New Inquiry, and independent DIY magazines like it, pay a $100 flat-rate for their long-form essays, and can therefore only really afford to employ young people and women. But that's perhaps another conversation. 

VIDA is a literary organisation interested in the issue of female representation in top-tier magazines and literary prizes. They publish an annual report on women's representation in the literary pages of magazines like Harpers and The New Yorker and The Atlantic: the old guard. By critiquing the inequitable representation, they've urged publications to consider that employing female writers costs magazines neither quality nor profitability. 

But, the keynote speaker said, women ought to stop beating down the doors of powerful institutions like those, because they are losing tract of their own accord: women should instead recognise that the most interesting and important conversations are taking place in the margins. 

I felt emboldened. 'I work for, and contribute to, marginal publications,' I remembered. 'Maybe our conversations really are the important ones.' And then the conference ended, and I returned to the real world. 

In the real world, I began a short course in French literary theory and politics. I thought it would be useful for me to better understand the context some of my favourite critics were writing in. I soon discovered that just two of the 20 scholars and authors we would look at in the class were women, and gender would not be addressed at all. 

When I politely questioned if there happened to be more women scholars talking at the time, and if gender was something that might benefit the analysis, the lecturer, an otherwise generous and thorough academic, noted the misogyny of the period (the '60s) and said the feminist critics I mentioned would need an entire course of their own. 

'Women's lit' needs a course of its own — how original. To segment women's work into a category of its own is to say that it has no bearing on the mainstream. Men's work is universal, and women's work is specific to women. Sixty-five years later, and Simone de Beauvoir still nails it: 'man represents both the positive and the neutral ... whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity'.

When courses about women thinkers and authors do come up, their lectures tend to be populated by women, queer men, and a few sympathetic others. Inside that world, the world I inhabit, it's easy to forget about the real world beyond, where it's very uncommon to hear questions about how gender affects the ways we consume, study, and monetise culture. 

Knocking down barriers to access is one way of going about things; the VIDA count has pushed publications like The Paris Review to reach a near-equal gender representation in their pages. VIDA's concerns also stimulated the creation of our very own Stella Prize, which is the other way of going about things. That is, recognising the powers operating at the centre, and starting new projects in spite of them.

So how ought we to address this? Feminise the mainstream? Or continue to participate at the margins, and hope that the old guard takes notice of our endeavours? 

On the one hand, to begin a project at the margins is to forgo the money and power that is contained at the centre: to write for DIY journals is to sacrifice the per-word rate of the established press. On the other hand, the margins are shifting, and that means the centre is as well: perhaps it is worth holding on to the edge a few more decades, and then find that the edge is the centre and money and power will flow freely, and all courses will consider how women's voices have been marginalised in the history of letters. 

Until then, I'll see you at the next women's writers conference.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is an Australian journalist and editor who edits an entertainment and pop culture magazine in Ho Chi Minh City. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, women's literature, gender, writing, feminism



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Existing comments

"I soon discovered that just two of the twenty scholars and authors we would look at in the class were women, and gender would not be addressed at all. " You should have sat the course out to see what happened! A very Kafkaesque ending- perhaps you should have 'agitated' or informed the dialogue. Institutional discourse is perforated and welcomes contributions and discussion. Also, often the voices of women (audibly) emerge towards the end of historicized accounts of things. And the absence or marginalisation of voices speaks for itself- perhaps then the autonomy of women depends on those willing to listen to or engage in different forms of discourse. As long as we continue to relegate, remember or reinforce the voices as females as emerging from the margins, then perhaps we reinforce that idea. We can't recreate history, but we can interrupt patriarchal and subjective memories of it! x

C | 11 July 2014  

Feminists identify strongly with “what men have done to us”. A version of a “victim identity” and keep women in bondage to the past. But, there is true power and peace available to women in the present moment.

Eckhart Tolle | 12 July 2014  

Dear Ellena, Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful reflections and I wish you all the best in the future. I can only relate to you as a woman caught in the catholic church gender ghetto- thanks for the language! As a woman who feels called to ministry in the Catholic Church I feel there is a comparison that can be made.I have despaired to see numerous catholic women including nuns relegated to to the margins of church theological life. For example there are nuns who have died who in remembrance have their theology on websites, as a way of continuing their legacy, that was rejected in their lifetimes and in catholic church life: some have featured on websites for catholic church women. If this was the fate of the outstanding nuns and women in church life who went before us and were not given the credit in their lifetimes, then maybe we can't expect much as catholic church women today trying to make an inroads into the theological discourse in the current climate. We must remember all the contributions of the women who went before us whose contributions in literature,the arts in society and in the home who have gone unnoticed and continue to hold out some hope that maybe the tide will change one day and if not just remember the words of Thomas Merton,which go something like this "Its not what you do in life its who your with" and think of your fellow companions making the journey with you in the gender lit ghetto."The stone rejected becomes the Keystone"

Ros | 12 July 2014  

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