Twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve been asked by male editors to help them get more women contributing to their projects. Eighty percent of submissions, they say, come from men. Yet we know there are just as many women writing and thinking and wanting to get published. So what’s the problem?
First of all, let me say this is not a trivial matter. Failure to publish, failure to be heard in the ongoing literary conversation, means erasure from the literary record, and erasure from that larger more permanent cultural architecture that humans build over time. Here’s how Hannah Arendt puts it in the Human Condition: “the private is the realm of necessity [getting and consuming]; futility [activity constantly erased]; and shame [no one remembers you]; the public is the realm of freedom, permanence and honour.”
In the public realm, Arendt tells us, “everything can be seen and heard by everybody.” This “being seen and heard by others as well as ourselves,” she says, “constitutes reality.” In the private realm, on the other hand, “the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless . . . . they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized . . . into a shape to fit them for public appearance.” For instance, by storytelling and artistic transpositions of individual experiences.
Most crucially, a healthy public world, Arendt tells us, depends on a diversity of speakers from multiple points of view: “The reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives . . . . Being seen and being heard by others [means the world to us because] . . . . everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is . . . . public life, compared to which even the richest and most satisfying family life can offer only the prolongation or multiplication of one’s own position.”
So women set out toward the public world, but they set out to publish in a cultural field historically defined and occupied by men. They set out to join the public world in a sociality that still to a great extent defines public as masculine and masculine as public, while defining private as feminine and feminine as private. Pierre Bourdieu tells us this division is hardwired into the language everyone speaks; for example, words like fire, gold, light, sky, the dry, the above, the outside, the open connote masculinity, while words like damp, dark, wet, the below, the inside, swelling, blood, tomb, darknessconnote femininity. English is full of expressions, structures and styles considered masculine or feminine.
Moreover, Bourdieu tells us, women continue to be perceived in the male gaze of our language/sociality as aesthetic objects, whereas men are seen according to their status and social position: as leaders, innovators, and holders of public offices.
Women are still expected to confine themselves to the private, the family, the world of getting and consuming, where the work they do is used up and erased as soon as it is done. But this “family ‘world’,” Arendt says, “can never replace the reality rising out of the sum total of aspects presented by one object to a multitude of spectators. Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.”
The excitement, the respect, the sense of mattering in those who participate in this diversely speaking public life cannot be matched in the private domestic realm. Nor is it about fame and celebrity. What women long for, rather, is to be seen as human, as having a natural place in the diversely speaking public arena. They want to be expected there, not to have to fight their way into it.
So, why don’t more women submit to websites like Dispatches? In a word, because our society assigns the labour of private necessity (care-giving; household management) to women while assigning to men the labour of participating in the public realm. Female children are taught this role from the get go; they are taught to be pretty, compliant servants, and often punished severely for violating gendered dress and behavior codes.
Women have only recently gained access to paid employment in trades and professions. To hold a place there, they often find themselves on sufferance, expected to prove and reprove that they should merit these jobs. A woman who wants a creative life as a poet or novelist, may have to juggle that with a day job, her writing life in effect a second shift. After work, women often come home to a third shift, as they are often expected to do most of the household labour (care-giving, cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc).
Small wonder there’s little time left to contribute to Dispatches.
So, my brothers, what can you do about it? 1. Stop pretending that clothes get washed by themselves. 2. Share equally in the care-giving and household tasks; 3. Stop making your daughters into pink frilly princesses; teach them to be engineers and philosophers; 4. Instead of expecting female members of your literary groups to do all the grunt work of putting on literary events or editing a magazine, volunteer for these tasks yourself and offer leadership roles to women. 5. Learn who the women are in the literary community, tell them specifically what interests you in their work, and personally invite them to submit (in other words, treat them as individuals worthy of respect rather than as a category that has to be fixed).
In speaking of these things, I have violated a tacit rule that goes something like this: don’t mention the boys’ club because the boys will just label you as a feminist, they won’t publish your work, and they certainly won’t admit you into the club, which, it goes without saying controls most of what’s seen as “important.” This is clearly a trap. Actually, my brothers, many of you are sincerely trying to make a difference for women and hence for everyone, and I thank the great spirit for that. But we need critical mass; we need a lot more of you to make a difference.
There is another unspoken rule that goes something like, Women only ever talk about women’s issues (domestic labour, personal affairs, the rights of women, etc); why don’t they talk about objective reality, or social issues important to everyone, such as property rights, the environment, etc.?
As Arendt makes clear, however, reality is not objective; it is a constantly shifting public conversation. No position in this conversation is neutral. It’s marked with gender, class, ethnicity and a host of other factors. The position that asserts objectivity and neutrality is actually usually white male, urban and middle to upper class.
Moreover, the culture that rapes women is the culture that rapes forests, watersheds, oceans and soil. It is the culture that makes slaves. Women’s issues are humanity’s issues. So, my brothers, stand by your sisters, and teach your daughters from the moment they’re born that they have a place in the public world.