When it Comes to Leveling the Playing Field for Women Writers, VIDA Reminds us, Women are Not Alone

With the pervasiveness of gender inequality in nearly every arena, it’s heartening to know that there are passionate individuals and organizations out there working hard to affect change. Nonprofit groups like VIDA: Women in Literary Arts are leading the charge, effectively “calling out” those in positions of power to give opportunities to talented women.

I recently had the chance to speak with Erin Belieu, the esteemed poet who co-founded VIDA in 2009 to address the need for discourse surrounding the critical reception of women’s literature. As we’re both ultimately working toward leveling the playing field for women in the arts (I as executive director of Pen and Brush), I believe we have a significant number of shared views on all kinds of subjects, as well as areas in which we can learn from each other.

Most importantly, engaging in this kind of dialogue really helps drive home the point that none of us is in this alone. VIDA, Pen and Brush and a host of others – take The Kilroys, for example – are saying to women, “We’ve got your back.” As Erin Belieu has said, “The best thing VIDA has done is to help women understand that they don’t have to live in isolation due to the fear about what happens if they’re proud of their work and if they pursue what they want.”

On the need to assign gender to an author or artist:

JS: What do you think enables people to come to conclusions about whether a man or a woman has created a work?

EB: Sometimes, we have a kind of intuition around things. People also mentally and emotionally assign different subject matter to men and women–they also tend to view the same subjects and approaches to them differently, based on their awareness of whether or not a man or woman has written it. We, as readers, feel uncomfortable until we’ve established gender – and women don’t get the automatic benefit of the doubt when it comes to expertise and the kind of mastery one needs to write well. We erroneously assign mastery and knowledge to men, the personal and care taking to women. Generally speaking. So the larger question is, why does this matter so much? Why does it matter who’s telling the story?

JS: At Pen and Brush, we work hard to showcase a large quantity of top quality work and to have viewers appreciate the work fully – before they have a chance to add an overlay of gender stereotypes. We want gender to fall away and for the merit of the work to stand out. The only way we can make that point is to provide experiences for readers and exhibition attendees by sort of a subterfuge. We’re not disguising names, but we aim to create an atmosphere – even just for a few moments – in which the work truly stands on its own.

EB: Exactly. Historically, in order to get a fair read, or to not alienate audiences, women have often relied on a kind of subterfuge – from the Bronte sisters, to J.K. Rowling.

On the problems with the “Lean In” proposition and counteracting the “confidence gap:”

JS: We see, in many arenas, this blame leveled at disadvantaged groups for their lack of progress. Take Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” proposition. It’s made a lot of women feel that if they simply change their behavior, somehow things will get better. It’s like saying, if you want to be successful as a woman writer, you have to feign the characteristics of a male writer, so that editors will select your work and you’ll get published. What are your thoughts on this?

EB: I feel that Sandberg has good intentions, but there are different levels of privilege that need to be acknowledged that her worldview doesn’t account for very well.

JS: Right. At Pen and Brush, we are trying to structure current programming so that we’re creating an awareness among those connected to institutions that must be part of this change. The women do their part by writing great stuff, creating fabulous visual art, but we need the help of institutions. We’re trying to create that pipeline.

EB: I think that is a really important model: helping women move forward as a group. Going back for a moment to the blaming of women that occurs so often… anecdotally, some editors have said that women are less likely to submit their writing, even when they are solicited directly. Some editors speak of a “confidence gap” for women. The reality is, women are punished from the earliest age – the training starts very early for women to be humble, caretaking, self-deprecating, deferential. Women have long felt that they’re going to be punished in a variety of ways for taking a space for themselves. If I’ve done any good work in this world, it was being part of what feels like a movement at this point in history, where women feel like they have each other’s backs. It becomes, then, so much less daunting to put yourself forward and ask for what you want, if you know that you have a group of people behind you, supporting you. That can do a lot to change this so called “confidence gap.”

JS: Absolutely. And I would like to see the point where it’s clear to institutions that they, too, should be part of this supportive network and understand their role in the equation.

On what’s next for “The Count”, VIDA’s annual survey spotlighting gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews.

JS: Do you see any changes in the literary publishing world that have impacted VIDA’s thinking on what to look at, measure and analyze?

EB: We’ve had to examine our own assumptions, and the message is loud and clear that we need to deepen the conversation beyond the male/female binary. We’ve discovered how important it will be for VIDA to do or partner with others doing a race and ethnicity count. For our next Count, we’re hoping to put together partnerships with other groups that have specific identity issues at the core of their missions. But I don’t want to provide any opportunity for divide and conquer – it’s the age-old way of keeping people with common interests from moving forward. I still persist in believing that women share more in common as human beings than not, no matter their race, class, or sexual preference.

JS: Similarly, we aim to look at the world outside of us, and try to make the organization reflective of the world out there.

EB: You’ll get there -because the will is the way. Your will creates the way. That’s what I’ve very quickly learned at VIDA.

On growing the supportive network for women in the arts:

JS: What can organizations like ours do in concert with each other that might move things forward for women?

EB: It’s important to align with proactive organizations. VIDA has reached this cultural tipping point; hitting the right place at the right time with the right information. At the same time, there are women in film, architecture, and visual arts reaching out. Everyone is rising up and saying, “Are we really having this conversation? We’re tired of this BS.” You do not want to piss off whole lot of women at the same time. Women tend to be people who know how to get things done, because we have to. If you tap into our irritation, plus our intelligence and abilities – we’re a pretty unstoppable force.

On the power of numbers:

JS: Some critics charge that Pen and Brush, as an organization, is ghettoizing women – showing that they can’t compete in the larger arena of art. I reject that idea completely. I think that showing the power of groups of women, based on the strength and merit of their work, is a great way to show that we’ve had enough, we want to be taken seriously – and here’s all the proof.

EB: Yes. Again, what organizations like VIDA and Pen and Brush are saying is, “We’re here for you. We understand your frustration and we’re going to cheer you on every step of the way.”

On changing the misconceptions about work by women:

JS: Women can produce work that is unsettling and challenging. I have a huge hope that expanding our model to be even freer than it has been – more curatorial, with women not in competition with one another – will help continue to make this case.

EB: In the writing world, we don’t have as much control over the “curating” process. There’s so little feedback, except in writing programs, for instance. People just send their work cold and it’s either chosen or not chosen. The problem is that most of these editors are male and many are looking for reflections of what they already believe. Women’s work will often get assigned code words like “confessional” and “personal.” Women writers often live in fear of these labels, because they denote that the work is somehow smaller and less important.

How much would things be different if everything had to be submitted anonymously? That would be very anxiety-inducing for some editors. What would they do with their expectations, then?! I would love to have “a year of submitting anonymously!”

If Jonathan Franzen was Jeannette Franzen, writing about a parent dying of Alzheimer’s, does he still get to be on the cover of Time magazine? His would have been a “domestic” novel, as opposed to the Great American Novel.

On calling the next generation to action:

JS: What are your thoughts on how to impact the next generation?

EB: In the future, we want to have programming for children, even as early as grade school, for both girls and boys. I’m also a teacher, and my students include young women from 18 years old and on through grad school. I always ask my students, “What is your worth in the world? What is your power?” We get told very early to put our ambitions to the side. We need to encourage women to fully embrace their ambition. And we can do this by showing them that they’re supported. That’s going to make change for the next generation.