As a child, I naively assumed that writing was a level playing field and female writers were at no specific disadvantage. As a teen, I devoured work by authors like Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. And when I dared to dream of being a writer, and to stretch that dream as far as I possibly could, it seemed that there was ample room on the shelves for women writers.
And it is certainly true that in my generation, female writers are a lot more visible than they used to be. But this doesn’t mean that being a woman writer carries the same privilege as being a man writer.
First, there is the wage gap. According to 2017 median weekly earnings of full-time U.S. writers and authors reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, female writers earned 89 cents to the dollar that men earn doing the same thing. When applied to a yearly salary, this means that the average female writer in 2017 earned $6,552 less than their male counterparts.
Then, there is the fact that women still carry the majority responsibility for child raising, which is both unpaid (and dowplayed) labor, but which also required time, energy, and focus that might otherwise be devoted to writing. (I am a mom and would never have it any other way, but how many writers residencies include childcare or funding for it? How many writing conference allow and encourage you to have your little ones along?)
There is also the literary version of the #Metoo experience, in which increasing numbers of women writers are coming forward with accounts of being harrassed, bribed, and sometimes assaulted by prominent male writers with whom there was an inherent power imbalance.
But there is also another part, which I had the unfortunate experience of encountering personally in 2017. Which is, a certain level of misogyny that leads some men to disparage and reject a woman writer’s work based in part or in whole on the writer’s decision to address what they consider to be “female subjects”.
In my case, I had entered a writing competition which involved having to write something within a certain time frame with an assigned genre, object, and place. I drew historical fiction, scale, and woodshop, which stretched my creativity to its limits, let me tell you. (Did I mention that this was also a flash fiction competition with a strict word limit?)
I ultimately came up with a piece which retold the Lizzie Borden story and attempted to answer the real life question of why Lizzie and her sister, who were close companions and roommates for most of their lives, suddenly stopped talking and became permanently estranged. I described a situation in which one sister tried to talk about a long-standing family secret about child sexual abuse, and the other, unable to tolerate this discussion, withdrew forever. The plot was largely my attempt to connect the dots between my assigned genre, object, and place in a coherent narrative.
In the end, I was relatively pleased with how the story came out. I submitted it online and awaited my score and feedback from the anonymous judges. The score would determine whether I could proceed to the next round and continue on in the competition.
As it happened, one judge gave me an extremely low score. I was surprised, but figured I’d have something to learn from the feedback. Clearly, the piece had shortcomings I had overlooked.
I was not expecting this:
“That seems to be such a prevalent notion, of fathers abusing their daughters. Can we be sure? Are there not also girls who desire their father’s attention that may contribute to an unleashed sexual passion? Things are not usually white or black, but grey. A mystery such as the Borden murders seem to fall into a grey area . . . and fiction regarding it might best be as broadminded as it can be to attempt to accommodate it.”
I reread it a few times to make sure I had understood it correctly. I was receiving a low score based on a judge’s belief that child sexual abuse by fathers is written about too frequently? And that I had probably misinterpreted the Lizzie Borden situation? (Um, it’s fiction, right?)
The creepiest part of his feedback — the part where he comments on girls who “contribute to an unleashed sexual passion” with their fathers — is a category unto itself. I have never once heard a story like this, despite having worked as a therapist and had people confide all kinds of things in me.
Blame the victim much?
After digesting the judge’s feedback, I posted something about it in an online forum and was surprised to receive a message from another female writer who had been critiqued by the same judge (judges are identifiable by ID number). She had also received a low score, and her feedback from the judge was as follows:
“A bit of feminist hyperbole, isn’t it, even in a fairy tale? Also, it might really make this fairy tale a bit more interesting if Aurora’s children weren’t both daughters. This really infuses the tale with a bit too much metaphorical estrogen, quite honestly.”
At this, I felt compelled to write a letter to the competition director. I quoted the judge in both instances of feedback, and received a prompt, thoughtful reply from the director (who incidentally was a man) saying that the judge’s feedback was entirely inappropriate, and he had been removed from the panel.
It was a win, I suppose, for future female competition entrants.
But even with this, there was no recourse for me or the other woman writer in terms of our low scores. Both were prevented from advancing in the competition, and given feedback that could be interpreted as a cautionary tale about making future writing less female-oriented.
As for me, all I can do now is stand up to sexism where I encounter it, and support other women writers in general and in hope that there someday will be a level playing field for us and for other marginalized groups.
Our stories matter.
We must support one another in telling them.