Finally, VIDA has published the numbers. What many of us have long known, or at least suspected, is now incontrovertible truth: women are not published nearly as much as men in most venues in the literary world. As editors (of both genders) scramble to justify familiar sexist publication practices, you can expect to hear these usual excuses: 1. It’s not our fault; women just don’t send us their writing as much as men do. Our gender balance reflects the slushpile. 2. It’s not our fault; the writing we see by women simply doesn’t meet our standards. If they sent us good enough work, we would publish it. 3. We publish women. Look— we included x, x, and x in our last issue. So what if they’re in the back of the magazine and have far fewer pages? What do you want us to be, a feminist magazine? 4. You don’t like that sexist allusion in the first poem in the magazine? Lighten up! Where’s your sense of humor?
Sorry. These tired rationalizations just don’t cut it anymore. Here are some guidelines for literary journals ready to take responsibility for their editorial practices, remedy the imbalance once and for all, and finally join the 21st century:
Actively solicit women contributors. This is the only realistic way to get from the slush pile (likely at least 75% male) to your goal of at least 50% women. You have no moral obligation to reflect the percentages of your slush pile; if you did, most of what you publish would be below your standards. How to go about this? 1. Read other magazines, or browse in bookstores, and look for women writers whose work you admire. 2. Look up their postal or email address online and send them an email asking to look at some of their work for consideration. A query does not put you under any obligation to accept. Follow up until they send, and if you must reject, invite them at least once to send more work immediately for another round of consideration.
Educate yourself Become somewhat familiar with what women writers are saying about their own influences, ideas, aesthetics, aims, strategies, and traditions. In addition to writings by or about women writers you admire, read some general background works in feminist theory.
Read with double awareness. When you are reading a literary offering from a woman (or from any writer with a background different than white-male-upper-middle-class), notice your responses. When you find yourself reacting against something in a piece, ask yourself honestly whether gender might have something to do with your response. For example, women’s writing is often rejected by (female or male) editors because of an “overly personal” or “too emotional” tone; “sentimental” diction or imagery; or “trivial” themes. If your judgment is based on any of these reasons, think again, and imagine for a moment that you live in a world where writing is routinely rejected not for these things, but instead for being “overly impersonal” or having “too much thinking,” for being “too violent” in theme or plot or “too cold” in diction, tone, or imagery. The honest question you need to ask yourself is, have you been publishing only the work of women whose writing is not visibly distinguishable as women’s writing? If so, you are not creating an authentically female-friendly climate, but instead are sending a clear message that women must toe a male-defined line to fit into your pages. At the very least, this exercise may make you more self-aware of your unexamined assumptions, which are always the most dangerous ones.
Read like a woman. To take this exercise further, exaggerate it. Read through your entire magazine from the perspective of a paranoid, angry feminist. Count the contributors in each section of the Table of Contents. Count the genders of all the writers cited or mentioned in poems, stories, and essays, or reviewed, or pictured, or mentioned in ads. Notice the status implicitly accorded to the more feminist contributors (those who are writing about women-centered subjects or in explicitly female ways), the female contributors, and the male contributors: who is listed on the cover, who is placed earlier in the journal, and who is featured on multiple pages. Finally, skim through all of the writing with an eye to gender: notice gendered so-called “universal” words like “mankind” and “men,” references that imply the reader is a male, places where the gender of a female is noted but that of a male is left implicit or left assumed, mention of male-focused historical or social events, and so on. You may be surprised at what you notice, and your observations may lead you to make some different editorial choices in the next issues.
Create a context In addition to inviting and appreciating the work of women writers, it is important to create a critical or intellectual context where women’s writing as well as men’s will feel at home and make sense. Make sure that not only literary contributions but also reviews, essays, features, letters, and so on actively focus at least half the time on female poets.
Advertise Once you have a gender-aware publication, make the most of it by mentioning it on listservs, websites, and other venues that focus on women’s writing. You can be sure it will be appreciated!