On CWILA, writing, and raging feminism

Last week I told my friend Erin that, when I grow up, I want to be a raging feminist. Of course I’m already grown up, but I’m starting my part of the CWILA count today and I am increasingly convinced this is important work–that I can’t teach or write without being aware of the larger literary world. This instinct is reinforced when my male students protest that they can’t identify with a female protagonist and I worry that I don’t have the credibility (I’m another woman writer after all) to effectively critique their myopic views. I don’t want to be angry in my feminist rage–that’s the easy part–I want to plow through the assumptions that underlie such comments.


The Globe and Mail in 2011


my CWILA assignment

When I was a kid in rural Virginia, it was easy to accept that feminism had swept through a decade before and accomplished its goals. As the daughter of both coach and cheerleader, I played rec-league flag football on Tuesday and stood by the varsity girls with my kid-size pompoms on Friday nights. At eleven, I was deemed old enough to drive the tractor so I could help with yard work, but I was not yet allowed to pierce my ears. My sister and I modeled our ambitions after both parents, playing school (like Dad) and office (like Mom–who earned more and worked longer hours). I could see that most administrative assistants were women and most doctors were men, but I believed this would change by the time I reached adulthood. The plan was working.

But now, twenty years later, I am less sure.

When I first moved to Vancouver, I worked as a barista at a small café by a theater that hosted mid-day Movies for Mommies. It was an opportunity to get out of the house and enjoy a movie—something I now realize new parents rarely get the chance to do—with baby in tow. But as a twenty-five year old earning eight dollars an hour, I felt unique contempt for the mommies. They sat for hours in the café after the movie, seemingly oblivious to the world beyond the stroller, as if breastfeeding was a permit to double-park their giant strollers and leave a wake of Cheerios for other people to clean up. Though I knew I wanted to have a child one day, I swore I would never become a mommy.

I was surprised by how many women in hyper-liberal Vancouver chose to stay at home after they had kids. It seemed there were more stay-at-home moms here than in southwestern Virginia, despite the fact that, on the whole, Vancouverites are better educated and wealthier than Appalachians. Though I am still a long way from motherhood, I see things differently now. I understand the financial complexities of living in this city—how often it makes sense for the bigger breadwinner to continue winning bread while the other (usually the mother) provides affordable at-home childcare. I see the demands a liberal city makes of relatively-wealthy, well-educated mothers: to use only cloth diapers, to breastfeed for at least two years, to stock the freezer with hand-mashed local organic carrots. My own mother, who got only six weeks of maternity leave in 1981, was not subject to the same rhetoric that comes with mothering today. She enjoyed her job, they needed the money, and all-day babysitting was only $35/week; there was no decision to make. It’s no wonder I saw little division between male and female roles.

Sexism these days is more subtle, but also more invidious. Take, for example, what Michael Wolff wrote in response to Pamela Paul’s appointment as New York Times Book Review editor:

Paul has, pretty much, no writerly or literary credentials. She’s written some straightforward, but non-literary nonfiction – a book about marriage, a book about parenting, and a book condemning pornography – and she’s been the children’s book editor at the Book Review for a short time. Her resume includes two years as a blogger at the Huffington Post, which, it doesn’t seem entirely churlish to point out, is not a job, and a stint writing a column for the Times’ Style section.

Is it true that if you say your comment “doesn’t seem” churlish, it isn’t? If you say that one has “pretty much” no credentials, are you allowed to ignore the many credentials she does in fact have? These days I read the Book Review erratically at best, but as organizations like CWILA and VIDA have tuned my attention to the politics of reviewing, I read more widely, seeking alternatives to the mainstream.

Here’s Steve Kettmann’s response to Paul’s appointment in the Daily Beast:

Paul is an author herself with three books, including Parenting, Inc. and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Her writing on books and the arts has been impressive in its breadth, depth, and deftness.

Considering that, unlike Kettmann, Wolff lists Paul’s books by content rather than title—“a book about marriage, a book about parenting, and a book condemning pornography”—it seems it’s the domestic/feminine/feminist nature of her literary attention that really irks him. It does, in fact, seem churlish to suggest that relevant parts of her resume aren’t valid. After complaining that Times book reviews have been “dyspeptic” for years, Wolff then resists the potential for change by lamenting the appointment of an editor who is “quite unlike any before her.” His editorial seems to ask: Should a woman—a woman who is deeply interested in domesticity—serve as the ultimate arbiter of literary taste* in America??

“Yes!” I want to yell in response. After hours spent counting reviewers and the reviewed for CWILA last year, after working several years on my own book while wondering if it will ever see publication because I am a woman writing about the very domestic topic of love (and a memoirist, no less!), after seeing Claire Messud asked by Publishers Weekly if she would want to be friends with the protagonist of her latest book (as my mom would say, “Gag me with a spoon!” And also: who cares?), I am thrilled to see a woman at the helm of the NYT Book Review. I’m hopeful that Paul’s appointment will be more than a gesture of equity. And I am hopeful that my own daughter, should I have one one day, won’t be naïve enough to resent women who have to make difficult choices about working and motherhood.

*“We live and die by [the NYTBR’s] sudden enthusiasms, certain tetchiness, unstated rules, and hard-won acceptance”

For more reading on the gender divide in publishing, check out some of these great links:

8 thoughts on “On CWILA, writing, and raging feminism

  1. I wonder if we would ever have read the Grimm Fairy Tales if they were by the Sisters Grimm. You’ve inspired me to break my long silence and write some reviews of female authors. Because we rock!

      • Equally appalling was the revelation that Wikipedia editors had been slowly moving women from the American Novelists page to their own American Women Novelists page, as though they didn’t qualify for both categories. Upon writing about it in the New York Times, Amanda Filipacchi suffered a bit of cyber-bullying at the hands of the Wikipedia editors (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/opinion/sunday/wikipedias-sexism-toward-female-novelists.html?_r=0) and (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/opinion/sunday/wikipedias-sexism.html?_r=0).

        One of my students is writing an essay for my information literacy class that argues that even though the US is high on the human development index, the status of women in the US is no better than in developing countries much lower on the index. And they’ve done a great job with the paper, because stories like this make it easier for the student to support her opinion well.

        • I’ve been following the Wikipedia stuff, too, though I didn’t know Filipacchi’s page was mauled as a result of her initial article. I think it’s great that your students are writing about stuff like this–I should make more effort to engage my students when it comes to gender in reading, writing, and publishing.

  2. When I moved in the early 90’s, I hired a couple of 4th year college kids to pack up my many books by topic. I was surprised how many boxes of “Women’s Lit” the male student filled, more than I’d realized I owned, and figured he must be really progressive to take such an interest. By contrast, the female student made up only one. I wrote her off as unevolved. Foolish me. On unpacking, I found the female student’s single “Women’s Lit” box contained all the texts and classics from a couple Women’s Studies courses I’d taken. Moving and provocative writings- Steinem’s 1983 “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions”; “The Woman as N*gger” by Jane Gallion, 1971; bell hooks; Barbara Ehrenreich & more. Felt a surge of joy recalling the energy in those classes and the impassioned discussions they spawned! Then, I opened box after box of “Women’s Lit” the male student had packed…stunned and turning cold inside: everything by Agatha Christie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ursula LeGuin, Georgette Heyer…! Cookbooks, comics, romances, historical novels, science books, math texts, children’s lit, foreign language…ANYTHING with an identifiably female name on the cover was “Women’s Lit” to that young white male. He was graduating from a well known Boston university, btw, with a major in English.

    • Wow. I can’t say I’m surprised by your story. But it’s a bit heartbreaking how these ideas persist for decades. I suspect I have some students who would adhere to a similar taxonomy.

  3. There are many wonderful strong men out there treating women equally, yet not forgetting to be gentlemen. But I agree, there are far too many men in highly developed societies that feel threatened by our success as if it makes them less men then they are now. It means to me that they are weak, lost and pitiful, not deserving a second of our attention.

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