Women Writers Get No Respect

Why don’t women writers get as much respect as men writers? A recent Salon.com article (“Why can’t a woman write the Great American Novel?”) discusses this phenomenon in a review of Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. Showalter has some interesting speculations about what makes women writers less celebrated than men writers.

One is that it is assumed that women mainly write about topics that aren’t as interesting as the topics men write about. (Home and family versus war and travel, for instance.) Another is that women writers are simply not as accomplished. And one of her more interesting explanations was that women writers have trouble finding time to perfect their craft because they are primarily responsible for the domestic scene. (One reason why there were more celebrated English women writers during the 1800s may have been because English women were more likely to have household help than American women were.)

Women writers have no trouble hitting the bestseller lists (think J.K.Rowling and Stephanie Meyer), but they are much less likely to be mentioned in the most prestigious literary reviews, let alone receive prestigious awards for their writing.

I thought it was interesting that the same disparity appears in the blogosphere. The Huffington Post, for instance, has female bylines only 23% of the time. And of the posts that are written by women, a fifth of them are by Ariana Huffington. (For more detail, see this article on the FAIR–Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting–web site from November/December 2008.) So, it’s not just men who discriminate against women writers. Oh, the party line is that the best are picked regardless of gender, but is this really true? Are there really so few women writers that can measure up to editorial standards?

Catherine Orenstein, the founder of the Op-Ed Project (which aims to encourage and teach women to voice their opinions in op-ed venues) says that women need to be part of the public debate. “Women are actually the majority of bloggers if you look at all subject matter, but if you look at top blogs that are picked up and guiding policy, they’re in the minority.”

So it’s not merely that there aren’t enough women writers. There are a couple factors at work: 1) women’s opinion pieces are rejected, either because they’re women or because they’re not considered to be experts (after all, how can a woman be as much of an expert as a man in the same field?); and 2) women’s opinions are not solicited as often as men’s are. Because of these conditions, two things need to happen: 1) Women need to work on their credentials and their writing, to make both as strong as they can be; and 2) they need to start being pushy about getting their opinions out there. Print and online media need to be held accountable for their lack of diversity in the opinions they print.

How does this apply to women who write novels, poetry, essays, etc.? They, too, need to perfect their craft, but they also need to be assertive, even aggressive, about promoting themselves. They need to get rid of any feelings of not being as good as a man.

And they need to get someone to help with the housework.