My friend (and distinguished poet) Jeannine recently wrote a little blogget on the continuing gender imbalance in publishing. It’s a little slanted towards poetry, but I’d be a big liar if I said these problems didn’t exist outside the versifying set.
In my comment, I typed and then deleted something like “Great, now I not only feel guilty on my own behalf for only having two stories out, I feel guilty on behalf of my whole gender.” I deleted it for two reasons; one, I thought it was whingingly reproachful, and two, it just doesn’t seem healthy to support more guilt, in however jocular a fashion. It occurs to me now that guilt is part of the reason there are fewer fiction and poetry submissions from women than there are from men, even though there are more female readers, English majors, writing students, et cetera. The ‘Time’ section of the Mslexia essay I linked to above talks about how women are, even today, more often the primary caregivers to children, and do more housework than men. It doesn’t talk about how that cultural role may be propagated, especially how it wins out against the potential fulfillment of writing.
I think women are constantly told to be nice, giving, and unselfish in our society. Boys are rewarded for being determined, ambitious and driven, virtues that in girls might be rendered as domineering, climbing and cold. In a million little ways, from being handed a toy instead of encouraged to reach for it to being admonished to smile at strangers, we are trained to be less aggressive and more socially adept than our male peers are expected to be. Some of this may show itself in Mslexia’s second section on Confidence. However, I think it affects time a great deal as well.
Even if a woman doesn’t have children, there are demands on her time. I’ve been trying hard to learn to say ‘no’. It feels so good to help, and helping has been so thoroughly emphasized in women’s socialization. My boss needs me to stay a half-hour later. My coworker is coming down with a cold on my only day off. It’s not just me—my boss’s new manager asks her to help run a second store on top of her own. These demands are immediate, time-sensitive, with a person on the phone or in front of us in distress that we can alleviate. If I take this time for myself instead of giving it, I will feel guilty. I’m a nice person, I want to help, I want to give…oh crap, okay.
Writing is seldom time-sensitive. However fragile the threads of meaning forming in the writer’s mind, they can usually be saved for the next quiet moment, the next stolen hour. Right now, someone says they need us—a child, a coworker, a friend, a boss. And if we say no, especially so we can go write words we aren’t even sure anyone will ever read, we’re selfish.
I’ve been called ‘selfish’ fairly often. A young woman is ‘selfish’ for pursuing a career or a dream rather than having children – even if, or especially if – she would like to have both. It’s not just that demands are made on her, tasks are offered or questions asked. It’s that her function in the world is ‘helpmeet’, her value contingent partially on her generosity, her ‘niceness’. Other people must always come first, that’s what we’ve internalized. No matter how hard we may try to gouge it out of our psyche, remnants remain.
Writing, any kind of art, requires an amazing egotism. It requires the artist to look at the breadth and depth of the world – or just of humanity – and say, “Yes, I need to be heard.” It takes a healthy self-respect to say that in the face of our own tininess, and it is incredibly hard to feel both that defiant self-confidence and the self-effacement of ‘niceness’, selflessness.
So we have to learn a new value system. We don’t need to be heartless or deaf to others’ needs—we just need to rate our artistic pursuits higher on the list of priorities. Not “I wasn’t going to do anything tonight but write, I can stay late,” but “They only want me here late as backup, my writing time is more important.” Not “Oh, okay,” but “If you can’t find anyone else to cover you, call me back.” Compromises are possible. I believe you can be kind and be an artist. It’s a struggle, and it’s not something anyone else can do for you, but I think it can be done.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I was going to spend my day working on a fellowship application, but I agreed to cover a closing shift at work.