Michelle Gillett: Overcoming biases against women writers


STOCKBRIDGE - I have always felt fortunate that I write a column for this newspaper every other week. I get to express my opinions, use my voice, and tell it like it is -- or at least how I think it is. Writing is what I have always wanted to do, and what is better than being able to do what one loves?

But not all writers are as fortunate. Many good, even great writers don't get their work published. And sometimes the reason is not because of the vagaries of the publishing world but because of its biases.


Vida, Women in the Literary Arts, just released its fourth annual "Vida Count" which assesses publications and their inclination to gender bias when it comes to women writers, editors, and reviewers. The count was started to call attention to "traditions that leave women writers out of editors' Rolodexes and off publishers' forthcoming lists." Vida uses pie charts to illustrate the percentages of women and men represented in various magazines and journals. This year, they added more pies in order to include small press publications as well as better-known magazines like The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

Vida looked at journals like Tin House, Prairie Schooner and the Gettysburg Review, and is pleased to report that, "When it comes to pies, these taste a good bit better for their variety, innovation and encouragement. Many seem to be reading other realities and enjoying a literary world that isn't solely focused on them. The pleasures and joys of literature can, in fact, be multiple as it turns out." Vida makes note of biggest offenders in terms of publishing women, like the Times Literary Supplement whose editor Peter Stothard told the Guardian a few years ago, "The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books," and "while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS." Still, Vida observes, progress being made. "There are glimmers of hope, acts of encouraging measure ... and again, it all starts with words."

Amy Wheeler, the executive director of Hedgebrook, a literary nonprofit on Whidbey Island, that supports "visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture by offering writing residencies, master classes and salons, and public programs around the country that connect writers with readers and audiences, " wrote about the need for greater activism and collaboration. "Hedgebrook is joining forces with like-minded organizations -- VIDA, She Writes, The OpEd Project, Brooklyn's PowderKeg, and others -- to bring our collective energy and wisdom to the table, share ideas and resources, and together build a ‘new girls network' that will expand our reach and effectiveness." It is partnering with AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation) and The Lark Play Development Center, to launch the new Shakespeare's Sister prize, "the brainchild of playwright Ellen McLaughlin."

The Vida Count reminds me of my good fortune to have been writing an opinion column for almost 30 years, (at major news publications, out of 143 op-ed columnists, 38 are women). But I am also lucky to live in a community that supports women writers. The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers that began four years ago, and takes place annually in March, Women's History Month, is offering opportunities galore for women to share their work.


Jenny Browdy de Hernandez founded the festival after organizing International Women's Day conferences at Simon's Rock of Bard College where she teaches. After fours years, the festival has grown to include workshops, panels, speakers, and readings throughout the county. This year's festival has a special focus, "Writing the Self, Righting the World: New Vision of Personal and Planetary Health." The Berkshire Festival of Women Writer's mission is "to open up spaces for ordinary women to have their voices heard in the public sphere. This isn't a highbrow literary festival; the creators aren't big names that take months of planning to bring to the Berkshires.

This month of events is about tapping into the creative potential of women, largely local, and some of them seemingly beyond their "creative years." An estimated 3,000 attendees came to the daily events last March. Lorrin Krauss, this year's festival coordinator, says, "The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers encourages women to find and nourish that creative voice that lives within all of us. The month-long lectures and workshops, (this year there are 58) are led by 150 local women writers. Women (as well as men) from all walks of life attend the daily and evening events and find a platform for the written word."

Lorrin discovered her own creative spark in a workshop two years ago. and, she says, "I hope never to put out the flame."

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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