VIDA: Women Writers Still Struggling for Parity

Posted on April 9, 2012

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I only recently heard of VIDA, which is not that surprising, since they were just established in 2009. The organization’s mission is “to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.”  In short – to figure out why, in the 21st century, women still can’t seem to get a fair shake in the literary world.

This year, for the second time, VIDA surveyed bylines and content from a selection of major, respected publications, like The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, and others, and published their findings in The 2011 Count.   Casually flipping through the pie-chart slides, it seems that male writers have three or four times as many bylines as female writers.  The same goes for authors being reviewed or interviewed:  the men far outnumber the women.  As VIDA notes in its press release, their data set off a tsunami of discussion, some of it serious, some of it dismissive:

Immediately, the literary community went into hyper drive responding to the information VIDA had gathered: furious debates over The Count took place in comment boxes, both nationally and internationally; women writers are discriminated against and should be righteously indignant; women writers are whiners and should simply write better books; women writers should write about more “important” subjects; women writers’ subjects are just as important as male writers’, dammit!; women writers’ subject matter isn’t inherently different than men’s, it’s just reviewed differently; women writers should submit more work to magazines; male writers should submit less; editors should actively solicit more work from women writers…

And then, on 3 April, the 2012 National Magazine Award finalists were announced.  Apparently, there were only a handful of women represented, all in either the fiction or personal-service categories.  And that set off yet another firestorm of discussion:  do women only want to write about women’s issues like breast cancer?  Do they limit themselves to making up fiction?  Where is the recognition for women doing the so-called “major” writing in features, reporting, essays?

One thing the VIDA count accomplished was to show that the dearth of women writers is an undeniable fact.  What it cannot tell us is why.  Is there a reader bias in favor of male authors?  A publisher’s bias?  Are there fewer women than men interested in writing, or is there some systemic obstacle — say, child-rearing — that takes away from a woman’s opportunity to write?

Then again, there are far fewer female CEOs than males.  The same goes for legislators, judges, police officers, soldiers, engineers, aviators.    Why the imbalance in those professions?  In the end, really, is writing any different from any other profession when it comes to equal participation by women?   This is not to minimize VIDA’s mission of calling attention to this issue in the sphere of writing; it is only to say that what we see in the writing profession is repeated many times over in other professions as well.

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