Women in Writing Roundup

Last week on Wednesday, November 8th, the Women’s Center held our final roundtable discussion of our fall series. The theme: Women in Writing. Panelists, moderator, and participants generated a fascinating discussion on the valuation of women as writers, artists, and creators in greater society. Although much of the criticism that was voiced made for a bleak outlook, our panelists passed on enlightening advice for all artists struggling to make a life with their work.

The roundtable began with the moderator (in this case, myself!) presenting some statistics to ground the conversation. Student staff members had done research to discover the representation of women as both content makers and content matter. Some highlights in these statistics include that women have made gains in more bylines from 2011 to 2014, but they still don’t make up even half of the men’s bylines; half of the National Book Award recipients from 2000 to 2014 have been by men and about men; and similarly, more than half of the Pulitzer Prize recipients from 2000 to 2015 have been by men and about men. In adding an intersectional lens to this data, we also find that women’s publications (when they actually happen) are dominated by white women–women of color, as you may have guessed, make up only a small fraction of the women published in both Poetry and The New Yorker. Check out VIDA for even more numbers on this topic.

Panelists (from left to right): Johanna Alonso, Missy Smith, and Tanya Olson

These numbers stressed the need for this conversation, and our panelists delivered many times over. Tanya Olson (poet and faculty in the English Department), Missy Smith AKA QueenEarth (singer/songwriter and coordinator in the Women’s Center), and Johanna Alonso (writer and UMBC student) started strong in their introductions teasing out themes that we would continue unraveling throughout the panel discussion. Some of the major points from the discussion included:

  • There is a double standard in today’s literary canon. Women are constantly reading about men and books by men, but men reading books about women/by women is not emphasized in the same way. Johanna brought up, for example, that despite the Hunger Games series popularity, many men in her life refused to read the books because the main character was female (and written by a woman).
  • The wealthy heterosexual white male gatekeeper has the power to set mainstream agendas. Many of the panelists agreed that the mainstream art society was a typically masculine space defined by male gatekeepers. When we have those gatekeepers in the form of editors, publishers, producers, etc. they control the agenda, which more often than not does not place value with marginalized creators and their content.
  • Despite the harsh landscape, progress is being made. Both Tanya and Missy spoke to the idea that there is plenty in the world that motivates them to continue what they do, and that comes in the form of the other folks like them–people of color, LGBTQ folks, etc.–who are being published, performing, and making careers for themselves. This visibility, to both Tanya and Missy, is crucial not only for them, but for all of the other writers and artists who aspire to grow in their fields. Missy specifically noted that she writes music and performs to empower others to do the same.
  • You must value you yourself. In order to do this work, you must value yourself. You must continue to believe in your work and the process of honing your craft. This is the driving factor for all of our panelists. Sparked by a question in the crowd about the devaluation of spoken word poetry versus musicians as art, Missy brought up that you have to stick up for yourself. If, for example, you are the only poet in a lineup of musicians, you need to ask to get the same payout as the musicians, because your art is worth that much.
  • The reality is that you are not alone. Although it can feel lonely and exhausting to be one of the only “different” people (women of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, etc.) in your field, you are not alone. Tanya made this point and noted, as well, that even though it may feel isolating, there is a path for everyone–you just have to find it. For her, this meant finding the person who was one step ahead of her, and looking to them as a model and/or a mentor. Johanna noted that her ambivalence transitioned to enthusiasm in a writing class when she found that she was not the only person writing stories about queer people. Just so, when we find the people who make space for us, we need to take it and make more space for all those who follow.

This rich conversation made clear that although there are many barriers that make women writers and artists journeys more difficult, these also create the richness and depth in their stories. The struggle, in some ways, necessitates the story/song/play/etc. in our world, and that success in writing is the sustained progress we make as we take up space and demand equity in the valuation of our art.

In final words of advice, Johanna encouraged us to venture into the nether regions of the Twitter-verse for obscure literary magazines and to read from those sources. Finding art in the most un-obvious places is a way to constantly learn more. Tanya again noted that mentorship can be key, and to find the person who you want to be–and start there. Finally, Missy took us home: “Failure is stopping. We have to keep moving and focusing on the long-game. It’s okay to be different–in fact it’s better

Further reading:

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Revisiting Male Privilege

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A Women’s Center Blog post and reflection by student staff member Daniel

On September 22, 2014, I published my first Women’s Center blog post, titled “Male Privilege in Women’s Spaces.”  In it I shared my anxieties about joining the Women’s Center staff and reflected on my male privilege. I thought about what my role or place might be and how I could manage my privilege in a healthy and productive way.

I want to begin my last year at the Women’s Center the same way I began my first year here. I want to think about and complicate my male privilege and how I show up in the Women’s Center and other women-centric spaces.

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Fall 2014 Women’s Center Staff

A lot of things have changed in the two years since I published that first post. After serving my terms in student org leadership, I’m now much less involved; I’ve watched freshmen and sophomores step forward and take positions I once held and do a better job than I or my predecessors did. My trans identity has evolved and my understanding of my relationship to the world has changed. My perspective on privilege is different now and I’ve learned that reflecting on my privilege makes me a better leader. I’m a third-year staff member and I often find myself in leadership and mentor roles, meaning this self-reflection is even more important than it was when I first started.
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You Are Valid: Women Students with Mental Illness

Shira by Shira Devorah, student staff at the Women’s Center (she/her) 

Every student has their personal struggles that make being in college difficult – responsibilities and personal needs to attend to while also working towards a degree. Like many other students, I also face mental illness on top of every other responsibility.

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This is probably one of the more pleasant stock photos I found when searching for “mental illness.” Get on that, photo people….

I struggle with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and ADHD. These diagnoses do not define me, but they do tend to get in the way of my school day. Sometimes classes have to be skipped, assignments need to be pushed back and plans must be cancelled, all in the name of mental health.

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Beyonce from her music video “Flawless,” which inspired the hashtag #wokeuplikethis (screen capture)

As a woman with depression, I can’t always look happy for the sake of making someone else feel good, as stereotypical female empathy demands of me. I will not seem ‘flawless’ because sometimes I can’t remember to eat, let alone put on lipstick. I cannot be around people for an extended period of time without being exhausted. I am no less woman than someone without depression, but I have to work harder to be accepted by a sexist world as worthy of the title “woman.” This pressure is made more difficult when you factor in the fact that I am a full time student. I am expected as a student to do my best and succeed while also fitting into the tiny box of “womanness.”

Society presents a very limited definition for what a woman is “supposed” to be and look like and these strict gender roles rarely fit the dynamic and complex individuals we are, but they are even more inadequate for people of color, LGBTQIA-identified people, and people with mental illness and/or disabilities. Women students who navigate life with a mental illness have to deal with often unachievable standards, including the expectation of “effortless perfection.”  Continue reading

Women are Funny (too)

First, let’s start off with saying that the Women’s Center is stoked about Hannibal Buress making his way to campus this weekend for Homecoming. We very much enjoy his character, Lincoln, on Broad City. More importantly, he called out the rape allegations against Bill Cosby in his stand-up routine back when very few others were because it was “too hard” and “unbelievable” to simply just believe and support the victims coming forward.

But, we’d be remiss if we didn’t share something we’ve noticed when it comes to comedians coming to campus for the annual Homecoming event. They’re all dudes! Nick Offerman. B.J. Novak. Bo Burnham. Donald Glover. Lewis Black. And now, Hannibal.

Now, this just isn’t a UMBC thing. It’s kind of just a thing we call sexism. For example, check out the hosts of late night television:

From Vanity Fair's October 2015 issue on late-night television.

From Vanity Fair’s October 2015 issue on late-night television.

Then there’s this catalog that was delivered in the mail the other day that shared all the great comedians colleges can book and bring to campus:

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Really?! Just four women out of 24 on this list of options?

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So, with that in mind, some of the Women’s Center staff has compiled this short round-up of some of our favorite women comedians. In their own words, staff members write about why these women are funny (too). Continue reading

“We still do that?”: Shackling Pregnant Prisoners in Maryland

When you talk to most college students about shackling incarcerated pregnant people before, after, and while they are labor, most are surprised.  Many look at me incredulously and ask, “We still do that?”

Yes, we still do that. We still shackle pregnant people for all of their medical appointments, as they give birth, and as they are leaving the hospital even though it has been deemed dangerous, dehumanizing, and unnecessary by national organizations like American Medical Association (AMA), American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and American Public Health Association (APHA). Federal courts have ruled that shackling those in labor is a violation of the Eighth Amendment (that one about “cruel and unusual punishment”). The United Nations has also prohibited the shackling of pregnant prisoners and considers the practice a form of torture (though the U.S. would not want to ruin their streak of neglecting to ratify most conventions on human rights that the UN creates).

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