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:

Advertisements

Women in Politics: No Way to Win

headshot

Having grown up right outside of D.C., Women’s Center student staff member Hannah has spent most of her life following politics, and uses that passion here to reflect on its lack of gender parity.

 

Did you know that if you say “women in politics” three times while looking in a mirror, Hillary Clinton appears behind you? Okay, maybe that theory isn’t 100% accurate, but she is the first person many people think of when hearing that phrase, and it’s easy to see why: as a former Senator, First Lady, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate, she has had a long career in the public eye, and with that has come the added burden of being one of a few successful women in a male-dominated field. With the release of her new book about what happened in the 2016 election (aptly named What Happened), this seemed like the perfect time to reflect on how we talk about women in politics and why it matters. From blatant sexism to the demonization of women’s ambition, the double standards and stereotypes these women face all serve to perpetuate misogyny and exclude women from some of the highest leadership positions our country has to offer.

~Disclaimer: This post is not a commentary on or endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s (or any other politician’s) stances. People on both sides of the aisle have perpetuated sexism in politics, and we are all responsible for taking steps to combat it.~

 

The Biggest Red Flag

It’s easy to see blatant sexism being used against Hillary in many parts of the 2016 election,  the most obvious of which being pro-Trump merchandise. Slogans like “Trump that bitch,” “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica,” and “Life’s a bitch; don’t vote for one” were worn proudly by many Trump supporters. Now, attacking one’s opposition–no matter what side of the aisle they are on–has been a part of campaigning since this country began, but criticism of policy ideas, voting records, and political experience is entirely different from pointedly gendered attacks. What’s troubling about this kind of rhetoric is the way it normalizes harmful gender stereotypes and makes people believe that this is an acceptable way of talking about others.

When I mentioned one of these slogans to someone I knew, he laughed and said that he “hates Trump,” but the slogan was funny. In my opinion, if you claim to hate a man who brags about sexual assault, you should also hate the misogyny that many of his supporters have no problem perpetuating.

 

The Demonization of Women’s Ambition

Men–especially those in positions of authority–are rarely pigeonholed as sex objects or domestic figures and then labeled as too aggressive or domineering when they seek positions that don’t fit those labels. There are lots of examples of male actors who have ran for or contemplated running for high-level elected office (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dwayne The Rock Johnson), and very few people have said that they’re too shallow or inexperienced to hold these executive positions, nor have I seen commentary This is not the case with women. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s openness about her ambition caused such a backlash that it spawned a cookie-baking contest between the two potential First Ladies. Seriously. During the 1992 primary race, California Governor Jerry Brown accused Bill Clinton of using his time in office as Arkansas’ governor to help his wife’s legal practice. Hillary Clinton then fired back by saying “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” This struck such a chord with the American public–among both men who viewed her comment as “bitchy” and women who took offense to the notion that she viewed herself as being above domestic work–that the magazine Family Circle saw a way to capitalize off the controversy. Thus began a cookie-baking contest that has survived the last 25 years of politics. Oh, and another fun fact: Even though Hillary Clinton was the candidate in the 2016 election, she was still the one competing against Melania Trump. While I have nothing but respect for those who bring cookies into this world, we’re not living in the 1950s; domestic work should not be the only option available to women.

Most of the men I know would probably agree with that stance, but there is still a pervasive fear of powerful women. Many social psychologists attribute this to a phenomenon called precarious manhood. Essentially, men are afraid of being emasculated and consequently losing their manhood, and ambitious women can invoke such fears. Case in point: Hillary Clinton’s favorability rating has historically always been lower when she runs for office and demonstrates this ambition compared to when she is in office and less in the public eye.

quote-if-i-want-to-knock-a-story-off-the-front-page-i-just-change-my-hairstyle-hillary-clinton-5-83-87

What’s more important: Hillary Clinton’s policies or her appearance?

 

Finding a Solution

If you’re reading this and thinking “I voted for Hillary Clinton so I can’t be sexist” or “I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, but that’s not because I secretly hate women!” then slow your roll. The point of this post is not to call all Hillary supporters perfect advocates for women or to claim that everyone who voted against her did so because of misogyny. In fact, people on the left are just as capable of perpetuating sexism as people on the right. Take Sarah Palin: while many people during her 2008 candidacy for Vice President had concerns about her experience and choices as Alaska’s governor, their criticism quickly blended with misogynistic commentary about her appearance and her more typically feminine persona (I wouldn’t recommend spending too long looking at google image results for “Caribou Barbie”). The point is to raise awareness about the way we as a society view women in politics, and why they are treated so differently than men. Double standards are everywhere: If a woman is too traditionally feminine, then she is too stupid to do the job, but if she demonstrates such capacity, then she is too aggressive. If she isn’t  domestic enough, then she is forced to release a chocolate chip cookie recipe, but once she does, then she is seen as fake and trying too hard to be likeable. If she shows emotion, then she is too sensitive, but if she doesn’t, then she’s too robotic. If she doesn’t have much political experience, then she should let someone more qualified do the job, but if she has the experience, then she should step back because her time in politics has gone on too long. With all of these sentiments weighing so heavily on the conversation, it’s hard for a woman winning an election to feel like much of a victory.

giphy-downsized

Even SNL recognizes that there are women all along the political spectrum: maybe their ideas aren’t the reason why there are so few women in politics

If we want to improve representation in politics and promote women’s empowerment, then we have to improve the way we talk about the few women who are already in the public eye. This is about more than just “girl power.” Representation in politics–and in every other institution–does more than just make a prettier picture; it allows for everyone to feel that their voices are heard and their experiences matter. The Women’s Center here was founded in part to meet the unique needs that many women in college have, and the same principle applies in government. By listening to women’s voices, the UMBC community was able to better provide services that had been previously overlooked. If women are heard in local, state, and federal governments, imagine what can be accomplished. There is no one ideology held by all women in elected office, just as there is no one monolithic voice of all American women: when I talk about wanting equal representation in politics, I don’t want people to vote for a candidate simply because she’s a woman; I want there to be enough women running so that they don’t have to.
Further Reading:

At UMBC:

Women in Politics Roundtable Round-Up

16665235_1240042186074587_3406555264375312519_oThe Women’s Center’s Spring Roundtable series has begun! On February 14th, we hosted the first of our three-part roundtable “Underrepresentation of Women in…” series. This roundtable was on “Women in Politics” and focused on the lack of women in the political sphere and the establishment.

For this discussion, our panelists were Political Science professor Lisa Vetter, Language Literacy and Culture student Colonel Ingrid Parker, and student staff member Kayla Smith.

The discussion opened with a question about gendered communication and how to express femininity in a workspace that’s male dominated. Kayla and Colonel Parker both agreed that being a “chameleon,” or being fluid in how they present themselves based on their audience, has worked for them in the past. 

The conversation then turned to Hillary Clinton’s presidential loss. The suggestion was made that the glass ceiling was now higher than it had previously been as a result of someone as qualified as Clinton losing to someone as seemingly unqualified as President Trump. People in politics may be more scared to back women running for office because women don’t seem to get the votes to take office. Therefore the goal of making a woman president is even more elusive. Furthermore, after learning that some women need to be asked more than five times to run for office, there was some concern that Clinton’s loss would discourage more women from entering the political sphere for fear of disappointment; however, Colonel Parker reminded everyone that the next step should be to stay hopeful and push forward no matter what happens. 

When Jess Myers asked about the silencing of Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor during the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kayla pointed out that the silencing of Elizabeth Warren was really the silencing of Coretta Scott King. Kayla went on to explain that, because her feminism is intrinsically connected to her race, it’s impossible for her to ignore the ramifications she faces in the establishment due to being a black woman. 

When the discussion was opened up to the audience, a student asked a question about coping with the effects of mental health when looking at barriers to women in politics. Colonel Parker spoke about the benefits of finding coping mechanisms like eating well, spending time with family, and working out. Kayla suggested finding supportive groups of women to help and uplift you in the face of adversity. Women’s Center Assistant Director Megan Tagle Adams added that it isn’t always enough for their to be more women in a space but that they should also be supportive of women excelling instead of engaging in “mean girl” tactics.

Another audience member asked Kayla what her opinion was on changing the establishment to include women and people of color to which she responded, “It’s important for people to be educated. They need to learn that our government and political system is built on white supremacy, racism, and sexism. Nothing will change until people understand where we started and that those things still play a major role in our system.”

Overall, the subject of women’s underrepresentation in politics is vast and complicated and while we barely scratched the surface in this hour long discussion, we did our best to open the dialogue and get people talking and thinking.

Want more information? Below are some links further discussing women, the establishment, and politics.

So has this discussion fired you up? Are you interested in running for office (public, school, or otherwise)? Have you heard about Elect Her? Elect Her is a leadership program that encourages and trains college women to run for student government and future political office

There is an an Elect Her workshop on March 11th from 10:30-3:30 in Fine Arts 011. You will learn how to figure out what your message and platform is, how to craft a communication strategy that works, and you’ll hear from campus and community leaders about what it takes to win. It is going to be a great day!

If you have questions or want to RSVP, contact Dr. Kate. (drabinsk@umbc.edu.)