The streets of Williamsburg saw an unusual uptick in sensible high heels last Tuesday evening, when a couple hundred journalists, writers and editors dressed in summer office casual filed out of the Bedford Avenue station and into the muggy front room of Public Assembly, forming a line out the door. They were there to attend a story-pitching clinic for female journalists, titled, somewhat preciously, “Throw Like a Girl.”
Once inside, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, sipping beers, while New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary asked a panel of editors and writers to talk about moxie.
Why was it, Ms. O’Leary wondered, that as a young freelancer she had spent months refining every pitch while her male peers tossed off story proposals from every statistic or idea they encountered?
“You have to understand that rejection is part of the process,” Times metro editor Carolyn Ryan said. “It really is part of the engagement with ideas.”
Ms. O’Leary’s younger self would have worried that one bad pitch could get her blacklisted from editors’ inboxes.
“You’re not going to remember in a pejorative way someone who’s just eager,” Ms. Ryan said. “We have a reporter at our paper, Sarah Maslin Nir—she was a lunatic when it came to pitching. She was relentless.” (After freelancing across 11 sections, Ms. Maslin Nir was hired full time.)
Attendees jotted it all down in notebooks made by Muji and Moleskine.
The event was put on by “female nonfiction storytellers” group Her Girl Friday, but a handful of men dotted the crowd, either in solidarity or simply sensing a networking or hook-up opportunity. The mood alternated between J-school seminar and group therapy session (even The Observer found herself involuntarily pumping her fist as panelist Katherine Lanpher cried, “No is a bump on the road to yes!”), but the evening’s mission seemed grander.
“This estrogen halo in this room—it’s really wonderful, it’s really powerful,” said Ms. Lanpher, a public radio host. “But we’re here because those byline counts matter.”
She was referring to the annual tallies put out by The Op-Ed Project, a nonprofit that shepherds women and minority writers onto newspaper op-ed pages, and VIDA, a two-year-old organization for women in the literary arts best known for throwing the wildest party the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference has ever seen. (There were burlesque dancers and roller-derby girls.)
In the last three years, the groups have become a fixture in Manhattan media circles for their end-of-year counts, which distill the nebulous boys-clubbiness of publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker into easily rebloggable bar graphs and pie charts.
As a result, a conversation previously relegated to once-a-decade university research papers has become an annual media event, a regular and cathartic articulation of a long-running internal monologue.
“We call the count ‘The Count’ from our experience of quietly counting to ourselves every time we read The New York Times Book Review,” VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu, a poet and professor at Florida State University told The Observer. “We were always looking to see how many and what kinds of books by women are being reviewed.”
In addition to counting female-authored articles, stories and poems, VIDA keeps tabs on the number of books by women reviewed by tastemakers like the London and New York Reviews of Books. Less than 20 percent of the titles reviewed by the NYRB were written by women, a problem novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote about in The New York Times earlier this year.
Ms. Wolitzer told The Observer the statistics had validated a suspicion she and female novelist friends had long shared. “You just had that feeling there was excitement around male work,” she said. “That was something I couldn’t quantify but I felt.”
It’s hardly a new discussion. Katha Pollitt reportedly devoted a Nation column to the problem more than a decade ago. TIME online editor Ruth Davis Konisberg had her own byline count site in the mid-aughts, called Women TK. But for the same reason, VIDA’s numbers are shocking. How is it that in 2012, The Nation (helmed by a woman, Katrina vanden Heuvel, since 1995), is still 73 percent written by men?
There are a couple of theories. The most popular is that women pitch less, or less aggressively, than men. Harper’s editor Ellen Rosenbush said as much when confronted with her dismal statistics, calling the “dearth of female bylines” an “industry-wide issue.”
“When I saw the VIDA counts I thought, I don’t know why that is. I’m not in the right position to theorize,” Ms. O’Leary said. But having mentored young journalists, she knew pitching was a perennial concern, and one piece of the puzzle that could be solved. “I just thought, well, hey, why don’t we do something really practical?”
According to a blog post by former GOOD magazine executive editor Ann Friedman, the gender makeup of a magazine reflects the genders of its editors and their professional networks of writers. Shortly after the first VIDA count, Ms. Friedman started Lady Journos!, a curated feed of quality, nonservice articles and essays written by women, in the hopes of keeping female bylines fresh in the minds of assigning editors.
The token male on Tuesday’s panel, The Atavist founder Evan Ratliff, agreed that editors should take responsibility.
“We have had a really bad gender byline balance,” he said sheepishly. The Atavist, which publishes very long form nonfiction, has only published two pieces by women, out of sixteen total, since it was founded in 2011.
Boos, though polite ones, rose from the crowd.
“I knew I shouldn’t have come here,” he joked.
He explained that after the first two stories The Atavist assigned to women fell through (a total coincidence, he assured the crowd), they never managed to correct the ratio.
“There are a lot of male writers who just have a natural sense of entitlement to them,” Mr. Ratliff said. They just pitch and pitch until something sticks.
“It’s not a question of gender as much as it is a question of who feels entitled to take up the space,” Ms. Lanpher said, pointing out that Wikipedia has no editor and is 75 percent written by men. “They feel they can do that. It’s really not an ovary thing.”
With Jill Abramson at the top of The Times and Tina Brown at the top of Newsweek, it’s easy to forget that the publications were embroiled in landmark gender discrimination cases as recently as 1978 and 1970, respectively.
“The system at Newsweek was women researched and men wrote,” Gloria Steinem recalled at Monday night’s Women’s Media Center benefit. “It was absolutely airtight. So considering where we started I’m not surprised it’s still a problem.”
Whatever the causes, the gender awareness stoked by the VIDA count has added a new, political layer to the ritual grousing over National Magazine Award nominees. Ms. Friedman divvied up the count by gender this year and found no women had been nominated in prestige categories like feature writing, columns and commentary, essays and criticism, and reporting. (They fared better in the personal service category, home to “Would You Get a ‘Mommy Tuck’?”)
Meanwhile, election news analysis site The 4th Estate found that women contributed just 15 percent of the quotations in political articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and even named the worst offenders (will anyone volunteer to introduce Jeff Zeleny and Dan Balz to some chicks?), something VIDA has heretofore avoided.
“Shaming people has never really changed anyone’s mind,” Ms. Belieu explained.
VIDA was born from a viral email manifesto written in August 2009 by Cate Marvin, a poet and professor at the College of Staten Island. The AWP had just rejected a panel she had proposed for its annual conference, on the transgressive in female poetry, and she faced an absurdly large pile of infant laundry to fold. Writing to a handful of writerly friends, she likened herself to the narrator of Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.”
Ms. Belieu stayed up all night forwarding the email to like-minded women, who flooded Ms. Marvin’s inbox. They were frustrated that the conversation about women in the literary arts had devolved, in Ms. Belieu’s words, into “a retrograde, touchy-feely, moon-goddess-y, groovy” sort of thing.
Ms. Marvin and Ms. Belieu co-founded VIDA in part because, as established poets with professor gigs, they could speak freely about inequality in a way that made full-time poets and fiction writers more anxious.
“You undermine your ‘special woman’ status,” Ms. Belieu said, referring to those, like Louise Glück and Kay Ryan, who have been admitted to the literary boy’s club. “What happens when you go on the record as someone who doesn’t like this club?”
Few know better than Jennifer Weiner, the bestselling Good in Bed author. She has publicly fought the literary establishment on Twitter, even as her massive commercial appeal underwrites her publisher’s more artistic ventures.
Ms. Weiner first called attention to the disproportionate amount of attention paid to male authors in 2010, with the hashtag “Franzenfreude,” which she used to describe The Times and other publications’ slobbering over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
The keynote speaker at BookExpo America’s Blogger Conference on Monday, Ms. Weiner said her publicist had urged her not to speak out against The Times again, fearing they would take it out on her next novel.
“What else can they do to me?” Ms. Weiner asked. “Can they quote Jonathan Galassi—who is Jonathan Franzen’s editor—making fun of my made-up German? That happened.”
Now Ms. Weiner thinks that The Times may be misrepresenting her book sales. She said that her current paperback, Then Came You, was the eighth-best-selling book on Bookscan, but only ranked 22 on The New York Times Bestsellers List. When her publisher has called to contest her rankings in the past, she said, The Times said it doesn’t disclose its methodology.
In VIDA, there’s a third party that can hold The Times accountable, by one measure, without risking seeming whiny or paranoid.
“What ‘The Count’ is really doing is, whether they like it or not, editors are in a position of having to think about this,” Ms. Belieu said. “The volume just keeps getting louder.”
On June 18, VIDA will make its formal debut in New York literary society—well, Brooklyn literary society, anyway—with a fundraiser thrown by Riverhead Books at Brooklyn Brewery.
“My goal is: Everyone in publishing should be ashamed of themselves if they didn’t go to the VIDA fundraiser,” said Riverhead head of publicity Jynne Martin. (According to a 2011 count produced by The New Republic, Riverhead’s catalog breaks down 45 percent female and 55 percent male, compared with a 30–70 split elsewhere).
The fundraiser will help VIDA fund its first two program goals: creating a network of mentoring workshops and putting together an endowment that will allow it to offer no-questions-asked grants to writers.
“As a writer you’ll often want to apply for these projects and you’ll have to come up with some grand proposal,” Ms. Belieu said. “‘I’m going to go to Italy and study the saints blah blah blah.’ There are very few organizations where you can say ‘I would use the funds for this award to take care of daycare.’”
“It goes back to Virginia Woolf,” Ms. Belieu said, of writing. “You need enough money and you need a room to do it in.”