Rachel Bunting

women in literature

So. I just received (and I mean, literally JUST received) a message on Facebook from the Women Poets Reader Directory. The message was advertising the following new initiative, originated by Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu:

A few days ago, Cate Marvin sent out an open letter to a group of women writers detailing her concerns about certain aspects of the AWP conference and asking if other women felt the same way. She then suggested the brilliant notion of a women’s writing conference and wondered who would be interested in such a thing. The letter has since gone out to hundreds, has been posted in many places, and the response has been absolutely tremendous. This leads us to believe that our moment is definitely NOW (pun intended).

The full text of the letter, in addition to Cate’s original email, has been posted over on this blog.

My initial reaction was, of course, “Great! A space advocating for women writers!” I’ve had numerous conversations with my dear friend Anna, who also happens to edit The Barefoot Muse and the Raintown Review, about the frustration of the female experience, especially in the literary world. In fact, we just had a discussion that was relevant to the topic about her experiences at Sewanee: she had a wonderful time but found herself in a workshop comprised mainly of men. This was problematic only in that she tends to be lumped into a “women’s lit” category – some of the poems had very nuanced language that was entirely missed by a few of the male workshoppers.  We have often said over glasses of wine that we wish we could do something about it. Of course, we each have hundreds of reasons and excuses: school, children, partners, households to run, other literary obligations, work, money, time, etc. So at first glance, it seemed like a great solution.

However, upon thinking about it further, I have some reservations. I’ve read enough feminist theory in the past few years to know that “a separate space for women” is not enough. There are too many opportunities, still, for exclusion within our own female community.

We need to start asking questions: What kind of space? What kind of women are going to be welcome in the space? What sort of female experience is going to be celebrated? What about women writers of color? Only some? Or all? What defines the criteria for determining who is “acceptable” as a woman of color? What about transwomen, queer women, women who define themselves outside the “normal” system of dual gender? What about class divisions? What kind of communication are we really going to be generating in the creation of these female-focused community?

There is a post on the Facebook group that draws attention to some of these issues, in particular the issues faced by women of color in artistic communities. Patricia Spears Jones writes:

I would hope that WILA will serve as a model for inclusion as it deals with the powerful position of women of color’s literary output especially over the past five decades. As a poet, playwright, cultural commentator who knows many others who look like me, I have found myself too often disappointed by how few African American, Native American, Asian American or Latina Americans are asked for their partipation in discussions of women’s writing or thinking w/ a few notable exceptions. That kind of faux exceptionalism needs to go. WILA needs to deal w/this issue before it starts to look like the same old same old.

How can WILA not fall into the the usual trap of supporting the acceptable women of color as opposed to a broad range of writers of color who may bring different ideas about gender, race, class, form, etc. will be an important task for this new organization. Let’s start thinking about that NOW. Let’s find positive ways to create an open space for all kinds of women including women of color in literature.

I cannot possibly agree with her more.

In talking with Donna about this, she brought up some interesting points as well: how effective is it, really, to create an alternate space? If we take this opportunity to start an insular community, who is really going to pay attention? Only the people who already think like us. Shouldn’t the fight be taken directly to the mainstream forum? Isn’t the point to change minds, rather than walk away from them?

Maybe it would be more effective, then, to boycott major conferences like AWP. How much would it hurt a conference like AWP to pull together a significant group of people from all experiences (minority or not, any race, class, gender, etc.) who support the idea of inclusion, and publicize the protest of an organization that doesn’t. Boycott, yes, but also: Twitter it, blog it, write letters and emails, petition. Whatever it takes to finally get the attention, and make a change. What does the change have to look like? Who knows – but a start might be demanding a better representation of minority in mainstream conferences, including panels every single year on the experience of being a minority in any category.

Why waste the time, money and energy establishing a secondary forum? What good does that really do us? As Donna said, fighting for another space means that women writers are basically saying, “We’ll just take our toys and go somewhere else.” Is it worth expending energy on another initiative that will, by its own definition, never really be a part of the mainstream?

Will I join the Facebook group in support? I don’t know yet. The idea of joining is still appealing, if only to be able to make my thoughts available to the rest of the group. But on the other hand, I might just be contributing to the division.


After emailing with Anna, actually, and some further conversation with Donna, I reviewed the AWP conference schedule for 2009. I felt it important to add to this entry that there are a significant number of panels representing “the minority experience”:

Women Writing Desire
The Sister Art(s): Toward a Feminist Ekphrasis
Jewish Poetry vs. Poetry by Jews
Writing About Disability Across the Genres
A Room of Her Own Foundation: Show me the Money
Hip-Hop and the Future of the Black Writer
Revising Modernisms: Innovative Latino Writing in the 21st Century
Diverging Lines: Understanding the Evolution of Contemporary Latino Poetry
Gay Regionalism Through the Eyes of Appalachia
Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East and Asia
Writing Class / Writing Gender
Poetic Responses to AIDS
Post-Racial Writing

And this represents only some of the selections from the first day. Is it in any way all-inclusive? No. But it certainly indicates that AWP has an eye toward diversity. There is no lack of talented, intelligent female artists in these panels.

While I understand Cate’s frustration (yes, the literary world is dominated by white, male writers – see Cara’s excellent assessment here), and I get that the rejection by AWP of her panel proposal was probably a catalyst for all the things she’s been thinking about, I’m still not sure this is the best way to approach the situation. It calls to mind the Adrienne Rich-style feminist behavior of the 1960s, where it’s said that Rich barred men from entering her readings. Really, do we want to continue preaching to the choir, and risk excluding anyone else?

And further, is this particular scenario with AWP a situation where we’re crying wolf? There is a real sense of unbalance in the literary world, but is using a proposal rejection from AWP the right way to call attention to it? Perhaps the question to ask here is not, “Was my proposal rejected because it’s centered around women?” but rather, “Why was my proposal for a female-experience panel rejected while some others were accepted?”

0 Responses

  1. oh these are really good points!

    i joined the FB group & i offered to volunteer for WILA because i’m not sure that “taking our toys and going someplace else” is such a bad thing. i think cate’s analogy to cave canem was one of the things that sold me the most. it’s like so many people want to believe that we live in a “post-racist” society b/c we have a black president… for a lot longer, people have been trying to say that women are completely equal. ha!

    and i’m sort of surprised by anna’s experience at sewanee, mainly because almost every workshop i’ve been in has had more women than men — which has always made me wonder: well, we’re all writing, we’re working to improve our writing, where are we on the bookshelves? at the podiums? why are there so few female poet laureates? seriously, i did a count once & it was abysmal.

    i think a separate group helps to strengthen & coalesce the individual voices so that they can demand what they need within the larger/mainstream group. so it’s not like we’re taking our toys and playing exclusively in our own space, to go back to the original analogy, but acknowledging that the play is different and we need multiple spaces to meet our needs.

    1. Autumn,
      I see your point about the post-racial America commentary, but I’m still not convinced that there is another way better than pushing back in the mainstream forum. And as far as coalescing the individual voice: this separate women’s conference won’t have the power to leverage in getting more panels like the one Cate proposed at AWP. So what purpose is it really serving? It’s certainly not changing the original problem.

      1. but why won’t it have that power… eventually?

        i’m not saying that a separateorganization isn’t without its flaws. and i definitely think its important to push back in the mainstream. but i also think its important to have conversations like the one cate proposed in her panel cate or about other issues that impact women (broadly… b/c i think your points about inclusion are excellent & most necessary to be addressed). and if those conversations can’t or won’t be found in the mainstream, than i think its fair that we create a venue in which to have, while at the same time fighting to have them in the mainstream. if we wait until the fighting succeeds in getting us into the main, we’ll be waiting a long long time.

        1. True, it takes a long time to change the current of a river. And in the meantime, we’re dividing our energy. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe that separate organizations / spaces / conferences / what have you are entirely without merit. Of course I think they’re important, and I recognize that there will always be a need to recognize the alternative voice. There will always be a need to provide a safe space for that voice. I suppose I think the motives are a little suspect here – which is not to say that Cate is wrong or is working with a malicious intent.

          I think mostly I’m a little skeptical of spaces and orgs (even loose ones) that are billing themselves as being in the interest of women, probably because I have seen too many examples now of exclusion.

  2. Rachel makes excellent points as always. I do want to say, though, that I LOVED my workshop at Sewanee. It was very interesting to be in a workshop with that ratio (5 women: 9 men incl. the 2 workshop leaders) because like Autumn, I’ve never had that experience before. And if they struggled with the nuances of my childbirth poem, no doubt I struggled with the significant % of hunting, shooting & fishing poems, also!

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