Are women authors held to different standards than men?
In 1849, to her critics, Charlotte Bronte wrote, “To you I am neither man nor woman—I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.’
THE SISTERS RESPOND:
I woke up this morning thinking about a post I found on twitter @AdviceToWriters
. I thought, That’s right. I want to be thought of as an author only. But it occurred to me that it really isn’t up to me, is it?
Jenny: Well, the fact is you—and Charlotte Bronte—are women writers and that’s a very good thing as far as I’m concerned. The problem is that because of historical devaluing of all things associated with the female, including writing, some do not take women who write as seriously as men who write. This prejudice was easily identifiable in Charlotte Bronte’s time. A woman’s writing was not only automatically considered of a lesser order by the status quo, legally she was not even allowed to keep any of her own earnings from her work. For us the question is more subtle, but one look at any table of contents in any issue of, say, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and you will see that though women write more than men, and read much more than men, they are still grossly underrepresented in print.
I certainly don’t want to be a man, nor do I want to be just an “author” because that automatically implies in our world “male.” I want to be a woman who writes and is given equal opportunity to publish my work and have it fairly critically appraised.
Martha: Are both notions too ideal? To be considered simply “an author,” or to be considered a woman who writes and who is given equal opportunity? How do you suggest arriving at that standard and possibility? And what do we do in the meantime — when, as you say, the question is more subtle today. I also know that there are many people out there — men and women alike — who would say the opportunities are equal, flat out disagree, and believe that you’re whining while also undermining women. What do you say to them? And as the title question asks: Are women writers held to a different standard? If so, what is it?
Jenny: We’re all heroes and we’re all whiners. I just want to be an equal opportunity hero or whiner. Yes, the notion that we be held to some sort of “equal” standard is ideal, but we’re fiction writers who trade in the ideal dressed up as the real. As for the title question, we’re all held most rigorously by ourselves to our own standards. I’m just asking the editors at magazines, the jury at Cannes (not one woman was selected this year to compete for the Palme D’Or), the board members of Fortune 500 companies (only 3% of CEOs of F500 companies are women) to think about their preconceptions of what a standard is before excluding from their pages, their competitions, their boardrooms, the female voice. Exclusivity is easy and natural. Inclusivity takes intelligence and courage.
Martha: And I certainly don’t want to be a man, but in hearing what you’re saying I’m reminded of the Old Boys’ Club. We should be looking out for one another in our own way. An old girls’ network. Of course, this has been brought up many times by many women. But has it truly taken hold? How? Where?
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below.
Up next week: Do women writers have to create characters who “behave?”