I recently attended a panel on Women in Law Enforcement at Lynchburg College, where I learned that women, once excluded from law enforcement, now make up roughly 15 percent of sworn personnel. Fifteen percent. I could not help but think of the VIDA Count with its disparaging numbers illuminating the underrepresentation of women writers in the literary arts.
Two of the panelists, Professor Kristin Keesee and Professor Laurie Lynn Drummond, spoke as former uniformed police officers. The other panelist, Dr. Kim McCabe, spoke as a law enforcement consultant and as an academic writer whose publications address issues of criminal justice. The moderator, Dr. Ken Wagner, professor of sociology and criminology, invited the panelists to share their personal experiences of sexism in law enforcement. It was a relief, I’ll admit, to hear him use the word sexism: we all knew what we were talking about.
The panelists took turns telling their stories. Drummond, who became a cop in the late seventies, talked of fielding sexist comments as a matter of course every time she showed up for work. One sergeant in particular who didn’t like “lady cops” assigned her to a two-week stint with a renowned chauvinist, two weeks, she said, of sexual innuendos and “hey baby” hell. Keesee told how the wives of her fellow officers would call the captain and insist that she not be scheduled on their husbands’ shifts, especially the night shift, which made it that much harder for her to forge camaraderie with her colleagues. McCabe recounted a time a male colleague slammed a report she’d written onto the dean’s desk, declaring it “the biggest bunch of crap” he’d ever read. McCabe added with a chuckle that the same report was later named one of the ten best in the state. She also mentioned that she was advised early in her career—the 1990s—to publish as K. A. McCabe to hide her gender because law enforcement articles written by a female would not likely get published. I thought of George Elliott, George Sand, Currer Bell, and more recently J.K. Rowling, whose publisher insisted boys would not read a series written by a woman named Joanne.
As I listened to story after story of gruff sexism both in the police academy and in academia, a theme emerged: rejection, rejection, rejection. Each panelist faced rejection early in her career not just once or twice, but daily. Rejection was an inevitable hurdle she had to scale.
The rejection hurdle is nothing new for women writers. But rejection for women in the literary arts is a slippery beast. Rejection is not only an integral part of every writer’s profession no matter your gender, but the rejection process also takes place unseen. It is hard then to put your finger on the source of the rejection. It could well indicate that a piece has not yet found its voice or its theme or its narrative arc. But the rejection letter could also camouflage sexist attitudes lurking beneath the surface.
As moderator, Wagner pointed out to the audience of mostly undergraduates that the sociologist in him wanted to make it clear that the number 15 percent was not an accident. “If you were to toss a quarter into the air one hundred times and it came down heads only 15 percent of the time, that’s not a coincidence. It’s an indication that something is wrong.” He then explained the term institutionalized sexism.
Because law enforcement and the literary arts are both institutions in the same culture, we can assume that the sexism that infiltrates one lurks consciously or not in the practices of the other. If there is a silver lining to the sexism in law enforcement it is its visibility. By mincing no words, it illuminates the sexist attitudes that remain entrenched in our culture across the board. The panelists knew the beast they were dealing with, and as they addressed how they handled sexism, the predominant theme shifted from rejection to perseverance.
Drummond, who grew up tussling with brothers, handled sexist comments by “dishing it right back,” one-upping every sexist jab that came her way until her colleagues eventually came to respect and accept her for the job she proved she could do. McCabe’s strategy as a consultant to law enforcement agencies was to listen for one, two, sometimes three meetings before offering “just a morsel” of advice because if she offered too much too soon the men glazed over. Once they realized she in fact had something to offer like, say, try handcuffing a pregnant woman in front instead of in back so that she can protect the baby if she falls—something they would never have thought of—they began to solicit her input. For Keesee, who’d decided to become a cop at age seven when her dad was pulled over for speeding, the trick was to keep showing up no matter how much resistance her colleagues doled out. Like her fellow panelists, she knew she had to work harder than her male colleagues. So she showed up and worked harder.
Clearly, each panelist had a personal strategy—a game plan—for handling rejection. She not only anticipated the rejection, she also actively countered it with strategic action. Her perseverance in the face of rejection had the final say in determining her success. In the end, her perseverance trumped rejection. Rejection did not get the last word on the arc of her career.
Like law enforcement, the literary arts was once an exclusively male field. Tradition dies hard. Yes, we can assume that sexism lingers in the rejections we receive today. But in the end, does it matter? No. What matters in the end is not why your work was rejected but how you persevered in the face of rejection. Because perseverance is a form of self-promotion, and self-promotion demands we call forth courage we didn’t know we had to champion for ourselves, our writing, our stories, our voice. Self-promotion demands that we perceive our experiences as worthy of art and literature. By responding to rejection with a resolve to hone our craft and resubmit our work, we actively tip the aesthetic balance of our literary culture and determine whose experiences are being crafted, published, illuminated, heard. By pushing past the obstacle of rejection, we push ourselves past both internal and external hurdles that stand in our way of publication.
During the panel, Laurie Lynn Drummond recounted what once seemed an insurmountable obstacle standing between her and a badge. “That damn rope,” she said and told us to imagine a sweaty gym with a high ceiling and no air conditioning in Baton Rouge in the summer. I pictured a warehouse. A rope with intermittent knots hung from the ceiling. In order to pass her physical exam, she had to climb the rope—the same rope male cadets were scuttling up hand over fist—and touch the ceiling. Every day she pulled herself up that rope, and every day she ran out of strength before she reached the top. She kept trying. She kept missing her mark. Day after day she hoisted herself knot by knot up that rope and day after day she fell short. Finally, two months after her first try, she conjured more strength than she realized she had. She scaled the top knot, reached up with a leaden arm and touched the ceiling. Euphoria.
As women writers, we can use the obstacle of rejection to deliberately and strategically build our submission muscle. If we don’t submit and we don’t receive rejection slips, we miss out on the challenge to conjure strength we didn’t know we had, to push our writing stamina past its previous limits. By exercising a strategic response to the inevitable rejection that will come our way, we ultimately scale the next knot in the oft-grueling climb to publication. A climb that determines the arc of our writing career: rejection or perseverance.
If Drummond hadn’t climbed that rope every day for two months, if she hadn’t hoisted herself to the top, knot by knot, day after day after day, she would not have become a cop. She would not be among the women who have pushed the number from zero to 15 percent. She would not have been on that panel.
How many women, I wondered, were not on the panel because rejection kept them out of law enforcement before they ever considered entering it, never mind getting close enough to that damn rope to callous their hands? How many women writers, by extension, do not write—much less publish—because rejection silenced them before they ever experienced a rejection slip? We can use rejection to strengthen our resolve to hoist ourselves, knot by knot, submission by submission by resubmission, out of silence.
After Drummond reached the top of that rope, she faced another hurdle: she had no strength left to lower herself knot by knot to the ground. So she slid. When she touched down her hands and thighs stung with rope burn.
The burn was worth it, she said, beaming from the panel.
Ironically, Drummond left law enforcement years later to become a writer and a professor of creative writing. She has written an award-winning story collection titled Everything You Say Can and Will Be Held Against You and is currently working on a memoir about her experiences as a female cop.
I say let’s all of us hoist ourselves past the next knot in our writing career, whether it is showing up at our desk, completing what we begin, submitting our work, or resubmitting our work time and time again.
I say let’s all of us forge a writing career defined by perseverance.
I say let’s all of us bring on the burn.