As far as the numbers go, The 2011 Count is not much different from The 2010 Count. Women writers are still wildly underrepresented in prominent literary publications. But The 2011 Count is peppered with quotes culled from the conversation sparked by The 2010 Count. This is new. People are talking about the reality women writers face in the dawn of twenty-first century.
Women’s literary history long reflects the social conditions imposed on women. Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx demonstrates that the freedoms women have been denied in the literary arts parallel the freedoms they have been denied in society at large. In 1853 Julia Ward Howe, best remembered for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” anonymously (and unbeknownst to her husband) published an autobiographical book of poems titled Passion-Flowers, which voiced domestic unhappiness, including, in Showalter’s words, “a sophisticated, outspoken, and memorable portrayal of the tensions between creativity and maternity.” When Howe was identified as the author, her husband flew into a rage. Again, Showalter:
For three months he refused to speak to Julia, and then demanded a divorce so that he could marry “some young girl who would love him supremely.” He also threatened to take custody of the two older children unless she agreed to stop publishing such personal work. Howe gave in. “I thought it my real duty to give up every thing that was dear and sacred to me, rather than be forced to leave two of my children…I made the greatest sacrifice I can ever be called upon to make.” By June 1854 she was pregnant again.
Howe’s husband not only had a right to his wife, he had a right to his rage while she, a woman, had no right to her voice, her mind, her body, her children, much less the public expression of her truth. Showalter points out that “Howe’s struggle against her husband and against American social convention stifled and effectively silenced her genius before it had the chance to develop fully.”
Julia Ward Howe’s literary silencing, her experience as a female writer, provides a window into our literary heritage. Her story is an integral part of our literary history. She herself a literary grandmother, so to speak, from whom VIDA and contemporary women in the literary arts are descended. The Count makes visible not only the silencing that persists today as part of this heritage, but also the extent of this silencing. The Count is a tangible measure. As such, it is a gift (thank you, VIDA!), a signpost directing us. Where to? Against silence. Time to muscle up and flip silencing the bird.
5 Ways to Flip Silencing the Bird
#1 Join the conversation. Post a comment on the VIDA website, especially if you are afraid to post a comment. Fear keeps us silent. Your contribution will not only expand the conversation, it will challenge any tendencies toward silencing that you have unwittingly internalized as a female writer.
#2 Read women’s literary history, which provides a context for the struggles women writers continue to face today. This knowledge will empower you to recognize in yourself the difference between struggles that result from social conditioning and your true worth as a writer. This recognition will free your voice and keep your struggles in perspective, which will help you to write past silencing.
#3 Write your experiences as a female. Don’t hold back. Risk the humiliation waiting in the wings when you voice your truth. Then submit your work.
#4 Encourage other women writers to write their experiences as females. Encourage other women writers to submit their work.
#5 Answer this question: What does it mean to you to be a woman and a writer? Your answer will contain a truth worthy not only of the VIDA Count conversation but also of publication in a respectable literary publication.
These five strategies will help put you on track to send your writing into the world, where it belongs. What better way to flip silencing the bird than with your written words.
Write your story!