This morning I just read 2 articles from 2 women with 2 very different, yet the same, point of view. Side-by-side they really capture why I started this blog. I don’t want to say too much about them and be a spoiler, but they certainly are 2 remarkable pictures of the state of women today. Don’t miss reading them.
My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters
The author’s 2002 book about her career as a war photographer was titled “Shutterbabe”—against her wishes. Illustration by Milton Glaser Incorporated.
My latest novel was just long-listed for Britain’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange Prize. I cried when I heard. Then I Googled it. Here are a few things I learned: it was founded in response to the 1991 Booker Prize, whose nominees were all men; it is frequently modified by the adjective “prestigious”; and it is controversial. Why do we need a separate prize for women, ask the columnists, year after year, in one form or another, following the announcement of the nominees.
“The Orange Prize is a sexist con-trick” posited a prize-winning male novelist in 2008. “The past is gone,” he wrote. “Get over it.”
The 2012 VIDA statistics have been out for some time now, so I won’t linger over the current and quantifiable inequity—yes, even in this magazine—in the frequency with which male and female writers are reviewed today, five years after the past was deemed “gone.” It’s a proven fact, backed by simple math even my first grader can understand: the number of reviews of books by men is greater than the number of reviews of books by women; the number of male reviewers is greater than the number of female reviewers. Men, in other words, are still the arbiters of taste, the cultural gatekeepers, and the recipients of what little attention still gets paid to books.
What I will do, however, is open my kimono and make it personal, though I’ve been warned not to do this. It’s career suicide, colleagues tell me, to speak out against the literary establishment; they’ll smear you. But never mind. I’m too old and too invisible to said establishment to care. And I still believe, as Carol Hanisch wrote back in 1969—when I was having my then three-year-old feet forced into stiff Mary Janes—that the personal is political.
So. Let’s rewind and take a look at my so-called post-feminist life in arts and letters.
Born in 1966, I came of age at the dawn of a revolution. The past was gone; we would move on and get over it! Except getting over it, as it turns out, takes more than an ashcan full of bras and access to the pill. It takes years—decades even. My whole life, in fact, and still counting. Nixon signed Title IX in 1972, when I was 6, but only the girls born many years after me got to reap its rewards. Who knows? Instead of a novelist, I might have become a really short, nebbishy soccer player.
Fast-forward to 1988: I am raped by an acquaintance the night before my graduation from college. The next morning, before donning cap and gown, I stumble into the University Health Services building to report the crime. I’m advised not to press charges. “They’ll smear you,” I’m told by the female psychologist assigned to my case. I don’t want to be smeared. I’ve got a life to live. Twenty-five years later, while watching CNN lament the effects of the Steubenville rape on two promising lives—the rapists’, not the victim’s—I’ll hold two competing thoughts: nothing has changed; I wish I’d been braver. I decide to Google my rapist’s name, something I’ve never done in the quarter-century since the crime. His promise, I note, has been duly fulfilled. He’s successful. He’s married—to a woman who recently spoke on a “Lean In” panel with Sheryl Sandberg.
Because life’s like that.
Let’s head on over to 1989. I’m a 23-year-old war photographer, on the eve of my first professional exhibit at theinaugural Visa Pour l’Image Perpignan photo festival. I share this honor with photojournalism heavyweights Sebastião Salgado and Jim Nachtwey. They and all the other men—except the identical Turnley twins, who are paired for obvious reasons—are given solo exhibits. I share mine with another female on the slate that year, Alexandra Avakian. Ours is called “Les Deux Femmes Sur le Front,” which translates as “The Two Women on the Front Lines.” Of the twenty-six photographers featured in that first festival, we are the sole women.
It’s now 1998. I am the mother of two young children. I am my family’s primary breadwinner, working full time as a producer at NBC. I have an Emmy, but it’s no big deal: work in TV news long enough, you eventually get one. Returning to work after my second maternity leave (which left my family broke, as it was unpaid), despite my specialty in international news I am assigned three stories in rapid succession: “Putting Your Kids to Bed”; “Fussy Babies”; “Picky Eaters.” I am one of the few mother-of-small-children producers on the show, but there are plenty of father-of-small-children producers in our ranks. I punt the “Picky Eaters” story and take a leave of absence to try my hand at my first passion, writing, which my (male) freshman expository writing professor had once dissuaded me from attempting, though I’d previously been a young columnist for Seventeen.
It’s 1999. I sell my first book to Random House, a memoir of my years as a war photographer, for twice my NBC salary. I’m thrilled when I hear this: a new job; self-reliance; the gift of time to do the work I’ve been dreaming of since childhood. The book is sold on the basis of a proposal and a first chapter under the title Newswhore, which is the insult often lobbed at us both externally and from within our own ranks—a way of noting, with a combination of shame and black humor, the vulture-like nature of our livelihood, and a means of reclaiming, as I see it, the word “whore,” since I want to write about sexual and gender politics as well. Random House changes the book’s title to Shutterbabe, which a friend came up with. I beg for Shuttergirl instead, to reclaim at least “girl,” as Lena Dunham would so expertly do years later. Or what about Develop Stop Fix? Anything besides a title with the word “babe” in it.
I’m told I have no say in the matter. The cover that the publisher designs has a naked cartoon torso against a pink background with a camera covering the genitalia. I tell them it’s usually my eye behind the camera, not my vagina. I fight—hard—to change the cover. Thankfully, I win this one, agreeing to shoot the cover photo myself, gratis. When my publicist tries to pitch the book to NPR’s Terry Gross, a producer tells him that Terry likes the “Shutter” part of the title but not the “babe” part.
It’s now 2001. After two years of painstaking work to produce the book—having never written one before or attended grad school, I had to learn on the job—nearly every review refers to me as a stay-at-home mom. One such article is entitled “Battlefield Barbie,” which calls me a “soccer-mom-in-training.” I look nothing like Barbie. My kids don’t play soccer. The general consensus is that the book is good, but I suck. The character assassinations are intense. Talkasks if I’m worried I’ll be labeled a slut. I object to both the word and the question; the journalist prints them anyway. Brill’s Content and The Women’s Review of Books insinuate that I brought on my own rape and various other crimes that I experienced at the hands of men—armed robbery, a knockout blow to the skull from a crack addict.Salon resorts to slut-shaming and libel. New York thinks I’m an insult to feminism for having left a promising career behind.
My book is a bestseller, gets taught in journalism schools. I haven’t left anything behind, I think; I’ve started something new. (Years later, the Internet, reality TV and citizen journalists with smartphones will decimate both of my former professions anyway, forcing many of my ex-colleagues to scramble both for work and for new ways of working.) A proponent of “leaning in” before it ever became a topic for panels with my rapist’s wife, I write to the publications who called me a slutty Barbie stay-at-home mom and/or an insult to feminism, not to ask for a public retraction, but to request privately—privately! I don’t want to get smeared—that they carefully reconsider how they’re reviewing women. “Would you call a male author a stay-at-home dad?” I ask, among other rhetorical questions.
The Barbie critic was at that time a freelancer, so his editor suggests I call him at home for his e-mail address, a relatively new thing at the time and not easily obtainable otherwise. A few weeks later, I’m publicly shamed by this man at the National Book Critics Circle Award, where he has won the Balakian Citation. In his acceptance speech, though he stops short of naming me, he tells the story of the crazy woman writer who called him at home to complain about her review, though I was just calling for his e-mail address. Salon picks up the story and publishes both my full name and their own take, in which the critic’s amusing if false hearsay is printed as fact, without ever having called to ask me for a rebuttal. The name of the essay? “When Authors Attack.” (“They’ll smear you,” I think to myself.)
It’s 2009. I should be getting over it by now, and I’m trying, I really am, but then my third book, Hell Is Other Parents, a collection of personal essays, is published with a pink cover and placed in the parenting section. Prior to publication, I try changing the color to robin’s egg blue, the classification to memoir, and the title to Screwing in the Marital Bed, the title of one of the essays, which I think better encapsulates the thrust of the book. I am told, for the third time, that I have no say in the matter.
It’s now 2012. My fourth book, The Red Book, future nominee for the prestigious yet controversial Women’s Prize for Fiction and New York Times bestseller, gets passed over for a review in The New York Times Book Review, just like its predecessors. One morning, I hit a few independent bookstores to sign stock. Our publishers urge us to do so during a book’s first weeks. “Was it reviewed in the Times?” one bookseller asks me, searching his computer for any sign of the novel, which he was unable to locate on the shelves. I tell him no. “Then we probably don’t stock it.” I hear the same story from three more booksellers before heading home with my pristine Sharpie.
I consider throwing in the towel. The lack of respectful coverage, the slut-shaming and name-calling, all the girly book covers and not-my-titles despite high literary aspirations, has worn me down, made me question everything: my abilities, my future, my life. This is what sexism does best: it makes you feel crazy for desiring parity and hopeless about ever achieving it. A few months later, after delivering a lecture on the media-invented “mommy wars” at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, a song pops up on my iPhone as I’m walking back to my hotel room: Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “When you ain’t got nothing,” Dylan sings, “you got nothing to lose.”
Yes, I think. Yes.
I suppress the three words that have haunted me my entire adult life—”They’ll smear you”—and choose Dylan’s instead, composing a carefully worded private e-mail to the editor of The New York Times Book Review, alerting him to his neglect of all four of my published books. He responds graciously with two sentences in which he promises to share this information with his colleagues. Eight months later, the novel remains unreviewed.
It’s 2013, the day I sit down, with trepidation, to write this. The Times‘s obituary for Yvonne Brill, renowned rocket scientist, winner of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, leads with, “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.”
The past is not gone. Or as Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Until it is, we should not be expected to get over it.
I’m proud of my nomination for a prestigious if controversial British literary prize given only to women. I’m honored to be mentioned in the same breath as my fellow nominees, whose books I’ve been tearing through of late with relish and awe. Past winners—Helen Dunmore, Anne Michaels, Carol Shields, Suzanne Berne, Linda Grant, Kate Grenville, Ann Patchett, Valerie Martin, Andrea Levy, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rose Tremain, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Téa Obreht and Madeline Miller—include authors whose novels I know well or not at all, but it is for the latter, as a reader, I am most grateful.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction—and three cheers for the transparency of its new name—is not a “sexist con-trick” by any definition of sexism that I know. To the contrary, it redresses centuries of literary sexism, exclusion, cultural bias, invisibility. There’s a reason J.K. Rowling’s publishers demanded that she use initials instead of “Joanne”: it’s the same reason Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot; the same reason Robert Southey, then England’s poet laureate, wrote to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” In fact, I’m thinking about starting a women’s prize here in the United States, to be given out once a year, every year, until gender parity in the arts is achieved.
I figure that should take me from now until my obituary.
Thank You, Sheryl Sandberg
CNN PRODUCER NOTE iReporter JenKuhle has a 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. She recently began blogging about her experiences as a stay-at-home mom, and plans to read “Lean In” soon.
– katie, CNN iReport producer
It was the other night at bedtime when my three-and-a-half year old daughter leaned in close and whispered, “Mommy, my family is my favorite.” That was the moment when the epiphany I had been waiting for all week finally came rushing over me. “My family is my favorite, too,” I whispered back as I kissed my beautiful girl on the forehead and tucked her in for the night. As I made my way downstairs and prepared for some “Me time,” the true impact of my daughter’s words and what they meant began to sink in.
You see, I had spent the previous few days reading the endless media coverage of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, and quite frankly, her message had been sending me into in a mild depression. Sandberg’s primary thesis, her exhortation that had been gnawing at me all week, was this: women are not nearly as represented in high power business and government jobs as they should be and a big contributing factor to this inequity, on top of gender discrimination and a culture that doesn’t support the difficult choices women must make when balancing family and career, is that too many women are choosing not to “lean in” to their professional lives. They’re not realizing their fullest potential vocationally because they are thinking too much about their responsibilities as mothers and wives at home.
As a highly educated, stay-at-home mom by choice, these words stung, their bite all the more blistering because of their truth. All I have to do is look toward my own life to see Sandberg’s point validated. Here I am, an Ivy League graduate twice over, a driven person, conscientious to a fault, one of the hardest workers I know, and yet as I write these words I have a pot of homemade chicken soup boiling on the stove and my one-year old son nursing at my breast.
Before having children, I was a dedicated and respected teacher at two different elementary schools, earning leadership positions on curriculum committees and data teams, only to leave the first school to follow my husband from New York to Pennsylvania when we got married and the second when I had my daughter almost four years ago. No one twisted my arm to leave. I made my choice and I made it firmly and eagerly. Having a family was something I had looked forward to since as long as I could remember, and though at the time I was aware that I would miss the teacher I was and the classroom I created, that I was indeed making a sacrifice to walk away (albeit temporarily) from my professional life, it really wasn’t a difficult choice. In fact, it wasn’t even a choice at all. I never looked back.
Until now. Now, I see layoffs all around me. Hiring freezes. Job losses through attrition. I can’t help but worry if there will be a job there for me when I do choose to return to the classroom. Couple that with my growing restlessness with being a stay-at-home mom and the disconcerting feeling that I have thrown myself into motherhood with such fervor that I have lost a piece of myself. And then enter Sheryl Sandberg with her message that women are holding themselves back. As I read article after article and watched news segment after news segment–some praising her, some denigrating her– I couldn’t help but grapple with who I am as a mother, wife, former career woman, and person. Did I make the right choice to put on hold my teaching career? Never for a second did I consider anything else, but why did I never even entertain other options? A job-share? Part-time paid work? Any sort of day care? Why was I so eager to relinquish such an important part of who I was?
As I racked my brain for days, this question ate away at me from the inside out until my daughter in her magical way made it all so clear. Why did I not lean in to my career when my children were born? Because I didn’t want to. Because my family is my favorite. Though it is true that I do need to work harder at achieving a balance in my life, to reclaim the part of myself that has been lost in motherhood, when I think about who I am and what I truly want, the answers are quite simple. Making homemade baby purees makes me happy. Teaching my children how to enjoy fresh, nutritious, real food makes me happy. Nursing my baby boy into his second year of life makes me happy. And I’m not afraid to say it anymore, but what would make me the happiest woman on earth right now is if my husband came home tonight and said, “Let’s have another baby.” That is who I am. It comes from somewhere very deep. And socialization and forced gender roles don’t have anything to do with it. To miss out on this time would be to miss out on some of my most fervent life’s ambitions. I could pump breast milk at work, but it doesn’t compare to holding my sweet baby in my arms and nursing him at 2:00 in the afternoon until he falls asleep. And there is nothing like curling up on the couch for some Mommy-daughter book time or listening attentively while my little girl tells me the latest bit of preschool drama. That couch and my kitchen are where I want to be right now. I’m not going to apologize for that.
Ms. Sandberg, I want to thank you for helping me redefine who I am and what is important to me. We all need these moments in our lives, and I applaud you for sparking this conversation that American women so need to have. I long for the day when our country’s leaders are half female and when the power players in boardrooms all across the United States are 50% women. I’m truly hoping that many women will heed your clarion call and lean into their professional lives. I’ll surely vote for them and cheer them on as they make their way to the top. And when the time is right, I’ll lean into my career once again, and I know I’ll do it with gusto. But right now, my family is my favorite. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.