Click on our masthead. Look at the photos. Skim the bios. What do you notice?
Eight women. Eight white women. Eight college-educated, North American, native-English-speaking white women.
We formed Vela to counter the gender byline gap. But what does it mean to have a women-run website, run entirely by one kind of woman?
This last fall, a group of friends came together to launch an ad-free magazine of longform music journalism. They went about it as people do these days: publicly, with a Kickstarter and a Tumblr and plenty of tweets. They announced their intention to provide an alternative to the whittling-away and dumbing-down of music journalism, promising to “let some of the best music writers working cover the music that matters to them.”
It sounded great. Until other writers began examining just who these “best music writers” were. As it turned out, they were nearly exclusively heterosexual middle-class white dudes in their 20s and 30s.
When the nascent publication fell under criticism for embracing such a limited sect of the music-writing pool, their response was less-than polished: We’ve got a Jew and a gay guy AND a woman! And so far we’ve only received pitches from white dudes. “Send us some [pitches], people who aren’t white dudes!” they tweeted.
As critics pointed out, this response negated responsibility by placing the onus of inclusion on freelance writers instead of the editorial team. Further, the response failed to take into account the more deeply entrenched problem of exclusion: “straight white male dudes dominate the conversation in music writing and do so in a way that results in hermetic coverage of acts that appeal to that very demographic.”
Lack of diversity wasn’t a problem that could be remedied by tokenism. It was a problem that had seeped into the conversation itself. It had become the conversation.
Vela was founded in response to the systemic marginalization of women’s voices in literary publishing. It was created as a space where emerging female writers could write what they wanted, free of genderized expectations and valuations.
Our founder reached out to five of her female peers, writers she knew through her editorial work, MFA program and freelance career. We eagerly embarked on carving out a small space of internet where we could let our voices be exactly what they were: our own.
We spent our first year publishing on a rotation: every six weeks, each of us published a piece of non-fiction somehow related to travel, journey or place. But as any writer can tell you, producing a polished piece every six weeks, unpaid, is a lot—especially when placed on top of education, full-time jobs, freelancing, child-rearing, editing and so on.
So around the time of our one-year anniversary, we decided to start including guest writers at Vela. We wanted to ease the pressure on ourselves, sure, but we also wanted expand the Vela conversation. We wanted to feature more reportage, more journalism; we wanted to reflect a more diverse range of female voices and experiences.
We began reaching out to women writers within our personal and professional networks who produced quality work in the travel genre and who might be willing to run that work unpaid. This, as you might guess, yielded an extremely small return.
Who were these women? They were women we knew, or women whose work we’d read on like-minded outlets. They were fellow MFA candidates, colleagues at fellowships and retreats, travel bloggers, people with whom we’d exchanged friendly tweets. Some of them were even people who pitched us cold. But they were all women within our general sphere.
And this is how it happens.
I can only imagine the way editors at top literary publications must cringe in advance of the annual VIDA Count.
Since 2010, the grassroots organization VIDA has released its now infamous roundup of female-to-male bylines in leading literary outlets. For most big names—The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The Nation—the exposing of their gender stats isn’t pretty. And as per VIDA’s blog, most of these editors choose to respond to the stats with silence.
Feminist writers however are not silent, and solutions to balancing the VIDA Count abound: Publications need to hire more women writers! They need to hire more female editors! Women writers need to pitch more! Women writers need to be more willing to write the hard-hitting, opinionated journalism publications seek! Publications need to value the more memoir- and arts-related topics women write!
But the problem appears more complex than anything these singular solutions can remedy. When asked point-blank about the discrepancy, many of these editors lamented the “industry-wide issue” (Ellen Rosenbush, Harper’s). Some even took responsibility for their role in the gender disparity: “We’ve got to do better — it’s as simple and as stark as that” (David Remnick, The New Yorker).
One editor was even willing to publicly lay bare his perspective for the sake of cracking open the conversation. The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait painted a stark picture in which the self-perpetuating alienation of male-centered environments mixes with the socialization that engenders women towards center topics—a coupling of influences he believes produces a timidity and lack of confidence in women writers. He expressed frustration with his inability to change this culture, despite awareness and efforts.
When I read statements like these, I start to get a vision of the editors of these publications. (I say “a vision” because I’ve never met any of them.) What I see isn’t a group of raving red-eyed misogynists plotting to exclude people other than privileged white men from the literary conversation. Those may very well exist, but what I envision are people more like Chait and Remnick—people who believe in gender equality but don’t know how to go about making that happen. People who have internalized biases, like we all do, and who are, to varying degrees, aware of those biases. People who make conscious, concerted efforts to include more diverse voices, but who find those efforts falling short. People with great intentions who nonetheless find themselves participating in and contributing to disparity.
People not so different from myself.
This is how the communities get formed: like-minded people gather around like-minded topics.
This is also how voices get excluded.
Exclusion isn’t always conscious. I’d argue that more often than not it’s unconscious. In our era of diversity-awareness, I believe few people like to think of themselves as part of the problem. “I’m not racist,” the 2008 joke goes. “I voted for Obama!”
But this is how it happens. Especially when you’re small, like we are; when you’re without funding, like we are; when you try to build something from the ground up by reaching out to friends and peers in your tiny sect of the world. How do you reach beyond that? How do you create something that is truly inclusive, diverse, robust?
How does the intention fall so far from the reality?
Vela was founded in response to the reality VIDA stats quantify: that only a small sliver of voices are represented in the publishing world. The VIDA count is great, necessary; it has opened the conversation, called publications out and inspired many to take corrective action.
But VIDA stats are only one aspect of a larger problem. The lack of women’s inclusion is symptomatic of the larger lack of inclusion—of whose voices get heard and whose don’t; of whose voices are valued and whose aren’t; of who even has the tools with which to express their voices in the first place. VIDA stats are easy, because gender is more easily quantified than race, class or culture. VIDA is a great start but it’s only that: a start.
We on the masthead at Vela are all women. That didn’t just happen. We are also college-educated, native-English-speaking, North American white women, and I suppose that didn’t just happen either. Is it enough to create a space for women’s voices if that space doesn’t include all women’s voices? Can a publication that focuses on travel, ultimately a luxury of the privileged, ever really be inclusive?
Why is Vela here? Because we truly believe in inclusion, or because we happen to be the voices that are excluded?
These are not fun questions to ask. They’re uncomfortable and difficult and force us to look at our own privilege and internalized biases. They force us to look at the ways we perpetuate the very exclusion of which we are critical.
They aren’t questions that have quick fixes or even readily apparent answers. They aren’t questions everyone demands you answer; you can just as easily wave your arms and sigh, “We’re trying to include more women of color.” For many, this will be enough.
And sadly, these aren’t even questions that anyone necessarily asks.
But if you really believe in inclusion, if you really believe in changing the culture that creates the VIDA Count, then I believe these are questions you have to ask.
So we’re asking them. We’re not looking for anyone to answer them for us; that’s our job. We’re interested in how other publications and editors have addressed implicit exclusion, but the answer for Vela is one we have to find ourselves. It won’t be easy; I don’t expect it to be comfortable or convenient; it will probably take a long time. But I can speak for the whole editorial team when I say that we’re committed to making Vela more inclusive and reflective of a broader range of female voices, and asking these questions is a way to start.
Because change can happen too. And we’re hoping this is how it happens.