On the eve of Vela’s launch in September 2011, Sarah Menkedick sat down and wrote out her vision for the magazine. Vela has grown and evolved tremendously since then, but the fundamental purpose and spirit of the publication have remained unchanged. As Sarah hoped, we are still and will continue to be “a space to maneuver freely without having to either set one’s work apart as distinctly female or suck it up trying to prove that women can do what men do and that what men do is the best and the norm.”
Try this with The Best Magazine Articles Ever: Go down the list, and say out loud to yourself the gender of each writer as you go. You’ll say: man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man.
Try it with Give Me Something to Read’s Best Magazine Articles of 2010: woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man.
Try it with the front page of longform.org: man, woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, woman and two men, woman.
Try it with the table of contents of The Best American Magazine Writing 2010: woman, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, two men and a woman, man, man, man.
Try it with the table of contents of The Best American Travel Writing 2011: man, man, man, man, man, woman, man, man, man, man, woman, woman, man, woman, woman, man, man, woman.
You get the picture.
Let’s just get all this context out of the way, since I wonder if it has simply become background noise, if it will have any further shock value after the initial surge of anger has steadily trickled back to complacency: Last spring, VIDA – an organization “founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture” – tallied male and female bylines in the country’s top magazines, concluding that men are published at dramatically higher rates than women (in 2010, at The New Yorker, there were 449 male bylines and 163 female; at Harper’s, 94 male and 25 female; at The New York Review of Books, 306 male and 59 female; at The London Review of Books, 343 male and 74 female). In an analysis for Maisonneuve, Madeline Coleman argued that magazine profiles of women tend to be written by men and to contrast a woman’s femaleness with her success. The International Women’s Media Foundation found that only a third of journalists worldwide are women, and that 73% of management jobs in journalism are held by men. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Professor Carla Almeida Santos conducted a study which found that male travel writers tend to take men for granted and to describe women in terms of physical attractiveness, pitting, in academese, a “constructed femininity” against a “normative masculinity.” Mother Jones reported that a third of the stories written by women in 2010 were on gender and family, or were fiction or memoirs.
For women writers these circumstances have become givens. You just push on. You, as Jane Bernstein suggested in a recent Maisonneuve piece, ask: so what? You say, to quote Bernstein, “It is our responsibility as women to rise above these challenges rather than pull the gender card.” You read respected women writers, who quote respected women publishers, who quote MIT molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins about her struggles to make it in a male-dominated industry: “The intellectual processes involved in ‘real’ science are as natural (or unnatural) to women as they are to men. But ‘professional’ science was constructed by and for men (a certain type of man), and a woman who chooses to conquer this world at its higher echelons usually requires a major overhaul of self and world views.”
You think: major overhaul of self and world views, as you, your internship cycle’s one female intern, sit with the three other (male) interns in your office at a major New York magazine. You think of the one female intern before you, and the one female intern before her, and the one female intern who will come after you.
You read the laments of editors, male and female, who say women don’t pitch enough; women don’t want to write the tough, research-heavy cover stories men will write; women are too timid; women simply don’t submit as much; women don’t write as much. You try not to label yourself a feminist because this means you’ll be neatly categorized, quietly black-labeled and “quickly ferreted out of the conversation”; you contemplate creating some sort of publication for women writers but are told don’t bother, you’ll be marginalized, “lobbed off,” trivialized.
You mention the idea of this publication to five fellow women writers, who’ve been editors at major travel publications and literary magazines and publishing powerhouses, who have competitive writing fellowships, who are writing books and doing MFAs, and who all express simultaneous excitement – could we really do something like this, women writers only? Could we pull it off? – and instinctive wariness at the moniker “women’s writers,” worrying it might shove them onto the sidelines, the gang tattoo of a Ya-Ya Sisterhood more interested in swapping stories about rough breakups and first periods and facial scrubs than in serious (male) literary writing.
But in spite of all of these reservations, you do it anyway: start up a website for creative nonfiction inspired by travel, written by women.
And this is what I have done, opting for the tag line “written by women” instead of “by women writers” or “women’s writing about…” The point here is not that this is a women’s site, by women for women, somehow female, feminine, or feminist in style. The fact that all of the writers are women is almost, almost incidental: it would be completely incidental if the publishing world did not create a situation in which women’s voices represent only a small fraction of the conversation. As it stands, this is the case, and as long as it continues to be the case, I believe in creating a separate space in which women can write what they want to write, with the same intellectual freedom as men; without a major overhaul of self and world views; without having to label themselves as “women writers” with the insinuation that they’ll come to inspiring conclusions about yoga and use laundry as a metaphor for despair; and without having to try and out-male the men, writing in the very male styles and with the very male intelligences so predominant in the literary world.
The alternative to these male styles and intelligences is not some sort of touchy-feely wishy-washy lovey-dovey female emotional abstraction. I’m not sure what it is. It doesn’t even have to be “female.” It is what happens in the absence of the pressure to “make it” in an industry that is not only physically but intellectually dominated by men. That is what this site is: a space to maneuver freely without having to either set one’s work apart as distinctly female or suck it up trying to prove that women can do what men do and that what men do is the best and the norm.
Here, you will find writing by six emerging writers who also happen to be women, and who frequently write about travel or use travel as a lens, frame or motif in their work. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy and appreciate them for their talent, and if you feel an extra gratification to know that they are women, all the better.