Three Cheers for Three VIDA Counts!
In its sixth year, our all-volunteer literary organization, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, is off to another flying start with the efforts of THREE counts: the fifth annual 2014 VIDA Count, the second annual 2014 Larger Literary Landscape VIDA Count and our first annual 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count. The results we found in the VIDA Count and in the L3 VIDA Count were, in several cases, very encouraging, while other journals did not fare so well. The process of conducting the 2014 WOC VIDA Count was complex, and by necessity employed a different methodology. The results of the WOC VIDA Count are incomplete, yet even at this stage, the process has raised crucial questions about the state of race and ethnicity in the literary landscape. We believe our efforts remain a vital undertaking going forward and carry revolutionary import. More on the methodology for the 2014 WOC VIDA Count below, but first, a few points of interest.
Effort – Just as we ask publishers, editors, writers, educators & readers to take the time to become more aware of publishing, teaching, writing and reading practices, VIDA has also been working hard to make similar strides by cultivating spaces for a plurality of voices by publishing articles, essays and Reports from the Field on our website, building membership forums for discussion, exchange and distribution of such information as book announcements, hot button topics and newsworthy events, and by simply sharing event information for literary and feminist ventures like panels, readings and conferences. Our network continues to blossom as our social media reach continues to grow exponentially, a fact that we are proud of primarily because that growth reflects the tremendous support we continue to receive—thank you!
Numbers – As we so often note, the numbers don’t tell the whole story –but they do raise questions. We are working to develop an even larger picture by reporting other sociological factors in an attempt to deepen the conversation and reveal more complexities and make connections as we proceed. We are currently developing a new methodology (below) that will permit additional participatory counts, once it’s mature, and enable people to consider how identity markers converge, affect perception and impact the publishing process. Stay tuned for further discussions on intersectionality and how seemingly-disparate groups might join together in conversation at key points of converging interests.
Outreach – Additionally, VIDA strives to increase our outreach by collaborating with such organizations as Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Cave Canem, and Hedgebrook, among others. We’ve also been extremely fortunate to work with or be hosted by a number of groups, including BinderCon, Denison University, Girls Write Now, Goddard College, Hammer Museum, Housing Works, Johnson State College, Lambda Literary, Miami Book Fair, NYC Poetry Festival, PEN American Center, She Writes, University of Southern California, and we very much look forward to more partnerships as we go forward.
With the undertaking of the 2014 WOC VIDA Count, we were excited to begin working with female journalists & writers, many of whom we count, via WAM! (Women, Action, & the Media!). Thanks to the generous efforts and conversations with WAM!’s Executive Director, Jamia Wilson, and its members, we were able to collect a large amount of data and discuss the implications and considerations of this count and its value. In light of these efforts, I’ve invited to Wilson to pen her thoughts and share them below.
Time to Revel: 2014 VIDA Count & 2014 L3 VIDA Count observations!
We are cautiously pleased to note that Harper’s deputy editor, Christopher Beha, followed through on last year’s public proclamation for improvement. Harper’s overall numbers for women increased 6 percentage from 2013 – 2014. Specifically, female Book Reviewers grew by 11 percentage points, from 29 percent to 40 percent of the total reviewers, and female-penned bylines increased by 10 percentage points.
Lo, The New Republic observed last year that their numbers were “more what you would expect from 1964 than 2014.” Their promise for change has found legs. Their 2013 female Book Reviewers’ sad 7 percent has made strides in 2014 to 29 percent. That’s an increase of 22 percentage points. Further, authors reviewed shows a gain of 10 percentage points, with an overall five percentage points improvement. Baby steps!
Boston Review experienced a new first too! They published more book reviews and micro-reviews written by women than men in 2014. Of the 31 micro-reviews, women wrote 71 percent. Overall, Boston Review’s parity remained consistent.
Likewise, Poetry continues on its path of parity with only a slight decrease in overall female contributors to 45 percent. Consistency is nothing to sneeze at, especially if you smell the pies up close!
Granta is steadily closing the gap. Since 2012, it has moved at a pace of a 3 percentage points increase per year. If this trend continues, in 2015 women will represent 51 percent of Granta’s overall contributors!
Last year, The Atlantic reversed a three-year slide by increasing 6 percentage points from 26 to 32 percent. In 2014, the positive trend continued with an 8 percentage point bump for women overall to a five-year high of 40 percent.
Overall, progress is being made at The New York Times Book Review. In 2010, women comprised 38 percent of the overall pie. That share of the pie remained fairly consistent until 2013, when women comprised 45 percent of the pie. The gap closed even further in 2014 with a 2 percentage point increase to 47 percent, nearing parity. In 2014, just 0.12 percent of the overall pie went to gender queer contributors, but the number has increased slightly since we started reporting in 2013. We hope to see this trend continue!
In 2014, women were well represented among book reviewers for The New York Times Book Review, comprising 52 percent of the pie. This comes after a five-year trend of consistent progress toward closing the gap. In 2010, women comprised just 40 percent of the overall. That’s a 12 percentage point positive change in five years.
For the last three years, the number of female authors who Tin House reviewed has remained consistent. However, the number of male authors has increased by one each year, which means that the overall share of the pie has decreased by 2 percentage points each year for women, from a high of 42 percent in 2012 to 38 percent in 2014.
In the categories of book reviewers and bylines, the pies coming out of the Tin House kitchen are delicious with women getting 60 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Since 2012, in terms of bylines, women have seen the majority of the pie. We continue to celebrate Tin House for their efforts toward gender parity.
In 2014, Colorado Review published 51 percent women overall, Crab Orchard published 57 percent women overall and Gettysburg Review 52 percent women. Yeah!
The pendulum has swung to parity this year for Jubilat, from 2013’s 58 percent male writers to 2014’s 51 percent male writers.
AGNI is dancing with parity with 54% male writers on their pages overall, followed by New England Review and Kenyon Review thinking about sitting this one out with both publishing 57 percent male writers overall.
While McSweeney’s didn’t achieve exact parity this year, they improved considerably. In 2014 they published 23 women (48%) compared to 25 men (52%) overall, when in 2013, they published 77 percent male writers.
Time to Sigh: Observations Redux …
Though The Paris Review made great strides toward gender parity last year, this year’s tallies show negative change for women on all fronts. In 2013, women represented 51 percent of the pie, a milestone we celebrated. However, this year’s counts point to a sharp decline, an 11 percentage point slide to just 40 percent female and 60 percent male overall.
Overall, we haven’t seen significant positive change at The Times Literary Supplement over five years of our tallying. The share of the pie for women has remained at a consistent 27 percent for four years. In 2014, we saw a slight bump to 28 percent, which means that women continue to share less than one third of the pie.
For authors reviewed, the gender gap is still wide at The Nation and hasn’t shown much change over the last four years. Though the percentage of female authors reviewed showed a 4 percentage point increase over last year, increasing from 16 percent to 20 percent, the share of the pie remains dismally small. The pie has remained fairly consistent, increasing by only 1 percentage point from 2011’s 19 percent female. In 2014, the overall share of the pie for women was 29 percent, which was a slight increase from last year, breaking a consistent three-year streak at 27 percent.
A Public Space published more male writers in total, with work by men covering 57 percent of their fiction pages.
In a surprising upset, Ninth Letter regressed from their wonderful 2013 count of 38 percent male writers to publish 66 percent male writers overall in 2014.
2014 Women of Color VIDA Count – Developing the Conversation
“If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.” ― Aung San Suu Kyi
With the proliferation of cell phone videos, we have continued to witness countless vexing situations play out involving people of color in the U.S. in 2014, complete with unwarranted deaths and protestor-police stand offs where the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Aura Rosser serve as touchstones for larger numbers — and we are all, at minimum, listening to discussions involving race as an identity marker. These conversations tend to be uncomfortable, complex and challenging, to put it mildly. Some of us have the option to choose not to participate; many do not have that choice. People of color cannot shed their identities at will and must continue to deal with that reality — and all that it entails — daily.
We at VIDA believe it is time to begin surfacing visibility and promoting discussions around race. For this first annual WOC 2014 VIDA Count, our dataset is incomplete, and that is the key point we wish to begin interrogating. As with any discussion around race, we fully anticipate a certain amount of resistance. We have five years of experience now with attempts to derail and distract from the implications of considering gender in publishing practices. We are happy to report the patient is doing well as the conversation we initiated has grown and impacted others far beyond our group of VIDA volunteers. The desire for change is palpable as so many challenge and interrogate the implication of bias in academia and the publishing industry, right on down to inquiring about the contents of personal bookshelves. We are still a young organization and our initial thrust continues to propel us forward: Ours has always been a desire to make visible what we suspect and sense but have not been able to recognize and articulate.
We have not achieved that goal completely for this 2014 VIDA WOC Count by concluding with a statistically sound study, but that is an unsurprising fact that resonates with the lack of redress and elusive resolution in relation to our country’s history of racial inequality and the real-life discriminatory practices that continue to be enacted today.
2014 Women of Color VIDA Count – Methodology
When we undertook the conception of the 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count, we consulted with a number of people, including the social psychologist, Ashaki Jackson, to help develop the survey that would allow people to self identify race. We are not qualified to determine and assign race to any writer of the more than 2,000 in the 12 publications we have traditionally considered — the recent example of Rashida Jones being publicly identified by an interviewer as a white woman is one example of why. We felt that to impose our own definitions of racial identity onto others would lead to a process full of misunderstanding and erasure, and, in a way, might even serve to fortify the very power systems we hope to call into question. So we designed the survey and began reaching out to writers online.
Our primary means of contacting writers was by email, so we built a database – the VIDABase – to house each name, contact information, and note attempts to reach them and whether or not they had responded to the survey.
The survey itself was sent directly to each writer and included information on the 2014 WOC VIDA Count, a personalized link to the online survey and noted that their submissions would be anonymous.
Some of the ways our tireless VIDA interns went about – for months — searching for contact information for writers include:
- Reaching out to journal editors (who often forwarded our requests to individual writers)
- Scanning author websites
- Contacting via Facebook & Twitter
- Social media/listserv blasts
- Community support networks
Ultimately, we received responses for no fewer than 45 self-identified race categories. We created two optics for each publication. We used the U.S. Census Bureau categories to create a graph for each publication in tandem with the second optic, which includes the specific breakdown of singular identifications for each publication as well as the complete total.
As we progressed, we realized a few points of interest. Writers certainly have the choice not to respond to any survey, and we are grateful to those who took the time to do so. What are some of the reasons they may choose to opt out? Throughout the process of attempting to locate contact information, I received several responses from writers who wrote to let me know that they were providing their email addresses but that they were not ‘a woman of color.’ Anyone who uses surveys knows to account for a certain amount of apathy and misunderstanding, but what does the latter response imply about this particular count and its reception? Would you open an email that had “2014 Women of Color VIDA Count” in the subject heading? We hope to gather responses to such questions as we move forward, so that we may cull a larger number of respondents next year, as well as understand the causes for those who chose to either ignore or declined to respond.
Encountering these challenges does not mean we are ready to abandon all hope and forego attempts to identify and call attention to biased practices and the real-life implications many cannot simply chose to avoid being impacted by. Some cannot escape the realities and challenges of racial discrimination, and that fact compels VIDA to work even harder to make imbalances visible and discuss causes and effects.
If racism were an easy institution to unveil, our country would have eliminated a great deal of discriminatory practices more than a hundred years ago, the effects of which we continue to see play out in life-threatening ways today. But no system of bias, with all of its tendrilled attitudes and practices, can be fully uncovered by any study; only people can speak up in the face of how those attitudes manifest and are realized. Only people can do the difficult work of creating awareness and working for the eradication of bias.
Any good faith effort towards identifying the factors that create awareness begins, not with accusations, but with questions. That is why we are presenting the overall results of this first attempt towards recognizing our historical system of racial inequality and how that might bear out in the world of publishing: Our efforts to complete this study – and the new methodology we used – raised many questions worth sharing towards developing discussion around bias in the publishing world and inspiring awareness as this count evolves.
We also hope this methodology, once mature, might be used to conduct future counts around disability, LGBTQ, economic, and other crucial issues.
As with any good activism, we also believe the value of such effort far outweighs resistances. Not only do we invite new questions and speculations as inspired by observations drawn from attempting the 2014 WOC VIDA Count, we are wholly relying on people’s interest and investment in fairness to inspire new insights, surface nuance, locate connections and develop the conversation far beyond the current parameters of gender.
—Amy King, VIDA Executive Committee
Of I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press), John Ashbery describes Amy King’s poems as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” Safe was one of Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. King teaches Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
King joins the ranks of Ann Patchett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson and Pearl Buck as the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the WNBA Award (Women’s National Book Association). She was also honored by The Feminist Press as one of the “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees, and she received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.
From WAM! (Women, Action, & the Media!) Executive Director, Jamia Wilson:
It is impossible to talk about the (danger of a) single story without talking about power—Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
The Women of Color VIDA Count has the potential to serve, in the future, as a public witnessing of what many see as racial disparities in the literary industry. According to the Center for American Progress, “…women of color will make up 53% of the [female] population by 2050.” While it is clear that women of color will make up the majority of women in the future, the systemic, economic and cultural obstacles we endure persist.
While the responses gathered weren’t numerous enough to make for a complete dataset, and we look forward to a fuller one next year, what questions can we ask right now? Are white writers published in gross disproportion to writers of color? If white writers are published in disproportional numbers, where do we find the majority of women of color writers? We know there are writers of color, but where are they?
As with the Larger Literary Landscape VIDA Count, do we need to broaden our count to add additional publications with smaller reach? While prior counts have proven that women are still underrepresented in publishing and the literary arts, women of color face additional barriers that have yet to be revealed. It’s no secret that research is one of the most impactful tools for effecting change within media institutions, and that’s a significant reason why a complete Women of Color VIDA Count is critical moving forward.
This year’s attempt at counting women of color paves the way for a deeper public conversation about who has power and privilege at all levels of the literary landscape—and how that impacts whose voices are heard.
Media critic and founding director of Women in Media & News, Jennifer Pozner says, “Data is about who works in our industry-and who is excluded from power. We can’t forget that it was data at the heart of class action suits that finally got women out of the steno pools at The New York Times and Newsweek.”
While the inaugural Women of Color VIDA Count data set is admittedly incomplete, the potential for developing more comprehensive methodologies and outreach strategies for the future have emerged. As with any new endeavor, there will always be growing pains, but these challenges offer important opportunities for learning.
This count is the first count in five years that hasn’t been entirely informed by past counts. It has presented new factors for consideration, and required different outreach process. Through the information gathering process several women suggested that this had nothing to do with them, or they felt like they were encroaching on a space reserved specifically for women of color. We began to wonder– how many from our 2,000+ writers felt similarly that this had nothing to do with them? While methodology is certainly a key challenge worth interrogating, the issue of race is more about culture, than empirical technique in the literary arts community.
I learned early on that if we don’t define ourselves, somebody else will. I was 15 when I read my first Black feminist anthology, But Some Of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men. I discovered this trailblazing text the same year I asked my AP English teacher about the lack of women of color in the literary canon we venerated at school. This collection of essays inspired me to pen my own stories, not only as an act of self-actualization as an artist, but also because of the political import of valuing and amplifying women of color’s voices.
You can’t be what you can’t see, and before I read it, I didn’t see a place for myself as a writer. Prior to But Some Of Us Are Brave, I thought black women writers were as commonplace as unicorns. And I know I wasn’t alone in feeling alienated. Sadly, I still receive emails from teen girls of color who read my writing, but don’t see a place for themselves in the literary space.
When women of color’s voices are missing from the public narrative, the insights and wisdom of a significant percentage of the population is wasted. In discourses about gender, we are often an afterthought, or we are either tacitly, or even openly told to wait our turn. We’re often force-fed a narrative that promotes a limited definition of humanity, and moreover womanhood. In a literary culture that centers writers that are often white, and male, our perspectives are not adequately presented.
Drawing attention to where disparities exist through this attempt at tallying women of color in the literary landscape is an important step towards moving our work, and our stories from margins to the center. Surfacing our literary contributions serves to make the various communities we represent more visible and powerful, as well as to elevate our collective consciousness so that our shared recollection of history is more inclusive.
VIDA’s efforts suggest a crisis of representation in the literary landscape so that activists, including the thousands of women and gender non-conforming media makers in our Women, Action & the Media network, advocates in the VIDA community, publishing decision-makers, and independent writers can begin to make connections and speak out.
A conclusive Women of Color VIDA Count has the potential to prove what women of color writers already know from our experience—that institutional discrimination, barriers to access, and overall literary and publishing culture needs to change—and we can’t (and shouldn’t have to) do it alone.
–Jamia Wilson, WAM! Executive Director
 “The State of Women of Color in the United States.” American Progress. October 24, 2013. Accessed April 5, 2015. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2013/10/24/77546/the-state-of-women-of-color-in-the-united-states-2/.
Jamia Wilson, Executive Director of Women, Action, and the Media, has been movement building, media making, and storytelling for over a decade. Wilson has previously served as the Executive Director of YTH (Youth Tech Health), the TED Prize Storyteller, the Vice President of Programs at The Women’s Media Center, and the principal for Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s youth outreach program.
A leading next-generation voice on feminism and gender justice, her work and words have appeared in and on outlets such as New York Magazine, The Today Show, CNN, Ms., The Washington Post and more. Recognized as one of the “17 Faces of the Future of Feminism” by Refinery 29, Jamia is a staff writer for Rookie Magazine, an online magazine for teenage girls, and has contributed to several books such as Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, the 40th edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves and I Still Believe Anita Hill, The V-Word, Rookie Yearbook’s 1-3, and Slut: A Play and Guidebook for Combatting Sexism and Sexual Violence.
The 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count
London Review of Books
The New Republic
The New Yorker
The New York Review of Books
The New York Times Book Review
The Paris Review
The Threepenny Review
The Times Literary Supplement