The XX Factor

Discouraging Women

Slate has joined the discussion about gender bias in publishing and reviewing sparked by complaints from female writers that male writers – such as Jonathan Franzen – get treated with a seriousness most female writers don’t receive.  Our Meghan O’Rourke makes a very good case that Franzen is able to write about marriage and childrearing at great length and be praised for his penetrating insights while women writers who do the same are seen as taking on typically female domestic concerns. One irony to all this is that when we read about the supposed science of gender and supposed male-female strengths and weaknesses, it’s women who have the advantage with words, while men are said to be better at numbers. It’s women who are so good at dissecting the nuances in relationships, while men are busy occupying themselves by imagining three-dimensional objects rotated in space. You’d think this widely accepted set of biases would lead to a long-held conclusion that writing, particularly novels, is a women’s game. But, no. The 20 th century image of a novelist – Hemingway, Mailer – was of a hard-drinking, hard-loving, hard-living man who somehow staggered to his chair for an epic wrestle with the typewriter.

Meghan also points out the explicit and implicit discouragements women face along the way that can blunt ambition and determination. So I was left wanting to know much more after reading a profile today in the New York Times about Dr. Frances Kelsey , the early FDA official who prevented the approval of thalidomide in the U.S., thus saving thousands of children from being born with deformed limbs. Kelsey is 96, and the article describes how she got her first job because her first name was misread as “Francis,” leaving the impression she was a man. She told the Times , “When a woman took a job in those days, she was made to feel as if she was depriving a man of the ability to support his wife and child.” Talk about discouragement! Yet, there have always been a handful of pioneering women such as Kelsey who were constantly undermined by insults and hazing, yet forged important careers. When I read about them, I’m in awe.