The Lack of Female Bylines in Magazines Is Old News

If you really want more women writers, get more women editors.

The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel 

As Meghan O’Rourke reported here last week, VIDA, an organization for women writers, has released a tally of male and female bylines for the 2010 run of 14 high-end, literary-oriented magazines. Despite a couple of relatively bright spots (the New York Times Book Review surprisingly being one), the numbers they found were just as dismally skewed as you might have expected, or even worse. None of this will come as news to the many women who’ve been keeping score at home, who run their eyes down the Atlantic’s table of contents and feel that little sinking of the heart that means “I can’t believe there’s only one woman in the whole issue and it’s Caitlin Flanagan.” I’ve written so often about the dearth of women in high-end magazines, including my own home base, The Nation, over so many years, and to so little effect, that sometimes I see myself, sitting at the kitchen table in some year like 2050, enjoying a nice bowl of reconfigurated vitamin-infused plastic bags, and over my phlogistatron will come the headline “Study Shows Men Write 85 Percent of Articles in Interplanetary Media. Martian Weekly Editor in Chief: Where Are the Women?”

So why so little change? One reason is that only women are having the conversation, which too quickly, given the temper of the times, turns into gloomy brooding on female psychology. Do women lack self-esteem? Are they too mannerly to put themselves forward? Perhaps, as O’Rourke suggested, they’ve avoided the subjects the male gatekeepers want to cover? (Yes, that certainly explains why The New Yorker chose Louis Menand to write a long essay about Betty Friedan last month.) There is probably a bit of truth in all these points: Women do often doubt their knowledge and abilities, and their diffidence probably explains why the pool of writers sending in pitches and proposals and unsolicited manuscripts is, at most magazines, disproportionately male. Women are indeed less likely than men to take up stereotypically male subjects—although not as much as Barry Gewen, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, thought when he told a gathering of academic women a few years ago that there were no female military historians (turns out, there are).

But it doesn’t explain the other side of the equation. The phone works both ways, after all. Editors don’t just sit around waiting for writers to get in touch. Female psychology doesn’t explain why women writers who do publish don’t more often become regular contributors, or why they don’t get bigger assignments and regular columns and beats. It doesn’t explain why women are so regularly published on dance—indeed dance seems to be the only critical domain women have a lock on—but not on books. And it doesn’t explain why women’s magazines have no trouble finding women writers, including some pretty good ones. It’s naive to think that the fact that most top editors are men isn’t part of the story. So this time around, let’s start this little talk there.

Both sexes see life through a gendered lens, after all. But while women are constantly reminded that their views are only partial, men have the luxury—in life as in grammar—of thinking they represent humanity, tout court. So while male editors may say they wish they had more women writers, women are always going to be an afterthought for them, an add-on, a specialty item—dance criticism. As in those studies that show men overestimate the number of women in a group—one-third feels like half, half feels like a majority—a big piece by a woman two years ago feels like it was published last week, and one or two pieces by women feels like half the magazine.

This is not to say that all women editors automatically care about including women’s voices: The London Review of Books, which had one of the more lopsided ratios of male-to-female bylines in the VIDA count, is edited by a woman. According to a count conducted by Slate interns, the proportion of women writing for TheNew Yorker plummeted under Tina Brown’s editorship, falling from approximately 40 percent of all bylines in 1991, the last full year of Robert Gottlieb’s editorship, to less than 20 percent in 1997, the last year of Brown’s.

Nonetheless, of the relatively few editors who have made a consistent effort to find and develop women writers in recent years, most are female. Joan Walsh did well at Salon. Mother Jones, edited by Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein, publishes nearly equal numbers of men and women—last year, 45 percent of bylines appearing in the print edition were women’s, up from about 24 percent of bylines in 2005, the last calendar year before they took over. TheNation, edited by Katrina vanden Heuvel, can’t say as much, but it has done much better in byline surveys than comparable magazines edited by men.

Editors matter. A cursory look at some of the publications that fared the worst in VIDA’s count finds that they have particularly lopsided mastheads: At the Atlantic, where just 26 percent of 2010 articles were by women, of the top seven editors, only the managing editor is a woman. (Women are often managing editors, a position with lots of work and not much power.) Of the 12 editors listed at the top of the New Republic’s masthead, only two are women (one of these women is the executive editor, the other is a senior editor). * The list of 41 contributing editors, who are basically those writers who belong to the magazine’s inner circle, includes only four women, only one of whom is under 60. I wouldn’t look for a dynamic approach to the byline problem from mastheads like these.

In a response to the VIDA count published this week, New Republic editor Ruth Franklin counted the books published in the fall of 2010 at 13 important publishing houses, and found that the proportion of books by women ranged from 45 percent at the high end to 10 percent at the low end. While she didn’t consider the gender of these publishers’ top editors, I couldn’t help but notice that the house that published the highest proportion of women—Riverhead, at 45 percent—has a female editorial director. * The two worst houses, Verso (11 percent) and Dalkey Archive Press (10 percent), are male bastions.

Regardless of gender, what’s key is for an editor to go beyond the ritual deploring and to make publishing women a priority. Ann Friedman, who used to be the managing editor of Alternet, has written shrewdly about her successful efforts to publish women there. Alternet has a policy that at least two out of the five daily pieces featured on the home page had to be by women. As she wrote in her piece “ The Byline Gender Gap” in 2006, “Things will never change, unless magazines make a specific commitment to raising the number of women who appear in their pages.” Friedman explained that she set aside time to seek out pieces and blogs by women, kept a physical (not mental) list of possibles, reached out to women one by one and offered actual assignments—vague invitations to submit something sometime wouldn’t cut it. Without such conscious efforts, she argued, the daily press of business means you just go back to the same old reliables and the same old perspectives. She suggested that editors who say they’d like to have more women writers but just can’t find them commit to spending 20 minutes a week looking for them. Twenty minutes a week. If a problem so widespread can be dented with such a small investment of time, the psychological resistance to change must be deep indeed.

A case in point: Just last week, at a fundraising party for a newish, ultra-cool, leftish intellectual magazine, one of the editors explained to me that it wasn’t the fault of the founding editors, all men, that they had so few women contributors. Their wives and girlfriends were too busy getting tenure, he said, to write for them.

Correction, Feb. 11, 2011: Due to an editing error, this article originally said Riverhead was helmed by a woman. Its publisher is a man. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) Correction, Feb. 16, 2011: This article did not originally specify that the New Republic editors referenced are those listed at the top of the magazine’s masthead. In addition, it speculated that the executive editor’s role at the magazine might be similar to that of a managing editor. It is not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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