The Feminist Bean Counters Are Back

Should we really care if Obama hasn’t appointed enough women, or there aren’t enough female bylines in the New York Review of Books?

Woman with arms raised above crowd
Bean counting doesn’t serve the feminist movement.

Photo by Martin Barraud/OJO Images/Getty Images

Bean counting is currently ascendant in popular feminism (see the recent New York Times piece on the number of women Obama has appointed, the recent controversy over bylines in the New York Review of Books, the endless discussions of Vida’s byline count), but it seems to me that counting  the number of women in any publication, administration, or company is a crude and limited way to measure the progress of women.

I can see why the idea of having a concrete mathematical measure of discrimination is seductive; our grievances are suddenly pleasantly quantifiable, our outrage justified in plain, indisputable numbers. There is no mystery why this mode of thinking has become so prevalent, so ubiquitous on Facebook pages, such a staple of dinner party conversation. But is this really the most sophisticated form of feminist inquiry we can engage in?

I am not trying to say that these numbers tell us nothing, but rather that what they tell us is a bit more ambiguous than it seems. One flaw in this way of thinking is that it assumes pretty straightforwardly that sexism on the part of editors and institutions accounts for the discrepancies. In magazine and newspaper writing, for instance, there may be other more complicated issues at work in what kind of people choose to pitch certain kinds of articles, in who is “leaning in” and who is taking risks, and who chooses what subjects.  In other words, the situation, such as it is, does not exist purely because liberal New York editors are going out to lunch with ambitious women writers and thinking, “I don’t think I’ll give her the assignment because she is a girl.”

In order to truly quantify discrimination on the part of editors, one would have to see a gender breakdown of pitches, of aspiring writers sending notes; one would have to analyze the quality of ideas turned down; one would have to correlate gender with kinds of pieces proposed—and this would be a much more complicated, and probably still flawed, process.

The other problem with bean counting is that it seems oddly outdated. In a world in which women represent the majority of college classes, the majority of the work force, the majority of managers, shouldn’t we have evolved beyond head counts? If women have the same opportunities as men in our culture, what is interesting or provocative is what they do with these opportunities, how they manage ambitions and desires, along with how the workplace receives them. The interaction between the world and one’s efforts is not always straightforward, not always a story as simple as “sexism.”   

It seems to me an inquiry into the ways we have internalized sexism or metabolize ambition may be more useful than all the pedestrian counting. We need a better, more detailed narrative about why men are still dominating our publications, one that encompasses our own actions and ways of being, something that gets beyond our fantasies of the discriminating editor. We need a capacious imaginative investigation of the situation of the contemporary woman writer along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. We need a Sheryl Sandberg of the literary world. The prevailing fantasy of evil male editors keeping us down is less than half the story.

It matters less that there is the exact same number of female bylines than that the playing field is equal, that talented female writers have the same opportunities as male writers. It seems beside the point to look at, say, the New York Review of Books, which has historically provided an important place for women writers like Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag to experiment and nurture their talent, and call it “sexist.”

The resistance I have to this way of thinking is the resistance of New Yorkers to voting for Christine Quinn simply because she is a woman. It is the resistance of writers like Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Bishop, Joan Didion, or Edith Wharton to being called a “woman writer.” The importance of their names in print is not that they were women but that they were doing pioneering, innovative, excellent, original writing. To think in the abacus mode, where we simply tally up the numbers of every crappy piece written by a woman, seems less compelling than noting and encouraging exceptional female talent.

The problem with “Emily’s List”-style thinking in art or politics is that it collapses subtleties. A woman like Michele Bachmann is less likely to further the interests of women’s rights than a man like Bill Clinton. The banal biological fact of a woman being a woman shouldn’t trump other considerations like who is an effective politician, or whose heart is in the right place, or who can get things done. To see a woman representative as better simply because she is a woman seems outdated, unsubtle, unnuanced, (not to mention mildly insulting to the impressive, hard-working women who have risen in politics) and bean counting encourages precisely this sort of logic.

Bean counting promotes and subscribes to a suspicious brand of tokenism. It is, in essence, the same way of looking at women that Mitt Romney revealed in his universally mocked statement about having “binders full of women.” What these articles about sheer numbers of women are really saying is, “Where are Obama’s binders of women?” “Where is Bob Silvers’ binders of women?” They are, in their own way, collapsing the individual, exceptional qualities of a unique voice into the mere fact of its gender, and the result, while well-intentioned, is just as crushing of specific talent, of irreducible individuality.