Challenges Faced As a Female Writer

Picture of Kathleen RooneyAuthor: Kathleen Rooney

Who were the first female authors you looked to for inspiration? How do you believe their examples informed the way you approach the writing community?

Actually, the books that inspired me and helped me realize at a very young age that I was a feminist weren’t so much by female authors as they were about female people period.

In elementary school, my favorite section of public library was all the way in the back, the Junior Biographies, and my favorite series was the Childhood of Famous Americans collection put out from the 1940s to the 1960s by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis. Part of their appeal was the fact that they were really old—brittle and yellow and smelling like knowledge—but the better part of their appeal was the fact that this series included a comparatively large proportion of books about female Americans: Narcissa Whitman: Pioneer Girl, Lotta Crabtree: Goldrush Girl, and Dorothea Dix: Girl Reformer! Abigail Adams: Girl of Colonial Days, Annie Oakley: Young Markswoman, Babe Didrikson: Girl Athlete and Harriet Tubman: Freedom Girl!

The subtitles of these biographies suggested a vitality and a significance in the lives of these (to me, at that point) obscure women that was exhilarating and validating—they showed that unlike the way it often seemed in the books I had to read for school (which were mostly by and about men) people who were not men had also accomplished things. Of the approximately 240 books in the Junior Biographies series, only 46 or so were about American heroines, but that was a wealth to me at the time. Simultaneously, my seeing that the female bios comprised only about 19% of the series also made me want to live in—and to do what I could to create—a world where things could be more fairly balanced.

When was the first time you felt a bias from a colleague or fellow writer regarding gender? What were your reactions? How did you handle it?

The first time was when I was a freshman in high school, and it wasn’t difficult to detect the bias because it was openly declared. I had joined the school’s literary magazine, Northwind (because we were at a school called Downers Grove North, get it?) and this boy, a sophomore, who I looked up to and who was one of the editors just said out loud at the first meeting: “Women can’t write,” which infuriated me. When I disagreed, he tried to make me feel better (I guess?) by saying that he thought that I wrote “really well for a girl.” The stupid part is that at the time, I hated him for saying the first thing, but also felt proud, in spite of myself, about the second. Looking back on it now (for the first time in a long time—good question!), the element of the memory that strikes me most is not so much my exasperation at encountering the bias so much as my discomfort at the gratitude I felt for his faint praise. Because I was 14 and didn’t know the difference between dominance feminism and difference feminism, among many other finer points, I entertained the idea that it would be beneficial if I could somehow write “like” or “as well as” a man, whatever that could even mean. But fortunately, I started reading more female writers around then—Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion were especially helpful examples—and got over that idea quickly.

What’s the most notable obstacle you’ve found as a female educator?

Some students, despite believing in everything that feminism stands for, pointedly refuse to identify as feminist because they misunderstand what the term means. I like to share one of bell hooks’ definitions of feminism, framing it as “the struggle to end sexist oppression,” in the hopes of making it clear that feminism doesn’t mean hating men or being unfeminine or trying to enact “reverse sexism” or any of the other misconceptions that clutter up what the word and idea actually mean.

A lot of times, that works, although not always. A couple of years ago, during the winter quarter of my first year of teaching at DePaul University in Chicago, I had a “Reading Literature” class in which there was a small but vocal contingent of students who were unexpectedly resistant to literature in general (depressing), but especially hostile to literature by female writers (extra depressing). That quarter, I got an evaluation that said that my assigning texts by female writers “proves women are crazy.” It’s hard to know where to even begin with that.

There’s been a slew of varied reactions, both positive and negative, to the VIDA numbers on balance of gender in publication. How do you respond to those figures?

As my answer to the first question probably indicates, I value numbers and consider both quantitative and qualitative data important in trying to understand a problem or situation. So I think that the service that VIDA is providing and the conversations they are starting with the Count are necessary and useful. Acquiring and publicizing this data raises awareness and puts the literary community on the hook and makes it much less possible to plead ignorance to a systemic issue. The Count quantifies a feeling that a lot of writers and readers have had for a long time—that women’s writing does not get the same representation and coverage that men’s writing does—and this quantification gives a starting point that members of the literary community can and should use to examine their own writing, editing, reading, submitting and publishing practices and to be more mindful as needed.

Do you feel as though opportunities are increasing for female writers? In what ways?

I like this question, and I don’t want to be critical of it, but I think the passive construction here is interesting and speaks to the way that I’d like to answer.

This idea of whether or not “opportunities are increasing” is one that I hope that—because of VIDA and other organizations and individuals calling attention to the gender-disparity of publishing and literature in general—is one that I’d like to see more publishers, editors, and writers pay active attention to.

Rather than taking a kind of nebulous “well, things are getting better, right?” approach to the problem, more presses and journals should take it upon themselves to look at their gender numbers and see if they are publishing a balance of men and women, or if they need to take corrective action.

Rose Metal Press—the independent, non-profit publishing company I co-run with the amazing Abby Beckel—works hard to be cognizant of our numbers in regard to gender, and if we find ourselves skewing too heavily toward one gender or the other, we take steps to get our figures back in line. We try to alternate male and female judges on our chapbook contest, and to notice how our submissions are looking during open reading periods. When necessary, if we see, for instance, that we are getting way more submissions from men than women, we’ll put out calls for more submissions from women on social media, in our newsletter and in personal emails to colleagues in the literary community. And even when our submission figures are not fifty-fifty, we work hard to put equal numbers of men and women into print. Doing this requires extra work, of course, but it’s worth it, because in the end it leads to a more diverse, high-quality, and exciting list of forthcoming titles.