To what degree does your gender influence your identity?

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On Tuesday, I attended a panel at the Hammer Museum on Literature & Gender. Panelists Giménez Smith, Elaine Blair, Ruth Franklin, Michelle Huneven, and Mona Simpson discussed how fairly women are represented in literary criticism and publishing, using statistics collected by VIDA as a basis for their conversation. (VIDA is an organization that seeks to raise awareness of the gender inequality that plagues the literary culture.)

Throughout the discussion, they explored the various reasons as to why women do not have as much of a presence in the literary realm as men do. There was one reason in particular that really struck me.

Huneven, an editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books, said that women respond to rejection much differently than men do–a result of social conditioning, no doubt.

Often editors send out rejections that go along the lines of, “While this particular pitch/work is not what we are looking for at the present time, we would like you to submit again in the future.” Huneven notes that men usually submit again–and they do not only send in new ideas or work, but the exact submission that the editor previously rejected. They are persistent. And, pestilent or not, they are eventually rewarded for it.

On the other hand, Huneven says that women whom she’s rejected almost never submit again.

Thus, we cannot simply reduce the disparity between men and women within the literary world to the editors’ and publishers’ unconscious biases. The “higher ups” are not the only people in the industry who have control over gender representation. The writers themselves also influence these numbers: it is up to them to submit their work and persevere despite rejection.

Before I attended this panel, I did not really think about the relationship between my gender and my writing. Yes, I am a woman and I am a writer, but I did not give much thought to myself as a woman writer. What does it mean to be a woman writer? How does my gender influence my writing? How does it shape my voice, my characters, my themes? And how does my gender influence my attitudes towards critique and praise?

I suppose that I’d acknowledged that my gender may pose as an obstacle in achieving literary recognition. But I thought about gender inequality in literature as this large system or trend that was out of my hands. It was something that I would just have to deal with, something that I would just have to work through or around. For some reason, I did not realize that I, as an individual writer, can begin to change this trend by putting myself out there.

We often discuss gender in relation to ourselves as a whole–our whole identity, one big category among ethnicity, race, and religion. But what about the more specific parts of our identities? What role does gender play in our lives as writers? Musicians? Athletes? Scientists? Historians? Mathematicians?

Post submitted by JoAnna 

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