I've blogged here before about the bias in book reviews and male perceptions of women's writing. This week, I got the chance to take the question right to the Times Book Review editor, Sam Tanenhaus. He's hosting the Ask An Editor feature at the Times Online this week, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Here's what I wrote:
Dear Mr. Tanenhaus,For the last 20 years I've lived in New York and many before that, I would open the Book Review looking for books by women. What I've noticed over that time, and made an unscientific survey of whenever I read the Review, is that there are almost always many more books by men than by women, and that when women are reviewed it's usually as fiction writers. (And when there are women reviewers, it's generally fiction they're reviewing.) The year's 100 best books illustrates this all too well. The list is just about evenly divided in fiction and poetry, but in the non-fiction list, the numbers are heavily weighted toward men. I don't really want to let you off the hook by suggesting this is an unconscious bias, so maybe you can explain to me what women's ideas in non-fiction don't seem worthy of mention in the TBR?Respectfully,Lee KottnerBronx, NY
So let's see if I get an answer. Anybody wanna start a pool?
Oh look! I got an answer:
A. Of course I can't speak to the Book Review's approach to women authors and reviewers 20 years ago or even 3 years ago. What I can say is that my colleagues and I are very aware of this imbalance, not least because three of our five preview editors are women, two of whom - Rachel Donadio and Jennifer Schuessler - specialize in nonfiction. The third, Alida Becker, previews mostly fiction but also handles a good deal of biography and history. All three would be startled, I suspect, by the suggestion that they, or their male colleagues for that matter, are not giving equal time to books by women. The truth, at least as far as we can tell, is that there remain areas in which women authors tend to be less well (that is, less numerously) represented than men: science, philosophy, economics, politics, public policy, foreign policy, to name some obvious ones. [my emphasis] And it's not easy to find women reviewers in these areas, either, as I remember very well from my days as an editor on The Times's Op-Ed page. The top two editors at the section at the time were women (Katy Roberts and Mary Suh, both still at the paper), and as a department we often lamented our difficulty in finding women keen to write on many of the "hard news" subjects we covered. For this reason we're delighted to have printed essays like Cynthia Ozick's recent one on Leo Baeck, Judith Shulevitz's review-essays on the Hebrew Bible and on "evolutionism," among others, and to feature nonfiction reviewers like Kathryn Harrison, Mary Roach and Elizabeth Royte, who write on a wide array of topics. And we're especially pleased that the Book Review's first-ever staff writer is a woman, Rachel Donadio, who has written important profiles for us on subjects including V.S. Naipaul, Joan Didion, Malcolm Gladwell and, most recently, Helen Vendler.
So if the TBR is finding women under represented in science, philosophy, economics, politics, public policy and foreign policy, maybe I can help them out by making a few suggestions. Maybe they should raid the stack of books received by the Women's Review of Books at Wellesley College. Here's just a sample.
Behera, Navinita Chadha, Gender, Conflict and Migration, New Dehli, Sage Publications, 2006, 297 pp., Paperback
Chavkin, Wendy and Chesler, Ellen, Where Human Rights Begin:Health Sexuality, and Women in the New Millennium, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 2005, 289 pp., Paperback
Davis, Angela Y., Abolition Democracy:Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, New York, Seven Stories Press, 2005, 131 pp., Paperback
Fraser, Arvonne S. and Tinker, Irene, Developing Power: How Women Transformed International Development, New York, The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 2004, 335 pp., Paperback.
Golden, Renny, War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind, New York, Routledge, 2005, 141 pp. Paperback.
Lan, Pei-Chia, Global Cinderellas: Migrant Domestics and Newly Rich Employers in Taiwan, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2006, 250 pp., $22.95, Paperback.
Lavender, Catherine J, Scientists & Storytellers: Feminist Anthropologists and the Construction of the American Southwest, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2006, 187 pp., Hardcover.
Lovenduski, Joni, State Feminism and Political Representation, Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2005, 293 pp,. Paperback.
Meagher, Sharon M. and Diquinzio, Patrice, Women and Children First: Feminism, rhetoric, and public policy, New York, SUNY Press, 2005, 244 pp., Paperback.
Merril, Heather, An Alliance of Women: Immigration and the Politics of Race, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2006, 201 pp., Paperback.
And that's just the books from 2006. I've said this before, too, in the post I linked to above, that it's not that women are underrepresented anywhere in publishing (except perhaps in science, which I'll get to later), it's that the topics we write about are not "important," e.g., interesting to men. Women do have a different perspective on these subjects, as you can see in the list above. We ask different questions, we focus on different areas within the fields, because often the questions we're interested in pertain only to us and they're not questions that men ask. But the flip side of this is that the questions men tend to ask often exclude women as well, without them realizing it. Because they see themselves as the standard by which all else is measured (see my previous post), they assume that their questions (and answers) also apply to women. The man who just won the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, is the exception that proves this rule: The Grameen Foundation's mission statement focused on women from the beginning. It says, in part, "We support microfinance programs that enable the poor, mostly women, to lift themselves out of poverty and make better lives for their families."
As for women writing about science, well, if you read this blog you know who my favorite woman science writer is already, and she covers the hard stuff. (Gratuitous plug: preorder her newest book, The Physics of the Buffyverse, now; or buy Black Bodies and Quantum Cats.) And in this case, it's true that there aren't many women in the field, either as writers or scientists (some scientific fields are more under-represented than others, physics being one of them.) Which is all the more reason to address that problem in mainstream places like the TBR. For a start, there's the just-published She's Such a Geek. And Dava Sobel's relatively new The Planets (which the TBR reviewed with the headline "'The Planets': Cosmos Girl"; but hey, at least they reviewed it). There's this collection from the National Academies Press. And there's this study about why this gap exists. Here's a taste of the abstract:
[A]lthough gender differences in publishing have narrowed in most disciplines over the past two decades, in most cases, men still outpublish women by a ratio of two to one (Roland and Fontanesi-Seime 1996). Among the factors cited as being important to publishing regularly are ambition, reputation, merit, institutional support and resources, professional networks and collegial/mentoring relationships, research topic and methodology, and time.
And finally, a little list from the Women's Center at Tennessee Tech. Browse through these and it's clear that part of the lack of women writing about science is a perception problem: we have a hard enough time being taken seriously as scientists, so of course it's just as hard to be taken seriously as a person who can explain it to the rest of us. But maybe if journals like the TBR made a little more effort to showcase women writing about science (or politics, or economics, or philosophy, or foreign policy or public policy), there wouldn't be such a perception problem. Maybe the male half of the species would start to see that our issues and ideas matter. (Update 12/16: And this week, the TBR hit a new all-time low in my memory: there is only one book by a woman—and guess what? It's fiction!—and two women reviewers, one of whom is reviewing the woman novelist's fiction. Cloister, anyone?)
So my reply to Sam Tanenhaus is: Look harder.