Yesterday morning, I took a shuttle and a ferry boat to Whidbey Island–the home, for twenty-five years now, of the Hedgebrook Writers’ Colony, a retreat for women writers. I am here for a pre-AWP pow wow with Brooke Warner, the publisher of She Writes Press, Amy Wheeler, the Executive Director of Hedgebrook, and some of the women of VIDA, including Cate Marvin, Amy King and Jennifer Fitzgerald. (Jennifer and Cate had to excuse themselves yesterday morning to do an NPR Morning Edition interview about The Count, one of the most important advocacy tools for women writers anywhere. So cool.) Sometimes I feel like my life is a parody — I am the co-founder of the New York Salon of Women Writers, board chair of Girls Write Now, a founder of She Writes and She Writes Press, formerly of the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford and fiction/nonfiction editor for Women’s Studies Quarterly, and now I’m thinking about starting a chick poker night at my place on Fridays.
Any reasonable person might ask: is there some reason I don’t want to be around men?
The fact is that I enjoy men, a lot. I am dating the best one I’ve ever met (yes, we are still in that phase–after five years of being single in the post-divorce wilderness I am madly, stupidly in love), and I’ve got two little men-to-be living with me who are on track so far to be the most wonderful, and most feminist, men ever. My son’s friends are delightful, and so is my father, my brother, and the many other men I call my friends. But when I need the space to be creative, or want to bring people together to build something new or help me solve a problem, it’s almost always women I gravitate to.
I can trace this back to my first meeting with Diane Middlebrook in London more than ten years ago. I had always been a feminist–my mother made sure of that–but Diane was the one who brought me definitively into the she-space by inviting me to be her co-host in founding a salon of women writers. (You can read more about Diane and the salon’s role in seeding She Writes here.) I remember vividly sitting on the deck of her flat on Warrington Crescent, the white balustrade of the terrace bright against the leafy green trees below, the two of us at a small round table, imagining what the salon might be like. The vision that emerged (really, Diane’s) was to bring writers of all generations and genres together at her home or mine to discuss the craft and the business of writing. The mission was unabashedly practical: members of the salon would leave each evening better educated, more inspired, and better connected, than when they arrived. And it would be for women only. Diane observed that some of the women we planned to invite wouldn’t like this–they would feel we were creating a second-class salon, a place for women at the kids table rather than at high table with the grownups, aka men. But when I closed my eyes and imagined who we would ask to speak to us, and who would dominate the discussion that followed, it was as clear to me as it was to her: if men were there, it wouldn’t be what we wanted–or, more important, needed–it to be.
And what did we need it to be? Two seemingly contradictory things: a place where we could forget about being women…and never be asked to forget we were women, either. Having only women in the room made this possible. On the one hand, it freed us, from speakers to attendees, from the “woman writer” prism/prison women are inevitably seen through in a world where “women’s writing” is treated as a sub-genre of male Writing-with-a-capital-W. Diane, a biographer, kicked off our first salon talking about the peculiar ins-and-outs of fair use as they pertained to her work on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and was free to fully immerse herself in her topic without being the token woman on a panel, for example, or being asked how, as a woman, she could be so admiring of Ted Hughes’ poetry. (Both of these things happened to her often in other venues.) At the same time, we could quickly and easily convene a panel to address the Chick Lit label, featuring women like Alix Kates Shulman and Laura Miller of Salon.com, and feel free to have a passionate discussion about its impact on us as women writers without being accused of whining or being told shut up.
I need both of those things. I need to be a writer without being a Woman Writer. I also need to be able to candidly discuss and strategize with other women about being read, reviewed and treated as a Woman Writer, because I will be whether I like it or not. The places and spaces where I can do that aren’t ghettos or hide-outs. They are fueling stations, where I power-up and increase my power-to’s. I come to them not to escape the world, but to fortify myself to flourish in it.
Maybe someday women won’t need or want to gather exclusively in the company of women anymore. But for me, that time hasn’t come yet.
How about you?