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“We know he’s busy, but why didn’t she clean the house?”, thoughts on challenges faced by female writers

If I were giving myself advice about how to introduce myself on a new blog, I would certainly say, “Never write your first post on a Saturday.”

Nevertheless, here I am — and it’s Saturday. My name is Rachel Swirsky. I’m a writer and a feminist and a cat-owner and an atheist and an Aries and any number of other labels. My best piece of writer’s cred is that I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop. My best piece of street cred is… yeah, I don’t have any of that, actually, so never mind.

I recently changed the bio on my website to talk about the weather (real fascinating, huh?), but I used to relay a few interesting facts about my family, and in the hopes that these will prove more interesting than my own boring biographical information, I will give a few here:

1: My great-grandmother was afraid of grass.

2: My great-uncle’s addictive streak was so strong that after he gave up gambling, smoking and drinking, he became addicted to milk.

3: My father’s father joined the KKK when he was young, but quit because he “didn’t like their methods.” Their goals? Fine. Just not their methods. He died before my father married my Jewish mother, so he never met his Jewish granddaughter, but I like to think my existence would have eaten slowly away at him.

However, I didn’t come here just to yammer on about myself. I came here to link to Jeff Vandermeer’s commentary on support for your writing in which he talks about how a writer can set up his or her personal life so that writing is easier. He’s pretty biased toward people who are in partnerships here, and he seems to be mostly thinking about childless people, and people who are monogamous. But it’s fodder for thought. I liked this bit:

Play Habits. A vital element of stimulating the imagination is play, which means writers can be pretty silly sometimes. A partner who doesn’t engage in reciprocal play with you may actually be stifling your ability to recharge your imaginative batteries. At the very least, reacting negatively to a playful situation will make it harder for you to be creative over time — especially if that sense of play involves sex.

I don’t know if this will apply to all writers, though I know that personally I think sex is rather silly (if also rather fun). And while I’m sure Jeff’s point is true, and probably a matter of some difficulty to writers who are having a problem with partners who see sex as serious business, I’m going to be all playful and indulge my desire to pretend that there are lots of fiction writers with pie fight fetishes, running up to their partners with a lemon meringue pie, thrusting it into their partner’s face, and then darting away while shouting, “You can’t blame me! Don’t you want me to finish my novel…!”

Over on his own blog, Jeff Vandermeer adds another dimension to the conversation by adding that women face particular challenges toward establishing a home life that will facilitate their writing careers. One difficulty is what feminists often call the second shift, wherein working wives and mothers put in a full day at the office and then come home to put in a second shift doing chores at home. Data suggests that women tend to spend a lot more time on this than men do, even in households where partners report they have an equal division of labor. Even if labor is divided equally, women are more likely to be held responsible for an unclean house, and so they’re often under more pressure. Jeff’s wife Ann (herself the editor of a major magazine) writes:

There are definitely more societal expectations on women for household responsibilities, regardless of how far we may have come. I work a very demanding job outside the home, in addition to my volunteer work and editing/publishing projects. My husband works at home all day. And yet if our home isn’t kept clean and beautiful, if the yard is a mess, people tend to look askance at me, not even considering this is also Jeff’s responsibility.

If a woman supports her husband’s writing career, it’s expected, because traditionally a woman is SUPPOSED to support her man. However, when a man supports his wife’s writing, some look at it as a HUGE sacrifice and a favor and oh, what a great guy he is…blah blah blah. I am waiting for the day when both men and women who support their creative spouses get the credit due them.

Another time gap that feminists sometimes talk about is the beauty gap. Setting aside the pressure on women to be beautiful, let’s just look at the pressure on both sexes to maintain an appearance that’s considered acceptable. The amount of effort involved for men to maintain an appearance that will be seen as acceptable is lower than the amount of effort involved for women to maintain an acceptable appearance. Some of this is because women are judged more harshly than men; some of it is because femininity has been defined in ways that require more labor. Either way, most people can’t just opt out of grooming standards — one may be able to eschew vanity, but looking less than acceptable can impair social and professional opportunities. For a full-time, at-home writer like me, this isn’t a big deal; I just skip it on days when I’m staying in the home office. But most writers have a day job, and men and women who work outside the home need to put in time to look presentable — a task which takes more time for women than for men.

There are any number of ways that systemic sexism interferes with women’s careers, but one of the most direct is time. Time spent on housework is time not spent on writing. Time spent on hair and clothes and makeup is time not spent on writing. If women put in more of this time (and overall in America, they do), then that’s fewer woman-hours that are available for writing stories. When we start to address unequal representation in magazines, it’s important to ask questions on the editorial level, the content level, the submissions level, and so on — but it’s also important to interrogate the gendered ways in which sexism blocks opportunities for writing to occur in the first place.

ETA: Jeff and Ann VanderMeer kindly point out that the six points in Jeff VanderMeer’s list are originally from Bruce Holland Rogers and paraphrased with permission.

  • Hi, I'm Rachel! I write science fiction and fantasy short stories. I've won the Nebula Award twice, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and some other things. My seventy or so short stories are available around the internet as well as in print, and many of them are in my latest collection, How the World Became Quiet. I have a masters degree in fiction from the University of Iowa. I have five cats. I like my cats, but strongly suggest one stops at three. Or two. Excuse me, I have to go take care of cats.

14 thoughts on ““We know he’s busy, but why didn’t she clean the house?”, thoughts on challenges faced by female writers

  1. I just deleted a feminist ranty post in agreement-response to this. Chickened out. Maybe tomorrow.

    Also, Jeff V’s thing was a joke, right? I could only skim it at the moment.

  2. Just to clarify, the 6 points from Jeff’s Booklifenow post are originally from Bruce Holland Rogers (Jeff paraphrased with Bruce’s permission).

  3. I never leave my house but when I do, I ALWAYS remember to brush my teeth. (OK, that’s a lie). Also, all the garbage in front of my stoop? If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to pick it up. The best thing is, upstate, where I live part-time in a delapitated very old farmhouse, I had a neighbor come over and say, “what did you do to your pond?” I guess it was full of algae. I responded, “I haven’t done anything to our pond.” In the back of my head I’m thinking, “get the fuck off my land”. Every other time she came over to “chat” after that, I made her chat with my husband. She didn’t like that. She stopped coming over. Because she wanted to make me feel bad- she didn’t give a shit about him.

    I recently had an email discussion with a female writer who I greatly admire and we discussed writing about sex. There are exceptions- but- when women do it, it’s “erotica”. (Think Nin.) When men do, well, they’re engaging in a literary way with something deep and profound. When I write about motherhood- I get called a bad mother by editors, both male and female mind you. (I guess that’s better than “mommy-lit” of which I’ve never been accused.) When Ray Carver writes dark, unhappy stories about his family (and I LOVE Ray Carver’s writing), he gets awards. I think I may start wielding a broken wine bottle at my husband’s neck and maybe then people will think I’m a serious writer and not a bad mother? Oh wait, that makes no sense.

    Do you know how many feminist girlfriends who feel sorry for my husband? And say, “Poor “his name”.” Um, that’s because he ACTUALLY helps out. We ACTUALLY mutually support each others’ careers, not to mention souls and lives. Men who pull that old school shit I can brush off, laugh at, ignore. This is a personal thing- I could give a shit- I feel no pain. But when my fellow feminists snear at me it hurts more, or frankly when any woman who thinks she has the right to vote acts like I’m a bad wife for not doing pretty much everything in regard to the house and kids, I stop calling back. Fuck that.

    And I could go on, of course. I LOVE the feminist writers who pity me for “not having a career”. Haha. “My husband cooks dinner and does the dishes”, she says, because, hey she deserves it- she makes a ton of money. So, if my husband cooks dinner and does the dishes, I’m an ogre? Cause I make shit for money? Or if I cook dinner and do the dishes, because I make no money, then I’m a “loser”? Just- enough. More kindness. Less stupid asshole behavior and less cuntiness.

    1. love this rant, but find this part esp. fascinating:

      “I recently had an email discussion with a female writer who I greatly admire and we discussed writing about sex. There are exceptions- but- when women do it, it’s “erotica”. (Think Nin.) When men do, well, they’re engaging in a literary way with something deep and profound. When I write about motherhood- I get called a bad mother by editors, both male and female mind you. (I guess that’s better than “mommy-lit” of which I’ve never been accused.) When Ray Carver writes dark, unhappy stories about his family (and I LOVE Ray Carver’s writing), he gets awards.”

  4. Rachel: This is a tangent and shouldn’t derail discussion of the main points above, but…Yeah, agreed to some extent re the focus in that part of Booklife, but the six points Bruce Holland Rogers put forth and I paraphrased and expanded on seem to be to be valid in a lot of scenarios and adaptable to others, regardless of the phrasing. There is also stuff in there about being on your own. Re non-monogamous–no idea how that would be different with regard to what you need from others, but then I’m not non-monogamous, so I wouldn’t know. It seems to me that taking care of children is an implied task listed, but could be made overt. Certainly I’m always looking for opportunities to improve sections of the book for future editions.

    Carolyn Bly has a great book called The Passionate, Accurate Story in which she talks about play and the imagination, pretty much supporting that point above–it’s a great writing book, highly recommended.


  5. Thanks for the correction, Ann!

    Paula — not a joke, I think. I highlighted the portion I did because it gave me a funny image and because it’s very true of my relationship with my partner — we’re enormously silly people, and my parents occasionally accuse us of not wanting to grow up. (This is not a false accusation, really.)

    pr — I know what you mean; these things can be MUCH more annoying from people who should know better!

    Jeff — I probably read your post too quickly. A few of the points raised made me wonder how someone who was single, or poly, or a mom, or whatever, would execute them. I’m sorry I misrepresented your intentions.

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  7. Perhaps I’m an exception rather than the rule, but I don’t take a lot of time to get ready in the morning to go to work. I have short hair. I’ll leave with it wet. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t have complicated clothing. And I don’t have facial hair to shave. So I actually suspect I’d take longer to get ready if I were male.

    Granted I don’t work in some high-profile profession that might demand more in the way of expensive clothing and some sort of makeup, but I’m probably in the majority there.

    I like my sleep! I’m not adopting any ritual that takes away from it in the morning.

  8. Wonderful first post Rachel. Play does seem so integral. Loosening the mind and the body to let more air in.

    I wonder who pr is?

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