A Profound Absence


[for WRB’s 30th anniversary]

By Martha Nichols

In the late 1980s, my favorite lunchtime routine was to eat a takeout salad and read the New York Review of Books. I’d graduated from Rolling Stone and Time to the intellectual love of my father’s life—and I loved NYRB, too. It was full of lively, sometimes vitriolic “exchanges,” such as this one, from 1988, in which Gore Vidal skewered a historian who criticized his historical novel, Lincoln (1984):

Professor Richard N. Current fusses, not irrelevantly, about the propriety of fictionalizing actual political figures—I also fuss about this. But he has fallen prey to the scholar-squirrels’ delusion that there is a final Truth revealed only to the tenured few in their footnote maze; in this he is simply naïve.


My father, a political scientist, enjoyed such intellectual boxing matches, and he pushed me to argue my own points strongly and logically—and, in the face of willful ignorance or rampant political agendas, to name idiocies outright. Not surprisingly, I became the loud-mouthed girl in college classes who never agreed. I was a feminist book reviewer in the making, although I wasn’t aware of that.

I hadn’t yet noticed that the literary exchanges I enjoyed took place almost exclusively among men. In 1988, Women’s Review of Books was only five years old and not on my reading list. Then, in 1993, I got a job there, as production editor. That year, I was thrilled to attend WRB’s tenth-anniversary conference at Wellesley College, with the distinguished Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood as keynote speaker. I felt surrounded by a legion of witty, fiendishly smart feminist authors and intellectuals.

Where are they now? I don’t mean the individual authors and reviewers I remember from my giddy coming of age: I know many of them are still writing books and articles, still teaching, still fixtures in women’s studies programs around the country. But what happened to my sense that a whole universe of brilliant women was about to enter the public conversation?

Instead, in 2013, on WRB’s thirtieth anniversary, there is a continuing, profound absence of opinion writing by female intellectuals in mainstream media. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of the New York Review of Books. Yet in its August 15, 2013, issue, I counted two female contributors out of 29, one of whom was Joan Didion, an NYRB fixture. If you include the Letters section, where exchanges such as that between Vidal and Current appeared, the count is two out of 34. The imbalance is so extreme that a doctored image of a previous table of contents, the authors’ names stamped “MAN, MAN, MAN” in red, has gone viral (that issue featured only one woman).

Women’s Review of Books got its start in the early 1980s because its founder, Linda Gardiner, wanted to counterbalance the dearth of opinion writing by women in publications like NYRB and the New York Times Book Review and to provide a sounding board for female critics. But Gardiner and other early WRB contributors also pointed to the plethora of books being published from a feminist perspective. As the editorial in WRB’s pilot issue (Summer, 1983) put it:

Now, ironically, those of us who once lamented the scarcity of writing by and about women are beginning to feel overwhelmed by its volume. Keeping up with the vast range of new material—from fiction to philosophy, anthropology to art, political science to poetry—gets harder every year…. [Yet with] minor and occasional exceptions, the existing book review publications have effectively ignored the flood of new works by and about women; and while many feminist journals and newspapers have sprung up over the last decade or so, few of them can devote a substantial part of their space to reviewing books.


Some of this optimism feels quaint. The books are still coming out, which is great, but most of those feminist journals from the seventies and eighties—off our backs, Sojourner, Big Mama Rag, Lesbian Tide—are gone; Women’s Review of Books itself suspended publication at the end of 2004. Structurally and financially reorganized, WRB was relaunched in 2006, and a few newer feminist journals of cultural criticism have emerged, such as Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, which is now close to twenty years old. The feminist blogosphere is thriving at sites like Feministing, Feministe, Jezebel, and Geek Feminism; Margaret Atwood is an active blogger these days. WRB has a website, too—www.wcwonline.org/womensreview—and a revived blog, WOMEN=BOOKS.

But the proportion of female-to-male writers in major cultural and opinion journals remains as depressing as ever. The most recent count by VIDA (www.vidaweb.org), a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that’s been tabulating the stats since 2010, notes that in 2012, only three percent of the book reviewers in Harper’s, for instance, were female; at the New Republic, the figure was nine percent, down from the previous two years. (To be fair, the 2012 Vida Count also highlights substantial gains in female contributors at the Boston Review and Tin House.)

Pre-VIDA, Paula Caplan and Mary Ann Palko’s damning tally of a year’s worth of New York Times Book Review issues appeared in WRB’s November 2004 issue. Their article, “The Times Is Not A-Changin’,” was published just before WRB’s temporary shutdown—a sad irony underscored by the opening blurb: “Your impression of the New York Times and other prestigious book review publications … is correct: The women are missing.”

More recently, some literary journals, Granta, for example, have created special issues with all-female contributors or devoted to “women’s” topics (the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Fall 2012 issue was titled “The Female Conscience”). This bucks up their VIDA counts, at least temporarily. But the effort often comes off as parody. Last fall when the New York Times Book Review ran side-by-side reviews by women of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men (2012) and Naomi Wolf’s Vagina (2012), the graphic on the front cover showed a big red high heel spiking a teeny men’s oxford. (Inside, another graphic showed a women’s symbol whacking a men’s symbol on the head.)

The numbers tell only part of the story. When female authors do claim print and airtime, it is often as experts on work/life balance, childrearing, and “The Sexes”—the title of one channel of the Atlantic’s online Wire, which publishes Hanna Rosin, Katie Roiphe, and Caitlin Flanagan. Newspapers may have renamed their “women’s pages” “Style” or “Living”—or “The Sexes”—but most mainstream outlets still give the impression that women rarely have much to say about anything beyond the home. The occasional Gail Caldwell, Christiane Amanpour, Stacey May Fowles, or Melissa Harris-Perry does not mask the fact that there’s no critical mass of female intellectuals in the public eye—the most pernicious result of which is the thinking about gender that now holds sway. It feels more cartoonish than ever, as if the past fifty years of writing and thinking by feminist academics, journalists, and activists never happened.

Consider the novelist and feature writer Stephen Marche’s July/August 2013 Atlantic article, “Home Economics: The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Inequality” (that’s the title on the web; in print it had the more provocative title of “The Masculine Mystique”). Marche rightly criticizes Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013)— as of this writing topping the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list—as a “capitalist fantasy” akin to a Horatio Alger tale, which bears little connection to the lives of most working families. But he goes on to claim that “the plutocratic wave of feminism [my italics] continues to roll in”—as if the women’s movement is composed of enormously wealthy queens of industry. Marche insists that we now have a “hollow patriarchy”: At the top, men may still have a lock on power, he admits, but underneath things look pretty darn egalitarian. His evidence for this counterintuitive—indeed, counterfactual—assertion is sketchy at best; he refers to a few government figures that feminist economists have either questioned or used to come to the opposite conclusion.

Marche has good reason to criticize the notion that the women’s movement promotes a philosophy of “having it all,” especially when a family with two working parents must struggle to make ends meet. In his own family, when his wife took a high-powered position as an editor, the couple decided to moved to Canada—not only because she would be earning a larger salary but also because Canada provides partially subsidized childcare.

In fact, childcare is at the crux of the struggle Marche describes. However, his analysis goes awry when he implies that he’s stumbled on a previously hidden truth. “Men’s absence from the conversation about work and life is strange,” he writes. “When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided.”

It’s hard not to laugh. Women’s studies scholars and feminist journalists, including Nancy Folbre, Laura Briggs, Arlie Hochschild, and innumerable others, have long been conducting research about the impact of US conservative political agendas on funding for welfare, Head Start, foster care, afterschool programs, and elder-care. They have written vast libraries of books on subjects such as childcare, parenting, and work-life balance. Women have been buttonholing male journalists and politicians for decades, trying to persuade them to put such issues on our country’s agenda—and into the budget (the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not even include family caregiving in its calculations of paid labor). Few were persuaded.

Indeed, Marche’s “where are the men?” complaint is rhetorical jujitsu, turning the ongoing problem of men’s indifference and hostility into one of women’s dominance and aggression. Whether Marche and his Atlantic editors are unaware of the research or purposely ignoring it, the absent voice is not the one he names.

Serious book reviewers and critics take a hard look at whatever they’re reviewing, regardless of their own political philosophies. And yet, from where I sit, what’s most endangered by the current absence of female intellectuals in the public conversation is critical analysis, period.

While the flaws of articles such as Marche’s can be refuted, the “listen to me, I’m not a feminist!” tack taken by some female critics is more insidious. Exhibit A is Caitlin Flanagan, a sharp-eyed social observer who exemplifies the shift toward snappy answers to stupid questions in slick “think pieces.”

In a 2012 Atlantic article, “The Autumn of Joan Didion,” Flanagan combines an assessment of Didion’s legacy with a review of Didion’s 2011 memoir Blue Nights. Flanagan’s anecdotes about meeting the shy and awkward Didion in Berkeley in the early seventies, when Flanagan was fourteen, are amusing. But her larger claims are preposterous. “To really love Joan Didion,” she writes, “you have to be female.” To explain this, she emphasizes Didion’s detailing of clothing and housewares, the stuff of women’s lifestyle magazines (such as Vogue, where Didion cut her teeth).

Flanagan goes on, though, to take potshots at Blue Nights that amount to the accusation that Didion was a bad mother to her troubled daughter, Quintana. “Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly,” she writes,

[leaving] her alone with a variety of sitters—two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who “saw death” in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty—and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working.

(Isn’t it funny how childcare keeps popping up?)


Finally, in a sweeping statement about Didion’s much-imitated tics and style, Flanagan states that “[u]ltimately Joan Didion’s crime—artistic and personal—is the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old.” Not surprisingly, Flanagan’s article coincided with the release of her own 2012 book, Girl Land. And her trashing of Didion is similar in tone to other trend stories in magazines like the Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, many of which are written and edited specifically to irritate readers in order to boost web traffic and comments.

But while Flanagan’s persona has long included mocking feminism, the real issue is not what she believes; it’s the shallow analysis. She doesn’t engage with Didion’s ideas. Instead, she provides gossip and clever, snarky riffs that stand in for analysis: Hunter Thompson, she writes, “gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; [Didion] gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair.” The end result is a catfight—which is no doubt supposed to be a turn-on. But it’s hard to imagine a woman critic getting away with dissing Thompson—or David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, V.S. Naipaul, or other male masters of bombast—as Flanagan does Didion. Men can become popular, pissed-off pundits, but rarely does an angry woman win a popularity contest.

Even at his nastiest, Gore Vidal spent prodigious column inches on the details his academic critics got wrong. He was a personality, too—but in the late eighties, what drew me to his writing was his intellectual feistiness. In publications like WRB and NYRB, the goal of book reviews and essays is not just to pat fellow believers on the back or to offer encouragement; neither is it about scratching one another’s eyes out to boost web traffic. It’s about having a substantive exchange of opinions.

Of course, long literary reviews like this never had a large audience, even back in the sixties. I know that my warm and fuzzy feelings for NYRB are mostly nostalgic. As such writing becomes increasingly irrelevant, my sadness is also wound up with watching my elderly father fade. My dad may still remember Gore Vidal by name but not what he wrote or why it mattered.

Yet, my feelings for Women’s Review of Books aren’t just nostalgic. I’m outraged that the sexism of the literary elite—which I once thought would surely be as extinct as the dinosaurs by the year 2013—is still thundering across the media swamp. The majority of online users and programmers are male, and the computer “logic” of platforms like Wikipedia and Google has only speeded up the erasure of work by women. If the mainstream media isn’t talking about female authors, such reasoning goes, they don’t merit a Wikipedia page; they don’t turn up at the top of a search. And suddenly—poof!—female critics are not only absent from the current debate but have been excised out of existence.

Today, this is how the patriarchy is institutionalized—not with a bang, but with a few keystrokes. In contrast, feminist analysis keeps the focus on what and who have been erased and why. Twenty years after I became affiliated with WRB, it is more relevant than at its founding, not less. Once patriarchy has been embedded in the very tools we use to do research and create history, the absence of all that’s been left out really is profound. And depressing. And well-worth fighting against with all the intellect and passion and breath we loudmouthed women can muster.


Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing (talkingwriting.com), an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization. She's a contributing editor at Women’s Review of Books and a guest blogger for the Christian Science Monitor. Her work has also appeared in Salon, Utne Reader, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. She teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School and blogs at Athena’s Head (athenashead.com).

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