Just a few weeks after the controversy broke (has it died down?), I've now got something to say about the controversy over poetry-in-general, self-consciously experimental poetry in particular, and the gender of particular poets, as articulated by Jennifer Ashton's controversial book review last year, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's even more controversial, statistics-driven response in the current Chicago Review, the CR editors' additional stat-tracking, and Ashton's brief reply. (More blogospheric discussion has followed since, and not only on this site.)
The first thing to say is that Ashton and Spahr/Young are partly talking past one another, since Ashton is first concerned to attack essentialism (the idea that a kind of poetry bears some intrinsic, logically necessary relation to the gender of its author) and Spahr and Young are first concerned to attack the persistence of sexism (it's still harder, they imply, for women to get their experimental poetry noticed than for men who might write the same sort of poem, whatever "the same sort" would here mean). But Ashton repeatedly implies (without quite saying) that we should stop paying attention to the gender of living poets for any reason—that the people most concerned to pay such attention now are all guilty of implicit essentialism—and Spahr and Young are understandably taken aback by that implication: that's why there's an argument at all.


The rest of what I have to say here has less to do with big concepts (such as essentialism) than with numbers and competing ways to explain them. Spahr and Young's statistics, like many statistics outside the poetry world which show the persistence of distressing inequalities, admit a number of explanations more complicated than (but consistent with) "institutions are still quite sexist." I like Spahr as a thinker a great deal, and have recommended her critical writings repeatedly, but this seems to be one of the first times she's dealt with quantitative data at any length, and some of the mistakes she and Young seem to make are the sort of thing that makes stats people cough and clear their throats…
Spahr and Young note that "anthologies published before 1985 include 16% women, while those published after 1985 include 29%. A fairly modest increase." When and for whom is an increase of nearly 100% "fairly modest"? (Alicia had more on periodical statistics here.)
A bigger problem: Because living poets belong to several generations and began their careers at various points in the history of the art form and in the history of feminism, sexism decades ago will continue to have effects on publishing now. Spahr and Young's data may contain what demographers call cohort effects, which they don't seem to acknowledge.
Let's assume that sustained and noxious sexism drives at least some women who encounter it to stop writing or to stop trying to publish their work. If people over 70 faced tons of sexism when they were young, leading many women to stop writing or to stop trying to get published, people now between 50 and 70 faced less sexism (but still a lot), people now between 30 and 50 faced plenty of sexism (but less than their elders), and people now under 30 face almost none (which I don't believe, though I do believe they face less of it than older writers did at the beginning of their careers), then a random sample of writers of all ages who were trying to get their work published would contain more men than women, but a random sample of writers under 30 who were trying to get their work published would contain (given a large enough sample size) almost exactly as many women as men.
And that means that we would expect any press which had been in existence for a while, which had a list stretching back before the 1990s, which was committed to keep publishing older authors, and which did not go out of its way to publish more women than a random sample would contain, to publish more men than women, even if the conditions that face young or new writers now contained no sexism at all. That doesn't mean there's no sexism now (I think there is), but it does mean that due to cohort effects—due to the effects now of sexism then-- Spahr and Young's numbers may not show what Spahr and Young think they do.
A similar cohort effect may apply to Spahr and Young's critique of prizes: they note (using Steve Evans' data) that women and men between 1998-2004 won nearly equal numbers of poetry prizes, but that the men got more dough. It could be that the better-endowed institutions, which give bigger prizes, are sexist, and the less-endowed institutions, which give smaller prizes, are going out of their way to counter the sexism of the others. Or it could be that the bigger prizes tend to go to older writers, writers farther along in their careers, and writers who got their starts at a time when things were harder for new women writers than things are today.
And finally (for today): Outside a fairly narrow slice of the self-identified avant-garde (where, as Spahr and Young and Ange have all suggested, there may be a bias towards programmatic ambition, in turn identified with men), the biggest source of sexist effects among poetry institutions may not be sexism as such.
I follow, occasionally, the studies economists and other academics make of gender and the labor force (studies which the review's editors note). These studies can show not just labor-force participation (what % of doctors are women, what % of women between 21 and 65 are full-time employed) but also such things as attitudes in the workplace. And these studies often show that what academia and other cultural sectors should worry about most is not discrimination against all women, but discrimination against moms.
People who study glass ceilings in academia and in some other professions with high barriers to entry at least sometimes find that the most recalcitrant such effects come not from obviously sexist attitudes (though you can still find those around) but from professional ladders that make it hard or impossible to take time off, raise toddlers, and then get back on, and that make it almost as hard (or prohibitively expensive) to raise toddlers without taking time off.
One recent study showed that young workers trust childless women in the workplace more than they trust childless men, but that when the women are mothers the terms are reversed. I suspect that a study of literary careers which followed only men and women of the same cohort (same approximate age) from the last 20-odd years would find that mothers suffered, relative to fathers, far more than childless women suffered relative to men.
That's a serious problem about continuing sexism in the US and elsewhere, one that affects the production of literature—it's a problem that the institutions which set out to employ poets (and fiction writers and critics) can try to fix, but not one a book press can do much about (other than to treat its employees well).
I'll have more to say tomorrow about a few other questions the article raised.

Originally Published: December 3rd, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. December 3, 2007
     jane

    Steve, I'm curious about a portion of your conclusion here. It seems worth noting that, generalities about the survival of the species in abeyance, motherhood in the US is optative*, while being born a woman is not. I do not point this out at all to dismiss discrimination against mothers (or any other discrimination). Nor will I tarry much with the already well-made point that the structural solution to this particular discrimination is probably not special protections but a shift in child-rearing burdens toward the male.
    My curiosity is in whether you think marking out an optative category as more worthy of attention and remedy requires an ethical valuation around that optative category (in this case, motherhood...but the question goes for all such cases). If one assumes motherhood to be ethically neutral** (like, say, having tattoos or preferring the WNBA), would it still be worthy of greater remedy attention than a non-optative category like being a woman, regardless of statistical analysis arguing that there is quantitatively more*** discrimination effects?
    REQUISITE NOTES: first, I should make clear in this case that I am a male writer.
    * It would be fair to argue that the level of optation for motherhood is the US is not fixed, is related to access to birth control, and is probably class-based. However, I hope you'll take my point at least for the sake of argument that the distinction between becoming a mother, and being born a woman, is a makable one, especially in the social sectors most often productive of "literary careers."
    ** This question is entirely sincere, and is not a secret brief against reproduction or etc. I'd hope to avoid responses which design to defend motherhood, as it is not under attack in this question. The question is about what our cultural assumptions are, as we puzzle through the matters of discrimination and remedy raised by Ashton, Spahr and Young.
    *** Even the term "more" here is statistically ambiguous, as we're discussing incommensurate sample types and sizes.

  2. December 3, 2007
     Ange

    Steve, I'm afraid discrimination against mothers will only keep growing -- a large proportion of an increasingly libertarian America views motherhood as a "choice" -- presumably one that a woman desperate for a job should not have made.

  3. December 3, 2007
     Steve

    Dear male Jane, No, I do not think that marking out an optative category as worthy of attention and "remedy" (in your sense of remedy) requires an ethical valuation, just (at a minimum) a hard- or undesirable-to-eliminate correlation with some other category (optative or intrinsic) which ought to matter to us (for whatever reason).I don't have any particular brief in favor of, nor against, the wearing of cornrows, but if it turned out that there was discrimination against cornrow-wearers above and beyond (and separable from) conscious racial discrimination per se, and that we could make elite institutions look more like America (less obtrusively white) by making them easier for people with cornrows, I might advocate such measures. Perhaps a better comparison would be sinks for devout Muslims' footwashing in public universities. You don't have to think that it's better to be a devout Muslim than to be of another religion, or no religion, to think (as I do) that it would be a good thing if universities with significant Muslim populations made it easier for devout Muslims to wash their feet.
    I think our elite institutions should make it easier for people to remain and advance within them if those people are also moms, both (and these are independent reasons) because if those institutions fail to do so they are much more likely to remain mostly male at the highest levels (it's easier for Harvard and Princeton to be nicer to moms-- to parents, in fact-- than to create a culture where equitable parenting is the norm) AND because, independent of gender-in-general, I think that institutions of culture (not necessarily other kinds of institutions) will do better and more interesting work if it's easier for the experience of mothers (of parents qua parents, but especially, given our history, of mothers) to be represented within them. The first of those two reasons strikes me as more important than the second, but I believe them both.
    Ange, as a matter of numbers and employer policies (rather than of loud public rhetoric), I both suspect and hope you're wrong: within elite academia, at least, the pressure from almost every constituency seems to be (however mild) in the direction of becoming less unfair. Outside those very narrow circles, moreover, some of the most underemployed (relative to their skill sets and time available) workers in the United States, I think, are former teen moms now in their 30s and 40s (especially those who no longer have direct responsibility for the care of young children-- some still do). Employers who figure out how to attract and retain those workers are going to see great results.

  4. December 3, 2007
     Michael

    Though I suspect you'll agree anyway, and Jane has all but said as much, I think it's crucial to note in such discussion that the real issue of sexism in this paragraph
    "People who study glass ceilings in academia and in some other professions with high barriers to entry at least sometimes find that the most recalcitrant such effects come not from obviously sexist attitudes (though you can still find those around) but from professional ladders that make it hard or impossible to take time off, raise toddlers, and then get back on, and that make it almost as hard (or prohibitively expensive) to raise toddlers without taking time off"
    is the continuing presumption that mothers should take, and be expected to take, greater responsibility for raising children than fathers. It's also interesting to note that concern regarding professional ladders that make it easier for mothers to raise kids is effectively demanding a woman's employer/profession share more of the workload for raising her children, ahead of demanding this from the father of those children.

  5. December 3, 2007
     jane

    Steve, I think you've misunderstood the force of my question; perhaps it was unclear (though looking back, it seems pretty direct: "whether you think marking out an optative category as more worthy of attention and remedy...."
    My inquiry wasn't whether any given discrimination should be attended to, or whether such attention would have beneficial results. A question about that would only in the end be a phatic check to see if we defined the word liberal in the same way. My question was, to rephrase: (if we assume a finite capacity to attend and address iniquities), on what grounds do we prefer one matter to another? And is such a preference not finally an ethics?
    As a matter of opinion, not reasoned debate, I think that, if we're to live in a statist society as we do, state-funded childcare would get at the discrimination you raise most proximately; historically, such measures are significantly more effective than legislating "attitudes." But see how the problem recurs: if the state's to fund some things and not others, there must be a moment of preference; should childcare have a stronger claim on funding than parent care, sibling care, or free public transportation? Of all of these, the lattermost may have the greatest impact on the survival of the species...–...now I'm meandering, and don't mean to misdirect the inquiry; I really am curious about the question as first asked, and re-asked in the graf above.

  6. December 3, 2007
     Steve

    Michael, you're right about gender and childcare. All my favorite writers on gender-in-general-- Jessica Benjamin, for example, and Nancy Chodorow-- make similar points. But if the only way that elite institutions can further reduce gender inequaliity at higher levels is for fathers to take over 50% of the childcare (I say this as a father who does, at the very most, 40%), we're going to have to wait a long time. Too long. There are other steps those institutions can take on their own (without having to wait for social psychology to change).
    Male Jane, are you asking on what basis I make decisions or establish preferences in general? Maybe you're asking if I consider such preferences coextensive with ethics (I don't), or finally inseparable from ethics (I think I do).

  7. December 4, 2007
     jane

    Male Steve, the question is not so much about you and your ethics, as about your understanding of how a society addresses matters like this – matters I suspect we all agree are of great importance. The source debate (Ashton, Spahr/Young) includes within it a faith in the clarity of statistics...which quickly dissolves into a debate about methodology: the rational derivation of the most telling statistics.
    If I myself am suggesting anything, it's that the statistics, no matter the methodology, tell us exactly nothing unless we already have a set of cultural beliefs in place. The quantitative stats you produce ("the biggest source of sexist effects...") turn out to have a qualitative meaning that depends on a variety of contingent factors, including whether one takes motherhood to be optative (as Ange apparently doesn't?); how optative and for whom?; whether the non-optative should have priority regarding protections?, and so forth. These are not statistical matters, so I was curious as to whether you understand them as ethical matters or have some other way of describing them.
    You'll see this is a different question from asking you about your own ethics; at the same time, it is not the same as a general question about whether "protecting difference is a good."

  8. December 4, 2007
     yesandno

    What does optative mean in this discussion? I assumed it meant optional, but looked it up, and found one definition meant optional and one had something to do with verb moods. Are you all using it to mean optional in this discussion? If so, why not use optional? If not, how is optative different from optional in a way that matters for this discussion? Curious.

  9. December 4, 2007
     i am a female jane

    SB... The cohort effect doesn't really change anything that S/Y say in their article. The most ambitious claim they make is that things aren't that much better after the mid-80s. It would take some more analysis than you make in your post to argue that things are so fixed that all we're seeing in the current moment are the remains of a cohort effect. (They do have that moment where they talk about the numbers in some presses founded in the last ten or so years.) But even if this were true, I'm not sure it would change S/Y's observations. They don't really spend much time on the "why."

  10. December 4, 2007
     i am female jane

    Also, when you say "the biggest source of sexist effects among poetry institutions may not be sexism as such" and then mention lack of support for mothering, isn't that a sign of sexism?

  11. December 4, 2007
     Steve

    Male Jane, you are right that you can't get from an is to an ought without a set of beliefs about the good, and that such beliefs are always cultural.
    Female Jane, welcome! I take sexism to mean intentional discrimination against women as such, and sexist effects to mean "women are disadvantaged relative to men in a way that would not be true in a fair society." All sorts of things have sexist effects without being examples of sexism. One such thing-- in this society where (alas) women do much more than 50% of the childcare-- is inadequate institutional provisional for child care.

  12. December 4, 2007
     Michael

    Steve,
    I do agree that such institutions can achieve something positive in the shorter term via the ways that you're suggesting, however my point was more intended to highlight the fact that the assumptions your previous post privileged not only fail to address the inherent sexism, but perpetuate it.
    I was not attempting to argue that elite institutions should somehow force 'fathers to take over 50% of the childcare', but that the services afforded to someone because they are a mother should be extended to fathers (and in fact anyone who has assumed the position of primary carer for a child), which in the case of nuclear families would allow the parents to work out between themselves the division of labour. And while I take your point that the 'social psychology' may take a lot longer to change, for such institutions to base these policies on the presumptions we've been discussing is to perpetuate those presumptions and leave carers with little option but to perpetuate them too. Public and private institutions have a role to play in leading the way with such matters, and by offering equal access to the assitance you're talking about they introduce alternative combinations of childrearing as viable possiblities for people to take up.
    If you imagine it going to a (fanciful) opposite extreme, if fathers were offered paid parental leave and mothers were not, plenty of professional couples would doubtless be inclined to reassess who was most suited to stay home with the kids.

  13. December 5, 2007
     Steve

    Dear Michael, of course "such services should be extended to fathers (and to anyone who has assumed the position of primary carer for a child)"-- I didn't imagine that my suggestions would be taken any other way. In practice, I think, the additional work-time/ creative-time/ non-child-care time such services would create would accrue more to moms than to dads, at least over the first five to fifteen years. But all new parent benefits should be offered to new parents, in general, not just to moms (nor just to dads, nor just to natural as vs adoptive parents).