Turn The Page: The Importance of A Woman Leader at Library of Congress
As Dr. Carla Hayden, the first woman and also the first African American who will head the Library of Congress, is sworn in this week, it seems a good time to take a look at the gendered legacy of American literary traditions from publication to reviews to prizes.
Particularly with the upcoming National Book Fest September 24, sponsored by the Library of Congress, we can applaud what has changed, and look ahead to gender parity in books, media and more.
Hayden was most recently CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library system where she spearheaded a $115 million renovation and restoration project and oversaw 22 libraries, 500 employees and an annual budget of $40 million, according to the Baltimore Sun.
In her new post, as the 14th librarian of Congress in history, she oversees “a collection of more than 162 million items and adds 12,000 each day. It houses the largest rare-book collection in North America, the papers of 23 presidents, and two manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
The Library of Congress is by far the largest of all 120,000 public libraries in this country, with nearly 35 million volumes of books, according to the American Library Association. More than 267,000 paid staff work as librarians and other administrators at U.S. libraries.
With Hayden at the helm, perhaps it ushers in a new era of gender balance and greater inclusion in the country’s library system. What is the significance of a woman of color leading the top U.S. Library?
Libraries and librarians idealistically portray themselves as egalitarian and neutral entities that provide information equally to everyone, yet the library as an institution often reflects and perpetuates societal racism, sexism, and additional forms of oppression,” write Rose Chou and Annie Pho in Library Writing.
The authors of books carried in libraries and read in public schools have been predominantly male. Of the top 50 most popular books read by high school students, female authors produced 11 of them They include Harper Lee, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, and more recently, Sandra Cisneros and Kathryn Stockett.
“Literature appears to have a woman problem,” writes Kay Steiger in Think Progress.
“British-born author Nicola Griffith recently documented, most major literary awards go to books written by men or about men. Griffith took a long look at the distribution of literary prizes. Not only did she count women authors, but Griffith also focused on whether the stories were about women or girls, or whether they were about men or boys,” Steiger writes “When you start to look at books that are by women and about women, the numbers look pretty dim. If only men’s stories are told, then women are relatively unrepresented.”
What does it matter? Because the books we read and the examples of authors we see informs how we see the world and the importance we assign to the narrators of history. In elementary schools, boys will read books about boys and girls will read books about girls. Men outnumber women on bestseller lists.
“Yet the United States is a country where there are more females than males, and which has a public school system in which people of color outnumber white students,” writes author Caroline Paul in TED Ideas.
“What’s up with such a misrepresentative bestseller list? The conclusion I draw is that authors and publishers are throwing their weight behind certain books because of this widespread belief that, hey, everyone will read about boys. So what does this mean for the fate of books?”
Paul adds,”We read to experience a panoply of perspectives. We read to learn of people and situations outside and beyond ourselves, so we can deepen our connection and understanding. We read to prepare for life.”
Historically, books by male authors have been reviewed more often than books by female authors in this country, and are annually tallied by VIDA, Women in The Literary Arts. There are also more male reviewers than female reviewers.
“Female authors and reviewers have found more room on literary pages over the last year, according to the annual Vida review, which has previously shown a major skew towards male writers and reviewers,” writes Alison Flood in The Guardian.
Vida’s new figures did reveal a significant gender bias at some of the larger publications. At the New York Review of Books, female authors and reviewers represented 21 percent of the total. The Times Literary Supplement’s clocked in at 29 percent and the London Review of Books at 23 percent. At the Atlantic, the overall percentage for women dropped to 30 percent, its lowest result for the last three years.”
But there has been dramatic improvement in gender parity at literary publications. According to VIDA, at A Public Space, bylines by women represented 72 percent of the pie in 2015, with 33 bylines. Last year, we reported that women represented 43 percent of the pie, with 18 bylines. Women’s share of the pie reached 69 percent at The Normal School (42 bylines). Last year, women represented 51 percent of the publication’s bylines.Crab Orchard Review continues to bake tasty pies. Last year we reported women enjoyed 57 percent of the overall pie (51 bylines), and this year we’re pleased to celebrate 64 percent (98 bylines).
“If the literary landscape is dominated by specific groups, how can we be healthy as a society and benefit from both our differences and commonalities? Isn’t one of literature’s effects to humanize populations beyond our own?” asks Amy King, VIDA chair and member of the executive committee.
“One of VIDA’s principles is to shine a light where some would rather not look. We hope that what is illuminated through this work moves everyone to ask for more, King writes.
According to the Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey 2015, “women made up 78 per cent of the publishing industry, but this number decreased to 59 per cent at the executive level,” writes Natalie Kon-Yu in LitHub. Yet the number of literary prizes awarded to women is low.
“Prizes remind us that what matters most are stories written by men or about men, or in an acceptably masculine way (non-sentimental and with sufficient thrust). Women may dominate the publishing fields, they may have more of these jobs and have an easier time getting into print, but this seems like a poor consolation. Does it matter if more work is being published by women if it’s not reviewed, if their texts don’t end up on school book lists or aren’t featured in our most recognized publications?” Kon-Yu writes.
Leadership in the world of books and more has a new milestone this week. It is also fitting then to acknowledge a monumental first in this arena more than 11 centuries ago.
Fatima Al-Fihri established the world’s very first university: Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University in Morocco in the year 859, according to Muslim.com. It “contains manuscripts up to 12 centuries old, considered by many historians as the oldest, continually operating, degree-granting university in the world.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com