While widely considered “feminine,” writing occupies a traditionally masculine space within our society. Dating back to the seventeenth century, many women have used male pen names in order to be published and sell more copies of their work. Writing has become increasingly gendered and racialized, and in a modern society, it is disheartening to many burgeoning women writers to feel as if they do not have a place at the table.
Aiming to change this, the Women’s Center hosted one of their monthly fall roundtable sessions that focuses on the role of women in specific fields where they are minorities. Entitled “Women in Writing,” the roundtable session offered three UMBC-affiliated writers – Johanna Alonso, Missy Smith and Dr. Tanya Olson – to share their thoughts on their own place in the writing industry, and how their identities shape their understanding of that role.
In an effort to give women writers on campus a voice and shut down the masculinization of art, Alonso, a sophomore English major and Writing Center intern, compiled a group of writing from women writers around campus last semester, featured in a zine called “My Name is Wisdom: A Celebration of UMBC’s Women Writers,” which is available at the Women’s Center.
She began the discussion by reflecting on her middle school reading experiences. Assigned “The Hunger Games” for a school project, Alonso remembers the boys in her class being unenthusiastic to read the novel because Katniss wasn’t “interesting.” “The Hunger Games” is just one of many stories with a female lead, and while, as Alonso says, “There’s nothing innately feminine about these stories…boys are [still] more reluctant to read them.”
Smith, a Women’s Center coordinator and singer/songwriter by the stage name of QueenEarth, uses her songwriting to overcome challenges in her life. She explained that the music industry doesn’t think about the audience women represent and about how their own unique experiences contribute to their writing and performance style. Producers often shut women down in different stages of the creative process and can turn their songs into something completely different.
As such, it can feel incredibly difficult for women to become “successful” within the arts, but often, success is self-defined. For Smith, “failure is if we stop writing.” Writing for herself first has always been crucial to her, and the strides she is making as a self-made woman in the entertainment and writing industries are just as important – and often overlap – with those she is making in the social justice and arts education realm.
Dr. Olson, a UMBC faculty member and poet, echoes Smith’s idea of success in her own reflection on success as a never-ending period of growth and change. However, within the poetry industry, Dr. Olson argues there is no growth or change. There is a “fetishization” of youth within the industry that prevents anyone middle-aged or older from becoming recognized, and this silence bars older perspectives from being heard.
She urges those within the writing community to “remember [they’re] not the first” to break down the barriers that discourage other perspectives. “There’s more than one way to break into a house,” she says, comparing the writing industry to a house that won’t let women in through the front door. And, sometimes, you have to go through a window.
“Women in Writing” was the last roundtable discussion of the semester. More Women’s Center events can be found on their website and on myUMBC.