The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) 2012 Count Closing the Gender Gap in Book Review Culture came out in June reporting the numbers of gender disparity in book reviews within the Canadian literary arts community.
This two part series spoke with CWILA Count Manager Judith Scholes and CWILA Board Member and Blog Administrator Erin Wunker and will discuss: (1) how the CWILA develops its methodology and (2) what the 2012 results mean for present and future projects.
Making an Intervention and affecting positive change
CWILA's 2012 Count results of the representation of women in the Canadian literary arts scene show a marked improvement in many of the publications that CWILA counted from and, as CWILA Board Member Erin Wunker notes, "indicates a real effort [by Canadian literary publications] to take up our call and really change the ways that gender is addressed in terms of equitable representation."
The 2012 Count shows positive trends such as a ten per cent leap in the total number of book reviews authored by women and also significant changes in publications' number of published reviews by women.
This is important because (1) it shows a move towards better representation of women, (2) Canadian literary organizations want to have a more equal representation of women and (3) the information CWILA reports is affecting positive change.
While CWILA acknowledges that they are among a number of other organizations that have called inequality into question -- Women and Words Conference in Vancouver, the Telling It Book Collective conference and publication, the Writing Thru Race conference to name a few -- they are among the first to make a contemporary intervention.
Addressing reoccurring pitfalls: identifying issues and making positive change
Despite this positive changes, similar pitfalls like men predominantly reviewing male-authored books (70 per cent) and the number of books authored by women in general are still quite low among a large number of publications.
These trends show, as Gillian Jerome, Chair of the CWILA Board of Directors, writes, "Canadian critical discourse still doesn’t reflect the diversity of the writers making literature in Canada, nor does it equal the calibre of our literature."
"It is problematically clichéd to observe how many people claim that attention to gender equity -- aka feminism -- is passé and no longer needed," Wunker states. "One might think of Margaret Wente’s public writing as a key example of this denigration of feminism. And yet paying attention to gender equity -- albeit in the very specific sphere of literary culture in Canada -- is crucial now."
This idea of "look, women are kind of represented now, so can we stop making the effort?" is akin to the gutting of the US Voting Rights Act, which Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg likened to "throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."
Creating a more nuanced representation of women in Canadian literary arts
Being vigilant of who and what is being published shouldn't be a goal to hit and then stop trying. One accomplishes nothing if equality is not a long lasting, natural goal.
Wunker agrees noting, "if we are going to talk about gender equity, we also must talk about inequity in terms of race, class and sexuality. We need to look to the silences, the absences in discourse around literary culture in Canada. We need to think about who is speaking and we need to think about why and how they feel entitled to speak."
As previously mentioned, counting representation of women as a homogenized groups leaves out discourse on intersecting factors such as race and class and limits the conversation to one view.
The CWILA has attempted to broaden this category of gender, by including 'genderqueer' in their Count this year, but are continuing to think of other ways in which the Count can be useful and further fuel the critical conversation around the representation of marginalized people.
"First, there are fissures and gaps in society that filter through the ways in which we talk about literary and other forms of cultural production," Wunker states. "Racism exists. Sexism exists. Homophobia exists. Classism exists. Canadians live various experiences of these facts on a daily basis."
Wunker points out "How we as a country of unequal citizens choose to deal with inequity in society is inevitably going to show up in the ways in which we talk about literary culture. Addressing inequity means taking a long, hard look at the place you live and the way you live in that place."
Wunker's candid and honest statements highlight a concept many fear to acknowledge: privilege. White privilege; male privilege; sexual orientation privilege. Identifying as feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic means nothing if it does not address the cultural and societal factors and privileges that affect one's daily life.
"Some of us have more unearned privilege than others, meaning that it is possible for some of us to 'forget' gender or race. That 'forgetting' is almost always an unconscious byproduct of privilege."
This 'forgetting' is noted by a few editors in the Editors on Editing section CWILA provides that when focusing on something like 'gender' considerations like 'ethnicity' go out the window and vice versa.
But why is that? Does it seem enough on the checklist of inclusion to have either a woman, a person of colour?
"I think," Wunker explains, "inequity exists because those of us who are a part of any subject position that has been deemed dominant can get away with forgetting that not everyone has access to the same kinds of privileges to speak, write and think publicly; not by a long shot."
What the future holds for the CWILA Count
These missing points of inequity herald to the next phases of CWILA and what they would like to address. Scholes and Wunker have both noted they would like to dig deeper into the representation of Canadian women by including categories of ethnicity and expanding to a wider gender inclusive category.
"The next phases of CWILA's Count will frankly depend on the extent to which we are able to raise funds, develop sustainable infrastructure and compensate volunteers for their work," says Wunker.
As most people with experiences in non-profits know, the work being committed -- even if partly subsidized -- represents hundreds of unpaid hours, and CWILA is no exception. Wunker notes, "while the work is both necessary and a labour of love, it is unsustainable without financial support."
It is a sobering and unsurprising fact. Wunker mentions that money "will allow the Board to hire more full-time workers, which will allow the extension of the scope of the count. [It] will supply payment to CWILA's Critic-in-Residence whose mandate is to be a public practicioner of CWILA values," says Wunker.
As an organization with the goal of identifying the disparity of women's representation in Canadian literary arts they have been incredibly successful in providing a friendly wake up call to these Canadian literary organizations to consider who and what they are publishing.
"CWILA does not pretend to think we have the ability to correct all inequity," Wunker states. "To suggest that we do would be both foolish and, worse, to ignore the incredibly long history of feminist, anti-racist, and labour activism from which we come."
"We are one organization that is attempting to create a multi-faceted and poly-vocal space for concerned people to come together to address issues of inequity through the focus on literary production in Canada," Wunker says.
"If we want to foster a critical literary culture that is concerned with equitable representation and genuine critical engagement with literary production, then we have to work together to create the conditions that will make that possible."
CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) is an inclusive national literary organization for people who share feminist values and see the importance of strong and active female perspectives and presences within the Canadian literary landscape.
Download and view CWILA 2012 Count Methodology and Results Summary.