Editorials 
Article by: M. Elizabeth Weiser, Occasional Contributor
7/30/99

Can Women Writers Survive the Creative Writing Workshop?

"In a nominally egalitarian society the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which the members of the 'wrong' groups have the freedom to engage in literature (or equally significant activities) and yet do not do so, thus proving that they can't. But, alas, give them the least real freedom and they will do it. The trick thus becomes to make the freedom as nominal a freedom as possible and then-since some of the so-and-so's will do it anyway-develop various strategies for ignoring, condemning, or belittling the artistic works that result. If properly done, these strategies result in a social situation in which the 'wrong' people are (supposedly) free to commit literature, art, or whatever, but very few do, and those who do (it seems) do it badly, so we can all go home to lunch. -Joanna Russ How to Suppress Women's Writing 

Of one hundred thirty-seven authors in the most recent Norton Anthology of American Literature, less than one-third are women-and this in a publication which we imagine strives for diversity. That women are systematically discouraged from the writing process is hardly a new contention. Why, therefore, is it so important now? While a number of studies have examined the difficulties women have in publishing their work, new data are emerging about women's treatment in the brainstorming and writing process that increasingly occurs in the creative writing workshop. Educational institutions from primary to graduate school are embracing workshops as the contemporary training ground for emerging writers, but the evidence suggests that women's experience in these workshops is quite different from men's. And any lack of acceptance of women's experiential voice in a writing workshop is particularly damaging in a field in which most writers-men and women-are producing, if not factually biographical memoirs, at least emotionally biographical fiction. In fact, a woman who has grown up in writing workshops may well be less inclined to trust her inner voice than a woman who begins writing as an adult with no previous "encouragement" from the education establishment.

Literature Review

Educational researchers Myra and David Sadker note that "while girls begin school equal to or ahead of boys in every academic area, by the time they graduate from high school they are behind boys in almost every academic area" (Sadker and Sadker 51). Why is this? According to the Sadkers, gender bias is insidious in classrooms from grade school to graduate school. Some of their principal findings from more than twenty years of research include (50):

teachers give white male students more time to answer a question than they do others; boys are eight times more likely than girls to call out answers and questions;

when boys call out, teachers accept and respond to their comments; when girls do so, teachers remind them to raise their hands;

50% of elementary and secondary classes are gender-segregated in seating arrangements, as are 30% of college classrooms, and teachers tend to focus on the sections of the room where white males are clustered; and

in college, females and minority males are more likely to be quiet in class and less likely to assume a powerful role in discussion.

With bias documented across the curriculum, is it any surprise that gender equity issues would also appear in primary and secondary creative writing workshops? Roxanne Henkin, in an ethnographic study of a first grade classroom, found that most students chose to work in groups of the same sex when they were engaged in creative writing projects. When asked why this was, boys replied that "girls didn't know much about what they were interested in" (Henkin 430). Henkin challenged this belief with examples of girls writing about sports or boys who had young siblings at home and so knew about babies, but "the boys insisted that the girls could not help them" (430). Later, when Henkin asked the girls why they worked in same-sex groups, they said that the boys wouldn't work with them, but they were puzzled as to why, giving reasons like "because they don't like girls," and then adding, "We can't help it that we're females" (431). Henkin notes: "These girls were only in first grade, yet they had experienced bigotry, oppression, and discriminationAlready, at this young age, they were unwilling to face rejection, and so conferred mostly with other girls" (432).

Marjorie Faulstich Orellana also found that students sex-segregated themselves in primary creative writing workshops, and her study of the books produced during two consecutive school years demonstrated that this isolation carried over into their writing. Of the 301 books produced, more than half were written by multiple authors. Yet only three of eighty-seven books (3%) were co-authored by mixed gender teams the first year, and nine of seventy-five (12%) the second year. When mixed authors did occur, girls moved into boys' groupings, but boys did not join or were not invited to join girls' groups (Orellana 9-10). When she looked at the content of the books, Orellana found that "girls were often completely absent from boys' stories," and of all the stories, only one written by a boy had a female protagonist (12). While girls also favored same-sex protagonists, a significant number (three the first year, nineteen the second) did write stories with male protagonists (12).

Two larger studies by Mary Trepanier-Street and Jane Romatowski confirmed that boys predominantly write about male characters, often in stereotypical ways. The first study examined writing from 180 first through sixth graders in 112 different schools and found that 83% of all the boys' characters were male (Trepanier-Street and Romatowski 35). These male characters were overwhelmingly assigned roles as problem-solvers, as well as being assigned physical and ability traits, actions, aggressive behaviors, and occupations. The only occupations assigned to female characters were princess, cook, teacher, and hula dancer (36). Interestingly, 59% of all the girls' characters in this study were also male. While they assigned slightly more active roles to their female characters than did the boys, it was the male characters who still received the majority of active descriptors (35). To test the depth of these stereotypical preconceptions, a follow-up study presented 140 students from three schools with story openings featuring male and female protagonists in non-gender stereotypic occupations (Jane the mechanic and Bill the nurse). Boys developed both characters according to their gender, not their occupation; girls developed Jane by gender but kept Bill as a male nurse (37).

This gender stereotyping, suggest all the researchers, results from children mimicking the stereotypes they see in the books, media, toys, and school texts that fill their environment. That both boys and girls see boys as the active, problem-solving characters is particularly disturbing given Orellana's observation that children use their writing to explore and define their own identity, with characters who are often fictionalized versions of themselves (11). Clearly, the opportunity to "put oneself into a story" is a pleasure girls experience less, and their view of themselves as active problem-solvers is diminished.

Though the Sadkers' research demonstrates that gender inequality continues into the college environment, there is very little published on gender issues in college writing workshops, and what is published is largely anecdotal. Yet the evidence available supports the trends already noted in elementary school. For instance, Julie Brown, teaching undergraduate creative writing at Youngstown State University, writes that "more than half [her] female students in a given quarter used male narrators to tell at least one of their stories," regardless of subject matter (312), while fewer than one-tenth of her male writers had written a story with a female protagonist (313). Often the male protagonist resembled the women writers in all ways except gender. Brown sees this as a result partly of the lack of role models young writers are exposed to in the limited school canon, noting that Emily Dickinson was one of the few literary authors her students could name (314). She also sees the quickness to adopt male personae as a result of what women learn from history and the news-that males' exploits are valued over females'. She quotes Josephine Donovan, who calls this "'the masculinization of women's minds' that occurs when 'men hold power and define women in relation to themselves'" (316). Brown notes that, in her workshops, "when a male student or two begins to dominate the discussion, the females say less and less" (314). Thus women's experiences are again undervalued, their opinions heard less frequently, and their writing reflective of the lack of self-confidence this engenders.

Finally, what about the women who are part of the explosive growth in graduate school writing workshops? The one analysis appears to be from Nancy McCabe of the University of Nebraska, in a conference paper presented in 1996. McCabe had participated in writing workshops at four universities, and she opens by noting that at three of the programs, faculty and students were predominantly male, and "as might be expected, men spoke in workshops far more than women did" (McCabe 1). She therefore focused her study on her fourth workshop, where faculty were predominantly female and there were more women students. She found that, just as Henkin's first graders informally grouped themselves by gender, the graduate students in her program developed "informal hierarchies" giving more power to male students and instructors (1). She tested this observation by timing workshop discussion of two student stories and found that men initiated the conversations for both stories (thus setting the agendas), men spoke nearly twice as often (57 times) as women (31 times), and, most significantly, men spoke for about fifty minutes, women for sixteen (2).

After McCabe discussed her findings with the women in her workshop, they decided to support each other in speaking up about classroom communication and about characterizations of females in stories. Tensions rose, the workshop leader accused the women of "ruining the workshop by 'politicizing' it," and McCabe hypothesized that by rejecting their traditional role of creating connection in the class, the women had forced a breakdown in class cohesion (7). Her experience suggests that women are relied upon in graduate workshops to mediate between artistic male egos, perhaps to the detriment of their own artistic progress.

Survey Methodology and Result

To test some of the findings of these researchers, I undertook a small research project in spring 1998 at my southwestern public university, whose growing MFA program had thirty actively enrolled fiction writers (eighteen men and twelve women) and three fiction faculty (two men and one woman). I developed and distributed a survey to students based on the available research findings, asking them to anonymously:

rank the degree to which they believed their opinions were heard in the program's creative writing workshops,

rank how frequently they received from peers or faculty a "bad read" on their work which they believed was due to gender,

state if they had ever withheld a story from workshop because of the gender composition of their workshop peers or the gender of the faculty, and

note the number of their total stories or novels that had a protagonist of the opposite gender.

Survey Results

Seventy-three percent of the students responded-72% of the men and 75% of the women. They had taken a total of fifty-nine graduate workshops.

The men, as a group, felt that their opinions were noticed more frequently in workshops than did the women. While the mean male response was that they were "often" heard when they voiced an opinion, the mean female response fell between "often" and merely "sometimes."

Opinions are heard in workshop

Females  Males 
Rarely  sometimes/often   often  almost always 

Perhaps because so many men felt their opinions were heard, they reported a generally more positive workshop experience for their work than did women. Of male respondents, almost half (46%) had never had what they considered a "bad read" from peers. Approximately half of both groups (46% men, 56% women) reported that one or two stories were misinterpreted. But only 8% of the men and a full 22%, one-fifth, of the women reported receiving bad reads from peers-having their work misinterpreted-at least half the time.

Bad reads from peers

Females    Males 
Always half my work (22%) 1-2 pieces (56%) 1-2 pieces (46%) Never
(8%)

More striking was the contrast in the percentage reporting that they had received a bad read from a professor leading a workshop. While over two-thirds (69%) of the male respondents reported "never" having a bad read from their workshop leader due to gender issues, only one-fifth (22%) of the women could report the same experience. And over three-quarters (78%) of the women reported a bad read from professors at least "sometimes." I considered that the males' responses might be skewed since the sole female professor at the studied university did not lead a workshop in 1998. However, even after removing from the group first-year males-who could only have had a male workshop leader-60% of the men still reported that a workshop leader had "never" misinterpreted their work due to gender issues. And still only 22% of the women could report the same experience.

Bad reads from professors

Females       Males 
Frequently Sometimes
(78%)
Never
(22%)
Never
(69%)
 

Because of this disparity in workshop experience, it was not surprising that more women than men reported withholding a story from a workshop because of the gender composition (or as one woman wrote, the gender "consciousness") of the peer group or the leader. Seventeen percent of the men and 56% of the women reported withholding a story-a particularly damaging action in a field where workshop critique is the cornerstone of promised improvement.

Finally, consistent with earlier researchers' findings, females wrote more cross-gender stories than males. Thirty percent of women's stories and 30% of their novels employed male protagonists, while 18% of men's stories and none of their novels employed female protagonists.

Analysis

Are women's workshop experiences uniformly negative? Clearly not-among women surveyed at my university, for example, about 40% felt their opinions were often heard and they had never felt it necessary to withhold a story from their workshop, while about 20% had never had a story misunderstood by peers or professors. Yet we have only to compare these figures to men's-where 85% felt their opinions were often heard and they had never withheld a story, 70% never had their stories misread by a professor, and half never had peers misread-to see that women's experience is profoundly different.

Nancy McCabe makes several good points about the results of a male-dominated writing environment. First, male experience becomes the norm, female experience "something to be transcended" (McCabe 8). Thus, male-centered art becomes the center of all art, with female-centered art at the periphery. One of my female survey respondents put it this way: "My impression is that stories by women get dissed not because of gender issues per se, but because of differences in writing style [across genders]. Workshops here seem to prefer 'realistic,' plot-driven fiction. The fantastic, the mystical, the outside-of-time is less accepted." I believe we have only to look at the infamous list of the "Best 100" English-language novels of the 20th century published by the Modern Library division of Random House in July 1998 to see the dearth of successful female-authored texts resulting from an aesthetic based on straightly realistic, male-centered, male-populated literature.

Next, when the writing environment is male dominated, female experience is stigmatized and women are less likely to claim the authority of their experiences (McCabe 8). Thus, female-centered topics are sometimes dismissed as trivial rather than realities of women's lives (9). For example, a story I submitted to a graduate school workshop in 1997, about a woman struggling with guilt over her divorce, was not critiqued at all by the male workshop leader because, he wrote, it was "too personal to comment on." Yet, men's stories dealing with father/son relationships, life on the job site, and male/female relationships from the male perspective all received full analysis and helpful feedback. A female survey respondent discussed this trivializing of women's stories, writing that

[t]he more unexamined one's own stance on gender issues is, the greater the chance of unfair, skewed reading. For example, a heterosexual male reader with an unexamined bias toward ACTION (whether in stories about love, war, or anything else) and against the minute negotiation of the microinequities often confronting heterosexual women in intimate relationships with men as being a legitimate, 'interesting' topic for fictional treatment may give short shrift to such a story under the rubric 'nothing happens' or 'it isn't interesting.'

Third, as McCabe notes, "[w]hen men do most of the speaking and women most of the listening, women's experience inevitably becomes redefined" as story topics are evaluated by those with the least knowledge about the experiences, and women students "receive messages about the acceptability of their experiences and begin to see themselves in stereotypical ways" (9). This became clear to me when the issue of "gender in workshops" was first raised in my graduate class on teaching creative writing. One male student immediately said, "What's that? Girly issues?" and a female student replied, "Yeah, what are we going to learn? How to put on makeup?" Thus, the problem is perpetuated while its very existence goes unacknowledged. And when women become conditioned to respond in kind, to be "more like guys than the guys" in order to be accepted, they not only lose ourselves but also the confidence they need to write in a strong, experiential voice.

Conclusion

What can we do to make the creative writing classroom at all levels the kind of encouraging environment for young female writers that it appears to be for men? The research points to several obvious suggestions.

1. Do not allow boys (and men) to dominate class discussions. We should apply to creative writing classes the same pedagogical modifications that teachers of other disciplines have made. Men must learn how to listen, women to speak up, and workshop leaders of either gender to ensure equal participation. One suggestion specifically for workshops is to go around the room and get each person's comments on the story or poem under discussion, rather than waiting for random volunteers.

2. Encourage children to work in integrated groups. In Faulstich Orellana's study, most boys and girls did not work together creating stories until teachers brought them together. Teachers can either model this behavior or enforce it when children are assigned to collaborate on creative projects.

3. Point out to students when their male characters are active, their female characters missing or passive. This is particularly important because most young writing has little to do with creative genius and much to do with personal exploration and self-discovery. Stereotypical writing can be a jumping off point for class discussions about what boys and girls can do not just in stories but in real life.

4. Ensure that students receive a balance of male/female role models from the assigned literature, both in the authors and in the characters portrayed. To be a good writer, one must read; to write about or accept women's experiences as equally normative, one must read about them. And for female-authored texts to be treated seriously, they should be an integral part of the school canon, not an add-on to be read after the "serious" texts are finished.

5. Consider the male/female balance in both the faculty and student body when making hiring or acceptance decisions. Two graduate student survey respondents wrote that a male-dominated writing environment might begin to be addressed by greater equity in numbers. "Gender issues are determined by the male/female ratio," wrote the male respondent, noting that his workshop experience with a female professor had been "tainted by a 'boys club' mentality" due to small numbers of women participants. The female respondent suggested that "a more balanced (that is, equal numbers of females) student body and professional staff might do some good in terms of gender bias and the heavy atmosphere of testosterone in workshops." Obvious, yes, but is it feasible? The goal of increased female participation, with its specter of "gender quotas," raises concerns about interfering with purely aesthetic hiring/acceptance decisions based on faculty or student candidates' writing. But this concern presumes that our aesthetics are unaffected by the gender issues that permeate our society. If the faculty determining hiring/enrollment is predominantly male and the canon they read is male-dominated, are female candidates who write in a less action-oriented style about the "microinequities" of women's lives really rated on the same scale as male candidates writing an"interesting" story about (as one respondent put it) "war or hunting"? In other words, are we really choosing the "best" writers, or are our notions of what constitutes "story" based partly on unacknowledged gender considerations?

Myra and David Sadker, in their two decades conducting workshops for practicing teachers, found that acknowledging the reality of gender bias in the classroom was the key first step toward mitigating its effects. Those of us practicing creative writing in an educational institution should not think our field is immune to institutional (and societal) realities. Nancy McCabe's workshop leader thought she was politicizing her (supposedly neutral) workshop; my program director's initial reaction to the results of my survey was that he wasn't used to thinking of us in this "bureaucratic format"-that "we were all just writers." But we cannot all "just be writers" when, for some of us, writers like us aren't held up as models; when writers like us aren't read in literature classes or brought on staff; and when our work as writers, taken from our own experiences, is labeled trivial or uninteresting. As a woman writer, I have been struck by how much we accept as normal-how incidents that our male colleagues simply do not experience we regard as just another series of obstacles with which to cope. As one surveyed student wrote, "I was once told by a male student that a piece was 'too estrogen filled' to publish. I went on to publish it." I do not believe that it is good for women, or women's writing, or the field of writing in general, to discourage so many potential writers from finding their voice. Educational research suggests that methods are available to ensure more equal male/female participation in discussions, to model inclusive behavior, and to not trivialize women's experience or writing styles. Yet these methods cannot be implemented until artists recognize that, whatever we may believe about the purity of aesthetics, the teaching of art takes place in the same social, political world as the teaching of any other discipline, and is therefore subject to the same biases.

Works Cited

Brown, Julie. "The Great Ventriloquist Act: Gender and Voice in the Fiction Workshop." American Women Short Story Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Julie Brown. New York: Garland, 1995. 311-325.

Henkin, Roxanne. "Insiders and Outsiders in First-Grade Writing Workshops: Gender and Equity Issues." Language Arts 72.6 (1995): 429-34.

McCabe, Nancy. "Gender Inequity in the Workshop: Methods Which Silence Women Writers." Conference on College Composition and Communication (1994). ERIC ED 379 678.

100 Best. The Modern Library. 9 Oct. 1998. <http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/ 100best/>.

Orellana, Marjorie Faulstich. "Good Guys and 'Bad' Girls: Gendered Identity Construction in a Writing Workshop." Conference of the American Educational Research Association (1995). ERIC ED 390 852.

Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Sadker, David and Myra Sadker. "Ensuring Equitable Participation in College Classes." New Directions for Teaching and Learning 49 (1992): 49-55.

Trepanier-Street, Mary and Jane Romatowski. "Achieving Sex Equity Goals: Implications from Creative Writing Research." Educational Horizons (Fall 1991): 34-40.

Weiser, M. Elizabeth. "Survey of Gender Issues in the Fiction Writing Workshop." Unpublished survey, 1998.

Appendix A

Quick 5-minute Survey of Gender Issues in the Fiction Writing Workshop
Copy, Paste and send answers to:
meweiser@hotmail.com

1. Are you: Male___ Female___

2. About how many workshops have you taken: _________At current university

_________At other graduate schools ________As an undergraduate

_________In formal but non-school settings

3. Thinking back ONLY over your Current University workshop experience, please mark how often you feel your opinions on others' work are adequately heard/addressed in workshops.

Rarely sometimes often almost always

4. Thinking back over any previous (non-current university) workshop experiences, please mark how often you felt your opinions on others' work were adequately heard/addressed.

Rarely sometimes often almost always

Not applicable____

5. Thinking back ONLY over your current university workshop experience, please mark how often you have felt your stories/chapters got a "bad read" (was substantially misinterpreted) from peers because of gender issues.
never on 1-2 pieces on half my work almost always

Have you ever received a "bad read" from a workshop leader because of gender issues? ____Never ____Sometimes ____frequently

6. Thinking back over your previous (non-current university) workshop experience (if applicable), please mark how often you felt your stories/chapters got a "bad read" from peers because of gender issues.

never on 1-2 pieces on half my work almost always

Did you ever receive a "bad read" from a workshop leader because of gender issues? ____Never ____Sometimes ____frequently

Appendix A

7. Have you ever decided not to workshop a story/chapter because of the gender composition of your workshop group?

No____ Yes____ (At the graduate level? No____ Yes____)

If yes, did the gender of the professor/workshop leader matter?

No____ Yes____ The determining factor____

8. Consider your body of work here at our university. Of the stories you have most seriously worked on, how many have protagonists of the opposite gender?

_____ of _____ total stories (please approximate if necessary)

_____ of _____ novel(s)

9. Is there anything else you would like to add? Please feel free to tell us.


Elizabeth Weiser is a
Fulbright Fellow at
Haceteppe Universitesi, Ankara, Turkey
meweiser@hotmail.com

| Home | Fiction | Listserv | Creative Archives | Scholarly Archives |
| Book Review Archives | Critical Essays | Contribute | Search the Site |

Contact Us