Why can’t we have an organization of female writers … one that would really be a forum for discussion along any lines of the female writer’s experience? An opportunity for women writers to be exposed to everything (or almost everything) that’s going on in our country with regard to women’s literature?
That’s the notion that led Cate Marvin to start Women in Letters and Literary Arts (WILLA) after The Association of Writer and Writing Programs (AWP) rejected a conference panel she had organized on women’s poetry. Marvin sent out an email last August that went viral, opening the door to a much larger conversation and becoming a call to action.
First a Facebook group formed, then WILLA, cofounded by Marvin and poet Erin Belieu. Now the group has over 3,000 members, a comprehensive website with a core of dedicated writers representing a range of genre, aesthetics and age, and a strong AWP presence.
“This all happened very quickly,” says co-director Belieu. “We had the opportunity and obligation to move from negative reaction to positive construction … the need and the delight that people feel in this idea is a really positive thing.”
And the need is certainly present. In her column “The Count” on the WILLA website, Amy King tallied the gender distribution of major literary awards and “best of” lists in 2009, finding that men out-honored women 592 to 295. As Kamy Wicoff noted on She Writes, Publishers Weekly listed no books by women in their top 10 list of 2009. She asks, “Sixty-five percent of books sold in the U.S. are purchased by women; women wrote 0 percent of the Best Books of 2009. Really?”
WILLA aims to address these disparities by creating a forum for conversation, emphasizing mentorship and building a multi-generational community. Says Belieu,
There hasn’t been what I’m calling an ‘old girls’ network’ in the writing community…for a lot of women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and possibly in their 80s, they have been working alone for a long time and were actively discouraged from being part of the community because the community was almost completely male. We also want to honor and celebrate those women who have made things like WILLA possible.”
While several panels are rejected from academic conferences like AWP every year, it’s not as common that one turns into a movement. This is an example of how blind spots in mainstream organizations can often become the ground for new models of communication and exchange. WILLA plans its own conference in the near future.
Above: Group of women in typing class. Photo public domain, courtesy of the U.S. Federal Government.