Poetry Magazines & Women Poets

Article excerpt

Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's "Numbers Trouble" (which appears on page 88 of this issue) counts men and women in various poetry media to determine gender representation in "innovative" poetry communities. Intrigued by their findings, we decided to look at a medium they did not count, periodicals.

Our counting project had two aims: to determine the gender ratios in different types of magazines and to chart the changes in these ratios over time. Accordingly, we looked at the number of men and women in twelve magazines, counting one full year every five years between 1970 and 2005. We examined a range of publications: university-affiliated journals, independent little magazines, and mainstream outlets. With their long runs and contributor rolls, these magazines provide excellent data for charting gender distributions over time. They provide a real-time history of the art: not only by introducing poetry to the public, but by contextualizing, categorizing, and sometimes canonizing it as well. Our results are summarized in the table and graph on pages 227 and 228 and briefly analyzed below.

We are extremely grateful for the help of Rachel Weiner, who did the actual counting for this project.

The first significant feature of our data is an increase in the percentages of women published through the 1970s and 80s--an increase that occurs (with the exception of the New York Review of Books) in all the magazines, independent of size, affiliation, or (presumed) political or poetical orientation. Around 1990, however, these percentages tend to level off around 37%. The real story of our survey, therefore, may not be the gains of the 70s and 80s so much as the fact that gender inequality persists.

Chicago Review, for example, jumps from publishing 11% women in 1980 to 36% in 1990, and remains in the mid-thirties to the present. Paris Review and Poetry display a steadier rise before leveling off in the high thirties around 1990. Meanwhile the mainstream magazines--The New Yorker and The Nation--reach their peak in 1990 and then begin to decline.

The one major outlier in the study is the New York Review of Books, which displays neither the initial increase nor the final plateau of the other magazines. In the eight years we surveyed, the NYRB published poems by women four times. (Patricia Storace appeared twice in 1995; April Bernard and Elizabeth Vreeland appeared in 1985.) A full survey of the NYRB from 1970 to 2005 revealed a similar pattern: men appeared 382 times, women thirty-five times (8% women). (1)

The data do not tell us anything about the causes of these changes, so what follows is speculative. The increase in the number of women published coincides with an increase in general female employment in the same period--an increase usually attributed to the success of second-wave feminism. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women composed 38% of the US workforce in 1970 and 46% in 2005. Likewise the American Medical Association reports that in 1970 8% of physicians were women, a number that increased to 24% by 2000. It seems likely, then, that the increase in our numbers reflects broad social changes, which probably had several local effects within poetry communities: editors became aware of their biases, anti-discriminatory practices gained favor, and, most significantly, women gained access to careers in poetry and publishing.

Assuming that second-wave feminism is the cause of the increase in our numbers, there are at least two plausible explanations for the graphs plateau, a pattern that also occurs in the general workforce data (where the plateau is 46%). First, we can hypothesize that around 1990 external factors interfered with the steady gains of the previous two decades. (One may speculate about the anti-feminist backlash signalled by the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991.) Second, we could attribute the plateau to structures of inequality that survived the interventions of second-wave feminism. …