Scent of a woman's ISBN number?


Frans van Mieris, "A Woman Writing a Letter" (1680)

Mama Ph.D. has a suggestive post today about book reviews and the sex of the authors whose books are under review:

One of my clients has written a book that is about to be published. It is an excellent book — beautifully written, with intertwined themes that reverberate long after the narrative ends. The book was recently reviewed in a distinguished publication with an online presence, and my client sent me a link to the review. It was outstandingly positive, the sort of review that makes you want to run out and buy the book, and I congratulated her heartily.

“I don’t want to seem ungrateful,” she responded, “but look at this.” She showed me another review from the same publication, of a male colleague’s book. While my client’s book had been described enthusiastically as an engaging, fast-moving read (which it is), her colleague’s was discussed in respectful terms, lauded for its profundity and depth — descriptors which also apply to my client’s book.

“It’s because he’s male,” she said. And a perusal of other positive reviews seemed to support that.

I haven’t read all of those other books, of course, but unless women are writing only fun fluff and men are writing only deeply profound and important works, something is fishy here — possibly the same phenomenon MJ Rose points to in her continuing tally of male vs. female representation in Oprah’s Book Club (current tally: of the 19 book club titles Oprah has chosen since 2003, 17 are by men).

Does this sound familiar to any of you?  I have to admit that I don’t read that many book reviews–and that when I do, I tend to scour them for information as to whether or not I can use the book in a course or in my research, and so don’t pay attention to a lot of the nuances (such as, for example, the sex of the author!) 

I think it’s plausible, because in my brief years post-tenure, I’ve noticed a clearly gendered difference when outside reviewers are reviewing records of publications for tenure and promotion candidates.  And, guess what?  It’s women candidates whose records are viewed with more skepticism and doubt than the men’s records, and I should note for the record, both women and men outside reviewers are guilty of this.  (The difference is not the sex of the reviewer, it’s the sex of the tenure candidate.)  Outside reviewers for tenure candidates more often than not heap lavish, even extravagant praise on men’s scholarly record and achievements, they frequently feel a compunction to pick nits or quarrel with women’s articles and books, even if in the main they find them well-researched and worthy contributions to the scholarship.  It’s as if acknowledging that a woman candidate is an expert in her own field somehow has to be qualified or challenged by the reviewer who is making that claim–as though female expertise must necessarily be qualified or hedged. 

To be sure, I’ve read nasty and dismissive letters from outside reviewers–more for women’s scholarship than for men’s, natch, but I’m talking here about letters that offer largely if not overwhelmingly positive evaluations of candidates for tenure and promotion.  This probably won’t be surprising to anyone who has seen the differences between student evaluations of women versus men faculty–but I’m curious to hear about your experiences, from those of you who are in a position to have read several years’ worth of this peculiar genre of academic writing, and from those of you who read more book reviews.  Are women’s books (and other academic writing) subject to more scrutiny or different sorts of praise and criticism than books written by men?

(This piqued my interest today perhaps because in my women’s history class, we’re talking about enslaved women and the problems of finding enough evidence to write about their lives before 1800, and some of our readings discussed Sally Hemings.  I recall nearly twenty years ago in graduate school hearing a professor dismiss the very idea that Thomas Jefferson might have had a sexual relationship with Hemings, and state that the evidence for this was the figment of the imagination of a “Harlequin Romance”-like biographer who went by the very Harlequin romantic name of “Fawn Brodie.”  Imagine my surprise a few years later, when I looked up her bibliography and discovered that Fawn McKay Brodie (1915-1981) was in fact a very hard-nosed military historian and (along with her husband) and expert in American foreign policy as well as a highly successful biographer of famous men like Joseph Smith, Sir Richard Burton, Richard Nixon, and Thaddeus Stevens, and one of the first women tenured in the UCLA History department!  Funny how my professor left all that out when he trashed her and her book in a graduate class.)

NOTE:  The title of this post is an homage to Francine Prose’s excellent 1998 article in Harper’s on the differences in the ways that male and female authors are read and reviewed, where they’re published, the number of awards and honors they win, and whether or not they’re slotted as “genre fiction” authors.  We discussed this here in a post last spring, “And speaking of sausage parties…”

0 thoughts on “Scent of a woman's ISBN number?

  1. My response is not about the tone of reviews as possibly mediated by gender. But, the issue of the numbers of female and male reviewers is also quite problematic. See, for instance, the short essay in the Women’s Review of Books, Nov. 2004, “The Times is not a-changin'” by Paula Caplan and Mary Ann Palko about the NY Times Book Review (available here

    I did a little investigation back in 2004, and found that women were woefully under-represented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (which then had a separate book review once a week). Here is the letter I originally sent to the Los Angeles Times Book Review editor in February 2004; no response ever received. With no stand alone Book Review, it is more difficult to judge if anything has changed in the past five years.

    Dear Book Review editor,
    A few months ago I started noticing that the front cover rarely listed any women reviewers, which obviously reflected the rate of inclusion of female reviewers in the Review more generally. I began saving the covers and
    keeping a count, hoping my anecdotal observation would not be confirmed. I now have 11 covers, and results are extremely disappointing. I have most weeks from October 26 through February 8. Overall the covers I have name
    78 male book reviewers, and 9 female. This dismal count of women is even worse that it appears, because Susan Sontag (10/26) and Anchee Min (12/14) did not review books, but instead were represented by essays related to
    literary topics. In addition, Susan Reynolds was listed on the cover on 12/21, although of course she contributes a column every single week, but is almost never listed on the cover. Subtracting those 3 leaves only 6 reviews by women to men’s 78. I did not include the special December 28 issue on neglected writers because it was exceptional in both content and the number of women participants (16 men and 7 women).

    I hoped that the situation was improving when I saw 3 women on the February 1 cover, but this past weekend (2/8) was back to normal, with 5 men and 0 women. Counting and measuring do not always indicate equality
    and may suggest a competition between men and women, which is not my goal. But I believe the numbers do demonstrate a painful reality for women who wish to contribute to literary discussions in Los Angeles, a reality which I hope the Editor will make an effort to change.

    Kathleen Sheldon


  2. I don’t have a point to make in response (other than that this sounds all too believable), but the image you chose is a nice touch. The man in the shadows is looking on with skepticism — there may be some fault in her calligraphy, or a lack of classical allusions in her prose.


  3. Thanks Vance–you’ve thought more about it than I have, but I think you’re right on! (I just googled “woman writing” and this was one of the first images to appear.) The guy in the shadows looks rather scornful, doesn’t he? And that just might go to show you how common it is for women’s writing to be held up to more scrutiny than men’s writing.

    Kathie–good letter! Too bad they didn’t print it. Thanks for the link, too–I’ll check that out. I didn’t mean to suggest that the sex of reviewers wasn’t important–just that women reviewers didn’t seem to be any less prone to judge women scholars more harshly on balance than men scholars. I think the numbers of women working in literary sections of newspapers/magazines or in literary fiction venues is critically important. But as you suggest, the numbers for the past few decades don’t look good to begin with, and more disturbingly, they appear to be getting worse in a lot of places.


  4. I don’t even know any books written by women in my area of specialization (in the physical sciences) and just one co-authored on a closely related topic. Scanning the broader collection of books on the shelves in my office, I see no women’s names on the spines, though a few contain significant contributions from women who are credited within.


  5. intertwined themes that reverberate long after the narrative ends

    Can one of you humanists please explain to this philistine physiologist what that means?

    In relation to your query, Historiann, while I never read book reviews, I have read fucktons of letters of reference for male and female job and promotion/tenure candidates in the biosciences. There is no doubt that the skew in the terms of the narrative for men versus women candidates that you are talking about occurs in the biosciences.


  6. CPP–I think what the blogger meant to say is that the book’s ideas have many fascinating implications that continue to intrigue and challenge the reader after ze puts the book down. (Kind of how I feel after finishing another Encyclopedia Brown, or something like that, I guess.)


  7. I’ve definitely noticed this in book reviews in the mainstream press (newspapers, literary magazines etc.). Reviews of women’s books seem to focus more on how the book makes you ‘feel’ (and how well the author manages to evoke said feelings), whereas books by men often seem to be reviewed on a more critical, intellectual level and are also considered in their broader social and cultural context. I seem to recall one of your posts recently (maybe on the feminist author who wrote about the problems of educated women ‘opting out’) pointed out the NY Times’ generally hostile attitude to serious books by female authors.

    Kathie – you make an excellent point about the dearth of female reviewers.

    It would be a very interesting exercise to see if/how the tenure reviews you discuss changed if the name & sex of the candidate weren’t provided, and reviewers were only given the record of their qualifications/achievements.


  8. Bavardess: that blind review of scholarship would be great, but it’s impossible, since departments need to ascertain that reviewers are 1) close enough to the candidate’s area/s of expertise that they’re qualified to do the review, but 2) not a close friend or mentor of the candidate. At least in the humanities, it’s a very small world, so there aren’t that many people who qualify on both counts.

    Besides–even if the department in question withheld the name of the scholar, knowing the department and university commissioning the review would make it really easy for reviewers to cheat if they were curious as to the identity of the author whose work they’re reviewing.


  9. I wonder this difference has something to do with the topics that women tend to write about ie. more women do women’s history than men, and fewer women do military history than men. Are we still seeing some bias against women’s, gender, and social history?


  10. Can I come at this from a different angle? First, I sure hope that I’ve never done this. I don’t think so.

    A part of the problem, for me, is that the same dyadic construction of rigor versus imagination gets mapped onto interdisciplinary scholarship, which often gets described as soft, theoretical, empathic, and feed-good. Since I am an enthusiast of the latter, I am more likely to emphasize careful scholarship, attention to research, and compelling analysis in that sort of work, regardless of gender, to counter the usual charges, especially in a T & P case.

    In sum, I’ve reviewed eight T & P cases in two years. In every case but one, I’ve asked the chair of the department to reveal my identity if the university has a privacy policy. I generally do the same thing during an anonymous review of a manuscript, though the moment of the reveal is left up to the editor, for instrumental reasons. So I know the story, sort of. And I think, to be totally honest, that women who write interdisciplinary scholarship in the humanities are up against a wall here, and seem especially vicitimized by the anonymous review process for presses and for T & P.

    And god forbid you should be a woman of color, with abundant service commitments.


  11. Regarding blind reviews, I had the bizarre experience recently of receiving gendered comments on an article I sent out. The bizarre part is that one reader assumed I was male, referring to me as “he” throughout the review (and, perhaps not surprisingly, recommending my piece for publication). The other reader avoided gender-specific pronouns but critiqued my argument in clearly (or so it seemed to me) gendered language that suggested the assumption that I was female. According to this reader, though my essay included “many sensitive readings,” the reasoning appeared “unclear” in places, which caused “major doubts” about “the structure of the analysis.” This reader liked the essay enough to recommend revision and resubmission, but I haven’t done so yet becuase I find the comments somewhat contradictory.

    Maybe this just says more about me than about the review process…


  12. Deborah, I think it says something about the review process, some of which is about gender, but some of which is just about the randomness of advice we get from different corners of our profession. The editor of the journal should have provided more direction for you when ze returned the readers’ comments to you.

    Katherine, I think the fact that few men are seriously engaged with women’s/gender/sexuality histories may be part of it, but I’ve seen it done to women who engage in feminist scholarship and those who don’t. I don’t think I’ve seen enough feminist scholars through the process to generalize whether or not women engaged in work on women/gender/sexuality are treated differently from women whose work is not in those areas. I’d be interested to hear what other people have experienced.

    Lance, this really resonates: “A part of the problem, for me, is that the same dyadic construction of rigor versus imagination gets mapped onto interdisciplinary scholarship, which often gets described as soft, theoretical, empathic, and feed-good.” We say we want creative and new ways of thinking, but that’s not always appreciated when it comes to making the mark (getting something published in a peer-reviewed journal, getting tenure, etc.) It feels quite often that it’s the less daring and safer work that gets rewarded.


  13. And, CPP: aren’t you too old to still be drinking the motherfucking Jameson? I’m so old now that a third glass of wine has me waking up at 1:30 a.m., parched and with my eyeballs burning!

    Clearly, I’m too old for the motherfucking Jameson.


  14. In the case of Fawn Brodie, I thought that some of the skepticism came from her use of psychoanalytic ideas and techniques in her biographies. which a lot of scholars do not consider a valid tool. It doesn’t sound like your graduate school professor was basing his objections on a disbelief in psychoanalysis, though!


  15. Now it’s cemented: I am getting a pseudonym, just like Charlotte Bronte did. (Actually, I am seriously considering submitting my work with my feminine first name obscured beneath a gender-less initial. My last rejection was brutal, and very much fell along the “this isn’t SERIOUS enough scholarship and who the hell does this little lady think she IS, anyways” school of criticism.)


  16. The process of stereotyping – whether by gender, race, or any other signifier like disability – is far more deeply embedded neurologically than assumed. We (as a society) can – and have – worked on cognition of difference to train ourselves to be resistant, but I think when a scholar has a pile of papers or tenure files to review in front of them, they fall back on embedded (even rote) phrases and words to match something they superficially recognize and save time. When I say “superficially recognize” I mean they might see the woman’s piece as “well written” and then just ignore the depth because given the normal time constraints, that’s recognized as enough – even if they are impressed by the depth. This kind of stereotyping has been studied closely in the neurosciences – I remember a study of announcers of a football game, being listened to by blind subjects. The blind subjects could correctly guess the race of the players based only the descriptors provided by the commentators (who were both caucasian and african-american). Black players are always “naturally gifted” while white players are always “hard working.” The interesting thing is even though this habit is widely-recognized in sports journalism, practitioners still continue to repeat the basic stereotypes in different formulations.

    Its really problematic. You need to teach people (scholars and journalists) to be counterintuitive, even if that sounds insulting – basically, telling people their intuition is off. Seems like a recipe for conflict – and progress.


  17. Rebel Lettriste: I have occasionally wished I could go back a dozen years and publish under my first and middle initials only! (But, after a few articles and conference papers, people will figure you out and your cover will be blown, whether you use a woman’s name or not for your publications.

    I think the cure for this is greater awareness, rather than trying to obscure or erase all outward signs that women are actually members of the academic community.

    Paul, you’re right that her psychohistory was part of the problem–but then, all of the biographies listed above employed the same methodology, and (to my knowledge, anyway) none of them were held up to ridicule like her bio of TJ. (It was the middle of the 20th Century–lots of people were in analysis and Freudian concepts were a big part of the popular culture, so she wasn’t so far out on a limb.)


  18. And, PorJ: I’m afraid you’re right. But I think we can all take a page out of Vance’s book, when he described his practice as a reviewer of other people’s tenure files: be aware of these embedded narratives, and try to make sure that you’re not feeding them yourselves.

    I have to say that thinking about this over the past day has made me feel like I will refuse to serve as an outside reviewer unless I know the person’s work and believe I can give a solid positive review of it. I don’t want to play any part in seeing someone denied tenure. Is that principled, or totally chicken$hit?


  19. Men and Women are different in their thinking. Thank God. When it comes to romantic novels, my favorites are writen by woman. There are also so many more writen by woman. Men including myself tend to add heavey adventure or mystery to our stories, even when there is passionate romance involved. We seldom write purely romantic novels.


  20. Oh, Historiann, I think this is totally the right way to go. The hardest thing to do is always to let someone’s work exist on its own terms, to take it seriously, and to think constructively about what you can do or say to support their case and to illuminate their record for an internal committee. I would never take a case where I couldn’t do all of this. I assume that by committing myself to serve as an external reader, I am agreeing to work not just for the department or the unit but also for the candidate. Maybe this cuts against official thinking, but the process is just too unfair and uneven otherwise.


  21. Thanks Lance–I just assume that people who apply for tenure probably really want it, and I’m not going to give hir department (or Dean, or Provost) a loaded gun to use against hir. And I don’t want to write a dishonest letter, either.


  22. Just to be clear, HA, it was Lance, not me, who was reviewing tenure cases. (I’m a non-academic kibitzer here.)

    And Angelo, don’t be so sure your favorite romance novels are really by women. I’ve had much better luck submitting mine under female pseudonyms.


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