Where Are All the Memoirs About Women and Work?
Memoirs by women tend to focus on either family life or trauma. We need more voices on the subject of career.
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It’s not as if women don’t have important things to say about work. Behind the scenes, we often trade knowledge and experiences, background about how things are run and what can be expected of a job. We dole out advice; we support one another and reinforce the fact that no matter how dead-end a job or condescending a boss, there is a way to deal. We do this for one another, and ask for this help from others, because there are silent but pressing hazards to being a woman and having a job, pursuing an education, entering a field of study. And not just the hazards of being underrepresented or not taken seriously — although those too. Many of the experiences brought to light via #metoo focused on the workplace — Matt Lauer’s creepy under-desk office door lock button, and horrifying accounts of sexual harassment at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, for example. Women share information about work as a survival mechanism.
And yet, very few of the work memoirs published each year are written by women. This wealth of information that we share with each other isn’t making it into printed form. Presumably, either the potential publishers or the potential writers don’t think there’s a market.
Women share information about work as a survival mechanism. And yet, very few of the work memoirs published each year are written by women.
We need more of these books. I didn’t know just how badly until I published my own, and started looking at the field more closely.
Earlier this year, upon the publication of my debut memoir, Electric Literature asked me to put together a list of memoirs by women with unconventional jobs. Seeking to describe a well-rounded picture of the variety of women’s experiences with paid work, I looked to add to a short list of titles I’d assembled from memory. But when I searched online, I found few new options. There was an astonishing lack of published memoirs by women, either cis or trans, about work, career, and education. A large majority of published memoirs by women fit into two topic areas: marriage and divorce, family, fertility and mothering; and physical or mental illness and substance abuse. When I narrowed my search to memoirs about work by women of color, the results were almost nil. Of the few exceptions, most featured celebrity authors.
Digging deeper, I assembled a snapshot of the current state of this corner of publishing, and found that among the 58 memoirs by women published from April to October 2018, significantly less than a quarter focused on work and career, and of those, only three were by women of color. (For the sake of clarity, I restricted the search to books published for the first time, in hardcover. I excluded self-published books, because I wanted to study what’s being published by traditional houses — i.e., the gatekeepers of the industry.)
Why does the publishing industry restrict women’s memoir mostly to matters of our bodies and family relationships? Perhaps editors are still inadvertently assuming that Americans are more likely to accept stories of women’s life experiences that directly or indirectly confirm traditional beliefs: that readers primarily want stories of women as mothers, wives, and caretakers; and also that our tricky lady constitutions make us susceptible to physical and mental illness. Also, we’re in a period of time in which financial pressures are causing large publishers to play it safe, and that usually means middle-of-the-road publishing decisions. They’re cleaning their lists of “underperforming” authors. The midlist is being whittled down. Celebrity memoirs and advice — as safe as it gets in publishing — end up in the lead title slots season after season.
So what does our culture miss out on when women’s work memoirs are underrepresented?
We forgo freeform, spacious explorations of what it looks like for women to face the external gender-based challenges of work — unequal pay and recognition; work/life balance; frequent references to our appearance or sexuality in the workplace; the persistent view (in some circles) that women should primarily serve as mothers, wives, and caretakers, and only secondarily in paid work roles. We miss out on the chance to see women making good, falling short, and finding paths toward fulfillment that do not center solely on marriage and motherhood. We also fail to benefit from reading about the inner lives of women who work: fear of failure (and of success); self-sabotage; and the careerwoman’s most dogged pursuer, imposter syndrome. Just as importantly, we miss out on witnessing and having models for the positive aspects of work:the joy of finding a calling and of learning about a new field, and then resoundingly kicking ass at it. Of boldly speaking up about better ways to work, and seeing those improvements put into practice. We miss out on seeing other women have the thrill of surprising themselves at how much they are able to accomplish, learn, make real, despite what they may have been told about their capabilities.
We miss out on the chance to see women making good, falling short, and finding paths toward fulfillment that do not center solely on marriage and motherhood.
Most crucially, we miss out on the opportunity to show the world that a successful woman is not an aberration. Determination and hustle is not limited to a few of us, but it does come in many styles, all of which should be given space.
I want to see, for instance, a trans woman’s memoir of navigating career advancement and transition at the same time. I want to read about a black woman running for political office, and a young Latina seeking a foothold in a STEM field. What does it take for a woman in a male-dominated field to operate within a system that wasn’t set up for her? For a woman to get out of bed every day, navigate a provocative world, and do something that might get her slightly closer to living the dream, or just paying the rent? These are narratives as dramatic and valuable as any being published today.
It may be a tough time to take chances, but when a woman’s memoir does well, it can easily blow up. Memoirs by women are surfing a wave of popularity; just within the timeframe I looked at above, we saw the publication of Educated by Tara Westover, a #1 New York Times bestseller and a frequent “Best of 2018” pick; Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs; Old in Art School by the luminous Nell Irvin Painter; Leslie Jamison’s powerful The Recovering; and Well, That Escalated Quickly by the brilliant cultural critic Franchesca Ramsey. Readers love these books and have bought them in large numbers. Critics and reviewers adored each one. They’ve kicked off countless debates. They’ve influenced the discourse in small and large ways.
Within our culture’s reignited interest in the form, I believe we should be coaxing out more publishing opportunities for women to write about the full expanse of life: the private struggles and joys in family and love and health, but also more public aspects like work, activism, and scholarship. Let’s do both. Let’s do all. It’s a subtle yet intentional change, a slight tilt of the field toward incorporating women’s memoirs that focus on all sorts of work, and all of the hats (and masks) we wear as part of our work lives. The titles I mentioned just above are a wonderfully varied list; wouldn’t it be lovely to see that ratio of work + activism + family + education + personal health become the norm, instead of weighting it so profoundly toward stories of our physical bodies or family lives?
We should be coaxing out more opportunities for women to write about the full expanse of life: the private struggles and joys in family and love and health, but also more public aspects like work, activism, and scholarship.
Classic literary tropes surrounding women’s lives continue to circulate, and since the U.S. publishing industry is (per The Guardian) “blindingly white and female, with 79% of staff white and 78% women,” we can’t blame the patriarchy for that fact. But this is an opportunity: in a majority-woman industry, women can affect change. We can counteract this subtle cultural inertia around the roles we expect women to inhabit.
Women writers, especially women of color and trans women: if you have had an awful, wonderful or unexpected work life, if you work for social justice, if opportunities have been plentiful, sketchy or entirely absent for you: write it! There’s a big open space that you can aim to fill. Write it for other women: write to inspire, to commiserate, to make women laugh and yelp with recognition. Consider this your invitation.
And publishers (full disclosure: I work for one!): let’s ease the limitations we’ve placed on women memoirists. Let’s stretch to cover new thematic possibilities, and to consider women’s examinations of their work and public lives as a vast, unexplored opportunity. Let’s seek this work, in particular, from trans women and women of color. In this age of new attempts at repression, when it feels like the very largest powers are conspiring to invalidate women’s depictions of our own life experiences, let’s move to shout them out ever more loudly.