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Why the VIDA Count and Contraception Gave Me Nightmares

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I woke up (just moments ago) with the proverbial pounding 3 a.m. heart. I had a nightmare about trying to convince unresponsive authorities about young girls being attacked. The specifics of my nightmare don't matter (is there anything more boring than hearing someone recount their dreams point by point? It happened in my house, but different -- ya know what I mean?).

As I trembled myself calm, the clinging details of the dream troubled me so much I had to take Gaviscom for my nausea as I tried to analyze my terror. Trying to be logical, I analyzed the day, which I'd spent:

1) Writing about the VIDA Count: where they (VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts) examined leading and literary magazines and newspapers for the gender breakdown of writers, reviewers, and books reviewed ...

2) Incorporating recent Republican positions about contraception into my essay about gender inequality in the media and...

3) Thinking about a conversation with someone whose daughter had been exposed to a sexual predator, which engendered revelations about my own childhood experiences with the problem.

How does this all come together? Bear with me for a few paragraphs.

Recently, the noisiest of Republicans seem eager to drive women back to the days before available contraception, control of their bodies, or encouragement of pursuing higher education. As written in the New York Times, the Senate vote on "Republican effort to let employers and health insurance companies deny coverage for contraceptives and other items they object to on religious or moral grounds," was 51-48.

Which means that almost half of the Americans representing us in the United States Senate were willing to give away women's right to have birth control included in their insurance based on 'moral grounds.'

Again, according to the New York Times, "the Virginia Senate adopted a revised bill on Tuesday that still requires doctors to perform an ultrasound on women before they have an abortion, but also says that women cannot be forced to have an invasive vaginal ultrasound."

It took a national uproar to stop Virginia from requiring women to undergo the humiliation of having a large probe put inside their vagina.

And in the 2011 VIDA count everything seems sadly status quo compared to last year's dismal gender breakdown. Examples include:

The New York Review of Books reviewed 17 works by women, 75 by men.

The Atlantic printed 64 articles by women, 184 by men.
The New York Times Book Review reviewed 273 women authors, 520 men.

(All was not news of inequality: Granta was close to parity, with articles by 34 women and 30 men.)

It was sadly interesting to me that the moment I posted the VIDA Count on my Facebook page, a male friend wrote: "The charts are useless without knowing the submissions breakdown. If the ratios between male/female submissions equal that of male/female pubs, then there's no point to be made. If the numbers are wildly different, and skewed to more male subs, then the numbers look good for females. If the sub numbers are skewed toward more female subs, then there's a potential problem."

It was depressing, and similar to reactions from some folks last year: Prove it! Maybe women aren't submitting! Maybe they're only writing stupid things about domestic crap!

In other words, no matter how much solid statistical evidence is presented, there are many who will only believe there is gender (oh, and how much racial and cultural!) bias after we've somehow proven that women and non-white men are out there submitting pieces as excellent and worthy as white men, and submitting them as often.

"Don't more men than women submit? This is what I hear from editors." I've read this opinion-written-as-fact too often, usually presented with a figurative airy wave, as though this knowledge is in the very molecules we breathe. If that is true, why is every writer's group I've ever taught, participated in, or witnessed, so weighted to females? Are all the males at home stuffing envelopes with their work?

Why the need to have this inequity proven beyond the numbers? Do folks think that publishing could be statistically different from the rest of the world?

"... a new White House report shows that on average women still only make about 75% as much as their male counterparts." -CNN March 2011

Roxanne Gay nails the issue in "Bitches Be Tripping:]

Whenever this conversation, this tiresome talk of women and men and fairness and parity, comes up, everyone immediately becomes defensive and morphs into statistical experts, trying to find ways to discredit the numbers or to manifest parity when clearly there is little or none. People belittle the issue, make jokes, dismiss the problem, offer pithy commentary, and otherwise avoid engaging the issue in any sort of meaningful way... This conversation is stalled. We keep trying to find ways to "prove" there is a problem.

There are many reasons why 'The Count' is important -- not the least of which, to me, is how these micro-indignities and inequalities affect a girl's perception of herself, as she becomes a woman, and a boy's perception of women, as he becomes a man.

Equality is healthy for all people -- men and women of all cultures and colors -- but those in power will often fight longest and hardest just as they feel their advantage is slipping from their fingers.

Is this what is happening now?

In Texas there is a law that "[n]ot only must doctors perform vaginal ultrasounds in many cases, but they must face the monitor toward the patient, making it hard for her to look away, and they must describe the image in detail."

A New York Times book reviewer recently called female author Jodi Kantor's book, The Obamas, chick nonfiction. A year ago, the NYT described male author Joseph Ellis's similarly themed book First Family: Abigail and John Adams, a "portrait of the couple with authoritative historical perspective."

In truth, both reviews were positive. Both would encourage readers, but one contains that taint of micro-inequity that serves to stab women's confidence with a thousand paper cuts.

Which brings me back to my 3 a.m. nightmares, where these indignities sometimes land. After writing about the topic so many times, it seeps into one's psyche deeper than you think it might. You worry about your daughters and your sons growing up with swords of inequality still dangling over their heads. You worry that showing women as deserving written knocks makes them easier to harm in every way. You consider that violence against women and devaluing women in the media are remarkably connected:

A WHO multi-country study found that between 15-71% of women reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives.

So, even as you are perhaps tired of repeatedly writing about the same topic, and certain that folks are finding you perhaps tiresome, you listen to Jennifer Weiner, a brave author who's taken more than her share of knocks for keeping on topic, when she writes in the Guardian: "Men and women committed to change are going to have to step up and speak out, (and, of course, risk being called shrill, hysterical, annoying or 'just jealous' of the attention the men receive when we do)."

Thank you, Roxanne.
Thank you, Jennifer.
Thank you, VIDA.

You make the nightmares a little more bearable.