how a woman can write to change the world



Powerlessness and silence go together.” — Margaret Atwood

“Your silence will not protect you.” — Audre Lorde


So Vogue magazine got all literary and did an Edith Wharton spread to commemorate the grande dame’s 150th birthday. But there’s a problem. We see Edith and her friends kicking it at The Mount, Edith’s country home. Living male writers depict deceased male writers:

“There is Jeffrey Eugenides in a bowler hat doing his best Henry James. There is a bow-tied Junot Diaz as Wharton’s (unrequited) love interest, diplomat Walter Berry. There is Jonathan Safran Foer, hair severely parted down the middle, posing as Wharton’s collaborator, the architect Ogden Codman, Jr.”

And the woman depicting Edith Wharton herself?

30-year-old Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova.

As I would tweet on Twitter: *Headdesk*.

Apparently Vogue decided not to include any female writers in a feature about — brace yourself — a female writer.

On the one hand, this seems stupid.

On the other, perhaps it’s sadly and weirdly appropriate. Not because Edith’s time lacked for accomplished women writers or because said writers resembled Russian supermodels (don’t we all?)….but because as women we seem to have this habit of modestly removing ourselves from the spotlight and giving it up to the menfolk.

It’s entirely possible that Vogue approached some female writer, somewhere, and she said in response, Oh no, your pages are too glossy for me, why don’t you let Jeffrey do his Henry James impression, it’s a kick, you’ll never look at PORTRAIT OF A LADY the same way again!

(Not that I think this happened. I don’t. This is an awkward attempt to segue.)

After all, TEDXWomen came into being (or so an organizer told me) because women kept turning down invitations to speak at the regular TED, politely demurring to their “more qualified” male colleagues. The organizers figured that an all-female TED conference would force the women not to do this.

“We silence ourselves,” said Katherine Lanpher at a seminar I went to last Saturday called WRITE TO CHANGE THE WORLD. It’s part of THE OP-ED PROJECT, dedicated to training female and minority voices – getting them into the op-ed pages, into key community forums, into the world.

As the Project points out

“Who narrates the world?….Most of the voices and ideas that we hear in the world come from an extremely narrow echo chamber – mostly western, white, privileged, and overwhelmingly male.”

A big part of this is because women don’t participate in these conversations with anywhere near the same frequency that men do.

“At the Washington Post, for example, a five-month tracking found that roughly 90% of op-ed submissions come from men – and about 88% of Post bylines are male. If you think about it, women are actually being fairly represented, in relationship to our participation/submission radio.”

This is a problem, because:

• it suggests that women aren’t leaders or thought leaders

• who tells the story – who narrates the world — writes history

• a public conversation that excludes half the population robs us of the full-bodied perspective we need in order to make the best decisions

And because as Margaret Atwood put it:

“A word after a word after a word is power.”


When I was growing up, my father was always telling me not to interrupt people. I was never a rude kid — I was Canadian — but I could get fired up over ideas. I would get so passionate that my father would interrupt me interrupting someone else in order to tell me, loudly and firmly, not to do that.

As I got older, I noticed something. There were certain, male-dominated situations – be it a dinner party involving my ex and his friends, or a discussion about zombie literature at which I was the only female panelist – where I discovered that asserting myself felt dangerously close to interrupting. But if I didn’t do it – if I didn’t jump into the fray and compete for my share of attention — then I didn’t get to speak and be heard. Period.

After being trained all through my childhood and adolescence not to interrupt, I had to teach myself how to do exactly that – or at least, how to interrupt the men who were interrupting me — hopefully in a way that wasn’t completely obnoxious.

This involved climbing out of what I’ve come to think of as ‘the good girl box’.

Good girls don’t put themselves out there, throw down the conversational gauntlet, express intense and passionate opinions (at least not without apologizing profusely). After all, we might come off as too loud, too obnoxious. We might offend people. Take up too much space. Attract too much attention.

(A good girl is never too much of anything. She’s perfect. She’s always just right.)

When we speak up, we are rebelling against the conventional idea of what it is to be feminine (which demands we be quiet). We make ourselves vulnerable. We open ourselves up to criticism and attack.

I’m reading shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown’s new book, and she has some interesting observations about what she experienced when her TEDXHouston talk went viral. She dared to put herself out there in order to connect with the audience and drive home her argument. As she watched the video of that talk race across the world, she admits to feeling “exposed” and wanting to hide.

She writes:

“That was when I realized that I had unconsciously worked throughout my career to keep my work small.”

(It’s safer in the shadows. It’s safer to be small.)

Online, people made mean-spirited comments about her weight (“How can she talk about worthiness when she clearly needs to lose fifteen pounds?”) and her mothering (“I feel sorry for her children”) and her face (“Less research. More Botox.”).

Brown urges us to

“Think about how and what they chose to attack. They went after my appearance and my mothering – two kill shots taken straight from the list of feminine norms. They didn’t go after my intellect or arguments. That wouldn’t hurt enough.”


This isn’t to say that men don’t get attacked when they put themselves out there, when they open up some vulnerability of their own. When I suggested that the reticence to speak up “was a woman thing”, Katherine Lanpher was quick to correct me: “It’s also a cultural thing,” she said, referring to men of certain minority groups who also happen to be underrepresented in the forums of public opinion.

At the same time, I can’t help remembering something that acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith said during a talk at UCLA. She found it a lot easier, she told us, to get under the skin of a character from a different race or culture than one from the opposite sex. She considered the male and female viewpoints to have some fundamental differences between them, and as a fiction writer she did her best to honor this when writing the perspectives of her male characters.

But when men narrate the so-called real world – or roughly 87% of it – that means there’s a depth and breadth of female perspective that is not being honored, whether it’s in the op-ed section of your local paper or the halls of Congress.

So we need to speak up and speak out. Get our voices out there. Put our stamp on the corporate world, on public policy, on culture. Help each other navigate the attempts to shame us whenever we step away from the good girl box, whenever we put ourselves in front of the camera not because of how we look but what we’ve got to say.

It’s time to write ourselves all through the story of this world — so we can change it.

Sep 19, 2012

18 comments · Add Yours

“This isn’t to say that men don’t get attacked when they put themselves out there, when they open up some vulnerability of their own.”<–Yes. While I desperately wish, like you, that we had more female voices, I also believe that there are many groups that go underrepresented in the important conversations of our day. I'm a white male, but I am also the product of donor insemination (DI). As a DI kid, my perspective is often ignored or childishly made fun of in favor of parental concerns and desires. (I don't agree with the popular premise that I should just shut up and be grateful for being alive, ignoring all of the very real emotional and medical issues that can crop up as a product of DI.)


I can’t BELIEVE how readily I learnt those “shut up” lessons – without ever having one audible lesson given to me. I have a lot of opinions, but I also still feel shame when I give those opinions seeing I know how quickly women get chopped down for giving them.

And oh, while we’re here, I’m really fucking sick of not being able to give my opinion in the version that I wish to give it in. I don’t want to speak in rich parasitical Western speak, but I still haven’t quite learnt how to speak my native language. .


Justine I don’t know why this makes me so emotional, but it does. When I was growing up I always chose to sit back and listen, in part to understand both sides and to decide what my thoughts were before I spoke (this makes me powerful now in my career). The need to have a well formed thought, opinion or belief. But somewhere along the journey I started to notice I very rarely got the opportunity to speak because by the time I had something to say, we had moved onto something else.

Getting bold and choosing my career forced me to need to get out there and share, self promote and not wait so long. This quote is absolutely true (It’s safer in the shadows. It’s safer to be small). Working everyday on crawling out of the shadows and not being so self critical. Learning to write/blog better, share on video and social media because here is this realm and in this time people are actually listening. Great yes, but scary as well.


As a man I often feel like I’m interrupting too, so I could relate to that haha But that’s me, and for other reasons that being the only woman in the room and what that feels like, being I’ll never know.

Very interesting I love reading a woman’s perspective on these subjects. Thought provoking.


Ahhh, I so needed to read this.

As a kid, I was painfully shy and never, ever spoke up or interrupted. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to use my voice to say things that I think are important. I’ve become a lot more exuberant and dammit, I’m chatty. I am an extrovert and I like to talk with people and laugh a lot.

But recently I was in a social situation where I was laughing and joking and an older, much quieter, woman snidely commented to my boyfriend (who is a writer) how could he ever get any work done when I’m home because I’m just so loud?

She certainly said it loud enough for me to hear it. And maybe she’s just a snarky woman, but it makes me wonder about the social conditioning behind the comment and other snide things she’s said since.


Your post stuck in my head – and I finally made the connection I was looking for: male gatekeepers in traditional fiction publishing.

My case: what are the largest publishing phenomena of the past year or so? Answer: independently published women who wrote Twilight, The Hunger Games, and the Fifty Shades of Gray volumes. Is it coincidence that Darcie Chan has sold so many copies of The Mill River Recluse?

Without self-publishing, would these books have been published at all? I don’t know if the reason for the success now of these books is the removal of males in the author/agent/editor/publisher/distribution/reader chain, but self-publishing removed even the possibility of male gatekeepers anywhere in the line between author and readers.

Romances are huge sellers – I wouldn’t be surprised to find the editorial reaches of the traditional romance publishers like Harlequin populated mostly by women.

Impossible to determine, but it is intriguing because not that long ago, women read far more hardcovers than men, and the preference was for male authors: men sold as well to women as to men, or better, but women didn’t sell nearly as often to men.

My sense of reading about writing and publishing is that women have benefited from the changes in the system – and readers are voting with their purchases.

Add JK Rowling, for her effect on numbers and young readers though she wasn’t self-pubbed, and the impact of women writers is huge.

I expect to see women ‘speak’ through this channel – one they are not blocked by custom or popular culture from using to express their opinions about love, life, children, disability, work, war… Including myself.


As you so aptly put it, how can Vogue not feature a female writer in this issue about a female writer? Mother Mary. I’m shocked…but not into silence. I’ll share your post in my e-newsletter. :)


Right now we are in a space of ERA put in Capitol 1923 via much humiliation, torture of the suffrage movement has never been past, ratified etc. This is obviously on purpose as Rush Limbaugh stated ” It all Went Down Hill When Woman Got Right to Vote”. The need to muzzle the female is a unconscious behavior but leads our world in every area. We have to fix this. Bring awareness to the source causing this.

For instance I know a man who is my biggest Fan for my viewpoints and understanding of what is happening etc. But when I suggest something to him to do with his life he repels !! It is instinct. I am my own man etc.. This gives me the insight why we woman are not equal yet… Male reaction is instinct and they need to be guided into a deeper understanding of themselves as WHOLE People.

Sandra Fluke can stand with President of USA and even be featured speaker at DNC but majority are Not listening to her words. They heard Rush Limbaugh call her a slut.. They are blocking out her words as Sandra does not appear to do anything but be a Feminist do Gooder speaking out about freedom of reproduction.

Now those that actually read and think know all the excellent things Sandra has devoted herself to , to help those who cannot. She is a Saint not a Slut. The problem is majority of population does NOT Read nor Think Thanks to the ME-D-I AM running life today.

This is WHY Vogue would do a ” Imaging ” spread of illusion delusion not the reality of this woman being a strong female writer ( too boring does not sell the FANTASY people who buy Vogue are wanting ) . laid it out clearly what we ladies have to be ” Heard”
Take Action ! Talking , interrupting etc Yes we have to do that with very gentle loving voices but more so what is going to make people realize and Know who Sandra Fluke really is and who we females really are in our individual lives is by taking ” ACTION”.

Let Our Behaviors Speak as they are much Louder then Words can ever be !!

1.Be a consumer who controls life via your economic power.. So much sold in even health stores is benefiting corporations who seek to own us.
2.Political Power support the WomanWomen Get Out The Vote Breakthrough the Glass Ceiling pins
3. Create law suits to justify and educate on truth and human rights.
( this is what I am doing as the domestic predator action of my male siblings is against law and so many woman are getting short end of stick as their parents die with inheritance matters etc. Most just go off and forget it as too painful… I am fighting back in a Public Way )
4. Cultural Power ~ What defines us ~ what can identify with ? In this video Darcy asked how many had abortions… It is meant to shock but also to wake up a Nation of how life is really lived !! Plan Parenthood is now getting very political involved in this War on Woman by Govt.
5. Moral Power ~ The suffrage movement is still very much in action we woman have zero voice according to this chart.
6. Network ~ Which of course is what all this social media is about. Now we have to embed more deeply to amplify message
Darcy is speaking all this in more detail in video

Women Get Out The Vote Breakthrough the Glass Ceiling pins


Well said. I am standing up and applauding. Too right. I totally agree. I apologise all the time for being, let alone doing or saying anything. How did it happen that we as women feel like we should step to one side to allow the men in ours lives to take centre stage, and barely blink at it or think about what it is we are doing. Thank you for pointing this out.


I just went to the slate article to see what the Vogue spread was about.
The funny thing is when photographer Annie Leibovitz started doing artistic spreads like this ( 10 15 yrs ago ? ) for Vogue it was such a huge break through for the Artistically inclined… and for Vogue to move away from being ” Just Dresses”.

Granted when Annie first did this type of fantasy imaging thrown to the past it was for a movie or for the best actresses etc… Glad U Younger Woman are taking Vogue and Annie to task for NOT understanding that writing literature is Not the Movies !!

Kate Bolick who wrote slate article said ;
“I called Vogue to find out, but sadly didn’t get far. Grace Coddington was unavailable. Annie Leibovitz’s office declined an interview. I shook my social media trees to see what the boys had to say, but Eugenides begged general interview fatigue, and as of deadline I still hadn’t heard back from Diaz or Foer. So here, at least, a woman gets the last word, in the form of an email from novelist Katharine Weber: “It’s just sad that Wharton’s legacy is so casually appropriated and misunderstood at the same time.”

I have been so impressed with the younger woman today ( I am young 60 yrs) as You all have Spunk ! I educated myself and have always been independent as I had no one to lean on. I had to figure it out for my self. Since 1970 most females have been educated in college and take that learning seriously to think for selves !!

That for sure U all need to take Annie Leibovitz and Vogue to task in public way to say to Vogue stop being so shallow… If you are a female magazine Stand Up for Females depth, intelligence not selling goods just to make females more neurotic insecure ! It is a learning curve for everyone as we leave the top down male authority power and control world behind and engage with the reality ” Emergence” runs show now and the Female Nurturing Life giver of Intelligence is ” Emerging” Big Time to save the world !!


I 4 sure do not want to hog this thread but I now understand why my good friend Ralf twitted it to me and he most likely got it from John Hagel… Who is now on board of my most favorite school Santa Fe Institute !

We are all in Elon’s World, Draper Fisher Jurvetson world of science tech etc.. Singularity NBIC Nano Bio ( Genome) Information Tech ( AI ) and Cognitive Neurology. I have been at this for 20 rs always bringing in the female thinking to table !! Which is really the dignitygracewithbeauty of life. The Art the culture, appreciation for what makes it all tick via Nature and the Universe etc .

I like U Justine paid my dues just in different way… How proud Your boys will be when then comprehend why You had to curve out your identity not be the ” trophy” wife. CA illusion delusion with $$ is fleeting as it is anywhere. It is the substance of integrity with oneself that really wins. Or as i have been putting it lately ” Hero’s Journey to Commitment” This is the dialogue we have to have. Not what is it ” You do” or how much or little $$ U have.. What has to ” define” us as Humans is ” Our Purpose”.

In light that this thread is about expressing yourself via writing which is vip people learn to read again I will share with you what I just wrote the Obama for America people who have the ” Woman for Obama” as each person has to take the other to task for not being in their Truth. For Not being authentic. Woman for Obama is done via Males ideas, eyes etc… It does NOT reflect the female at all. So in essence Obama’s campaign is using ” Woman ” as stooges to say ” I am Great”. Similar to the Trophy Wife very outdated and unrealized world of the past . STOP and grow up.

I am in the progressive science field. You are not doing yourselves any favors by saying you are Grassroots and then being run by the very outdated old fashion top< down management style.

A) this keeps u stuck looking sounding like republicans.. No difference.
B) there is not authentication only con and manipulation with all your imaging.

We are Not living in 1950's anymore. This is the message that has to be driven home to separate u from the past. Romney lives in 1912 not 2012 but Obama Biden while they talk progressive the imaging is Old Man Past Daddy world of 1950. Why ?

Personally I offended by your Woman for Obama. It is done by Men not woman. From T shirts to imaging it is the top down way old fashion " dogma" of woman are the little woman not the reality today we are peers. We are equal. We are NOT going to be little solider Mini Men or adoring blank wives… We are very independent moms, wives, lovers with highly developed lives and reality of our own. You get more votes by becoming realistic of living in 2012 not 1950 as your lost soul approach is appearing.

You want Grassroots then be Grassroots… So much that can be done in this area of using BRAINS to Think and create consensus rather then just calling people on phone and fighting the republicans… or getting celebrities to endorse…

You are Not acknowledging the human intelligence that exist today at all. You are down dumbing us just like the republicans do… I am available to show you how to really NETWORK and build a huge campaign without the noise of words !! Many perfect storms available especially in female area to bring out voters u ignore.

Here is just one !!! Let Woman be Woman !!! WE Will be UR greatest Fans. But now for Woman for Obama is a Joke and turn off… Thank you, Cassandra Rose

If you want to use this FEMALE Design i posting here , we can put the Obama Biden Logo where the O is !!
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I hadn’t seen Brene Brown’s TED talk. I found it (and your post) absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing.


Thank you for these thoughts and encouragement. Everyone has a voice, a powerful voice that is a tool to make a difference.


In relation to media items on women writers, I noticed a long way back that the focus is nearly always on the lives of women writers, not on their writings. Reams about their relationships, appearance, neuroses, home and garden – anything except what they wrote.

It drives me nuts.


So that is why my recent need to speak up about my own personal position in the world a childless woman has not only scared me to death but felt so liberating. Life as a lady is about appearances, or so we’ve been groomed to believe. To hell with the hiding or the ‘interrupting’ – get this message out. Our gender need to quit with following the rules of keeping silent, and encouraging each other to have a voice. But speaking up and stepping forward are not going to cut it, unless we (women) are prepared to listen and accept our sister’s voices… otherwise, we’re validating that unrealistic 87% view of the ‘real world’.


Yes! I’ve had two draft posts in my Simplenote file for about four months now, one about writing as activism and another about the ‘Good Girl’ archetype and what it keeps us from doing and saying. Here you’ve woven both ideas together really powerfully – and nudged me to get those other posts out of draft and into the world, even if it means interrupting someone ;-)

Thank you!


You are absolutely correct in all of your observations.
As a 57 year old woman raised by academics, I can say I was also raised to be smart and quiet. In fact I became a librarian for decades…talk about quiet!
Now I have discovered the power of presenting my own opinions online and I LOVE IT! It is true: Freedom of the Press is only available to those who own one, and now, I DO! Keep interrupting and I will too!
You might enjoy my writing blog:


I wonder if we become bloggers because of some unconscious need to address this issue.

Great post, thanks again.


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