What Makes a Woman Important? Part 1—A Contrarian’s View

March 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Books

Twenty years ago, I was hard at work on a book about two African American sisters who were both more than 100 years old.

The book was Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.  Neither the sisters—Sarah and Elizabeth—nor I had any inkling that this book about their lives would become a New York Times Best Seller—for 113 weeks, no less. (We would have been thrilled by one week). The book was adapted for the Broadway stage two years after it was published, and again for an award-winning television film.

None of this was supposed to happen. And it wouldn’t have, if I had listened to the dire warnings from colleagues in my profession. “No one will buy that book,” I was told, because the sisters “never did anything important.”

Sarah L. Delany (in 1920). Unimportant?

I, of course, disagreed, pointing out that Sarah L. (Sadie) Delany, the “big” sister of the pair, earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1920, followed by a master’s in 1925, both from Columbia University. She  was a groundbreaking teacher in the New York public schools. Her “little” sister, Dr. A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, was a 1923 graduate of Columbia’s School of De  ntal and Oral Surgery. She was the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State. These were astonishing achievements for women of their generation, especially black women.

Besides, it wasn’t just what they did that make their story engaging, it was what they said, and how they said it—insightful comments about how the world had changed (or not) since they were young; unvarnished opinions; and a perspective on a world that was gone. They were the daughters of a man born into slavery. They remembered the beginning of Jim Crow laws in their home state of North Carolina.

I had written a story about the then-unknown sisters for The New York Times, a 1,600-word feature that attracted the attention of a book publisher. Even at The Times there had been a lack of enthusiasm among all but one of my editors when I pitched the story. But nothing prepared me for the deluge of negativity—my husband remembers it as ridicule—while I was working on the book. Friends and acquaintances from many different newspapers and magazines told me I was making the mistake of my career.

“Would you run into this same negativity today?” WVFC’s editors recently asked me. “What achievements or accomplishments DO make a woman important in the eyes of an editor?” To find out, I posed these questions to three experienced women editors, who replied by email. Each, it turned out, has a different perspective, ranging  from that of an editor in the Washington, D.C., area who is discouraged about our progress to the view of one who believes we’ve come a long way to the surprising take of an editor in Massachusetts who has never found dismissal of women’s accomplishments to be an issue.

Rather than edit their thoughtful responses into a single story, it seems appropriate to give each her individual chance to “have her say.” First up, the contrarian.

Lucinda Moore has 30 years’ experience as an editor at Smithsonian magazine, an editorial consultant for the National Geographic Society, and a reporter/researcher at Time-Life Records.  She launched her own business as an editorial consultant in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area this year. And she is not impressed with women’s journey in the last 20 years.

Kim Kardashian. Important?

“Unfortunately,” Moore responded,  “I fear that you would encounter similar resistance today. Despite the success of female editors such as Tina Brown of Newsweek and Jill Abramson of The New York Times, men remain at the helm of most major publications. The domination of the industry by males fosters a cycle in which most of the stories covered continue to reflect a world in which men are typically the central figures in what is judged important and newsworthy.”

She points to slipping advertising sales, reduced subscriptions, and mounting Internet competition as the reason for periodicals’ adoption of  “gimmicks” that may further undermine the role of women in print. “Editors rely increasingly upon name recognition (commissioning or covering the established authorities with which the general public is already familiar) in an effort to attract readership and boost sales. Since men have been and remain the dominant focus in so many arenas, the result is often more articles by and about men. Even those women most likely to gain attention in print are frequently the ones who are already superstars in their fields or in the general society.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with covering our great achievers, she points out, “but editors would do well to remember that some of our most moving and memorable stories have come from people whose names we have never heard, but whose courageous lives and steady triumphs have quietly transformed not only their immediate environment but, ultimately, helped change the world.

“As long as top male editors remain reluctant to actively seek stories outside of what is comfortable and familiar to them, or what they feel confident their readership will readily approve, thousands of stories will remain untold, and a more diverse, multi-dimensional portrayal of women, as well as other under-represented groups, is likely to remain sporadic, at best.”

Long-term change in newspapers’ traditional focus on men’s accomplishments, she writes, would require that “editors go beyond merely seeking stories by and about women superstars, or seeking female subjects for special issues or topics. It will require editors to apply, on a daily basis, the same criteria to stories about women that has led to the creation of great journalism for centuries—strong stories and characters that entertain, inform, and enlighten the reader due to their inherent value and substance, their appeal to human interest, and their ability to present a unique voice and often overlooked point of view—not unlike the criteria met in Having Our Say.”

Trailer provided by Video Detective


Next week: An award-winning newspaper editor in Florida responds with a more heartening assessment. 

In Tough Season for Women in Film, Athena Film Festival Empowers

February 19, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies, Newsmakers

“Most of us are creative because we saw another woman do it,” Lizz Winstead (right)  said last week at Barnard College.

Winstead, the acclaimed comedian and co-creator of The Daily Show, was addressing a roomful of her peers. One was the first woman to win a Tony for direction in musical theater, one had just received an Academy Award nomination, another had created NBC’s newest hit comedy. It was  opening night of the Second Annual Athena Film Festival, and these women were about to receive awards that  “recognize extraordinary women for their leadership and creative accomplishments.”

The festival, which ran February 9 to 12, came a few weeks after a disappointing round of Oscar nominations that featured no woman Best Director nominees and spotty results for women elsewhere; a panel in which a top Hollywood director was quoted by none other than George Clooney as refusing to cast an actress with whom he did not want to have sex; and the newest University of California study on gender inequality in Hollywood,  which reported that male roles far outweigh those for women, females are far more likely to be scantily dressed,” and the gender of films’ creators had an impact on all of it.  After the study’s release Stacy L. Smith, professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, issued a call to action via the Los Angeles Times: “Females represent half of the population and half of moviegoing audiences, but they don’t hit a third of the characters. Male consumers aren’t the only ones going to the movies, but our cultural storytellers today are male.”

It was to change that bleak picture that the Athena Film Festival was established last year by Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies, in partnership with the nonprofit Women and Hollywood. Athena Center director Kathryn Kolbert and Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein were on hand at awards night, and WVFC favorites Katie Couric and Gloria Steinem were present to introduce the five inaugural awardees. Each so honored, in turn, was asked to name a woman whose inspiration and support had been key to her success.

Theresa Rebeck—whose “Excellence as a Playwright and Author of Films, Books and Television”  includes Seminar, currently on Broadway; co-authorship of  the Pulitzer-nominated  Omnium Gatherum;  and years writing and producing Law & Order and NYPD Blue as well as the current Smash—named another group of honorees:  Diablo Cody, Dana Fox, Liz Meriwether, and Lorene Scafaria. The group of friends and colleagues, known as “the Fempire, was honored for “Their Creativity and Sisterhood.” They couldn’t be present to receive the awards in person because “we are working our butts off in this male-dominated industry,” they wrote in a message.

Rachael Horovitz, honored “for her Exceptional Talents as a Motion Picture Producer,”  from HBO’s Grey Gardens to the Oscar-nominated Moneyball, named as her inspirer 92-year-old Priscilla Morgan, who, with her husband, composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, worked to bring the Spoleto Festival to the United States. As an agent in the 1950s, Morgan represented Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, and others on Broadway and NBC’s pioneering Philco Playhouse on TV. Horovitz met Morgan “when I was 5 years old and she came with my father to Spoleto,” Horovitz said. “She couldn’t be here, but she has inspired me ever since.”

Dee Rees, director of the new film Pariah and chosen with producer Nekisa Cooper for “Impact as Emerging Filmmakers,”  named her Liberian grandmother for her survival, while Cooper gave a shout to Ava duVernay, filmmaker and founder of AFFRM, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. “She left a successful career in public relations, ” Cooper said, “has made TWO award-winning films already, and she has helped so many of us. She is not only my friend—she is really,  truly a model.”

Melissa Silverstein, Julia Barry, Katie Couric, Julie Taymor, Kathryn Kolbert, Debora Spar, Theresa Rebeck. (Photo: Barnard)

Next, honored for “Her Vision and Courage as an Exemplary Director,” was Julie Taymor,  introduced by Gloria Steinem as  “the first person about whom I spontaneously used the word genius.”  Steinem added that Taymor “is a joy to work with” and that “she has brought the world together”  with travels to create productions in Japan, Africa and elsewhere. Taymor herself named multiple inspiring women, including Frida producer Sarah Green and Lynn Hendee, who stayed with Taymor and The Tempest  and “was there in Hawaii when we ran out of money and couldn’t even afford to do the tempest!” Another was the late Laura Ziskin, “who pulled together the money for the movie I am working on now,” and was also the namesake for the evening’s last award: the “Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award.”

To introduce the latter was Couric, who had worked with the venerable Ziskin on one of her last big productions, the creation of Stand Up for Cancer. “Laura told me,” said Couric, that “‘in the 1980s AIDS activists brought all of their game to the fight. That’s what we have to do now.’  In September 2008,” Couric added.  “we brought all three networks together and raised millions. That was Laura. She lived and fought until the day  she died.”

Accepting the award, Ziskin’s daughter reflected that when she started in 1978, Ziskin “was often the only woman in the room . . . she had to look a little deeper. That’s how she found Fight Club: she didn’t accept the word no.” 

For the next four days, the festival would continue in that same spirit, with panels, screenings, and brainstorming sessions in which veterans offered tips to emerging or aspiring filmmakers. BriAnna Olson, currently directing short commercial films like this GemGirls music video featured on NPR, was thrilled with Friday’s panel “From Script to Screen,” featuring Pariah’s Nekisa Cooper, Precious producer Lisa Cortes, and Mary Jane Skalski (The Station Agent), among others.

“It was fabulous,” Olson told me. “I learned a lot, and it was great feeling to be part of something larger—that there’s not this huge gap between me and the film world.”


Still to come: Film reviews and more festival details, including how Gloria Steinem stopped hating the HBO film about her.