Surveying Women Writers

Mslexia is currently running a survey about how women writers feel that their partners help and/or hinder their writing. I imagine I’ll have more thoughts once the results are released, but just taking the survey sparked a couple of things in my brain:

First, it made me head-tilt a bit to see that the default assumption is that a woman writer has a partner. Even the Twitter call-for-answers phrases it as a given, not as an “if”. The questions do, occasionally, give options for single women, but even then, some of them assume that the participant is divorced or widowed, not never-married — and it definitely assumes that the participant has had significant relationships in the past, since the alternate questions then ask about your most recent partner. The phrasing of those questions also tilts towards an assumption that you’ve shared a household with a partner at some point.

If, like me, you’re not only never-married, but have never lived with a partner, then the survey isn’t particularly seeking your opinion. Perhaps there are, or will be, other Mslexia surveys seeking information on how friends and family support and/or damage a woman writer’s career. I certainly think it would be worth looking into. I know my family’s had a much larger impact on my existence and development as a writer than any partner has. Partners come and go, but my family has been a constant in my life for twenty-eight years. I also think it would’ve been easy to add a question for single women, or even for “when you were single”, asking how that helps or hinders. For instance – Does it help that you’re more mistress of your own time? Or do you end up filling the time a partner might take up with other things? Is it better not to feel pressured to share your work with a partner, or do you miss having someone to bounce ideas off of? I think it’s an important aspect that the survey will be missing out on — as a control group against the effects of a relationship on a woman’s writing, if nothing else.

Several of the possible responses also played into some of the worst stereotypes about writers — that they are moody, selfish, unpredictable beasts, tormented by Their Art. I’m hoping those were only included so that the results can show that, no, that’s not what we’re actually like, but… I don’t know. There’s a conversation there, somewhere, about where the ugly stereotypes about women and the ugly stereotypes about writers overlap, and how that affects the world’s view of women writers (and, possibly, what has so often excluded us from enjoying equal recognition and acclaim as our male counterparts).

I was also sort of disappointed, as someone who enjoys these things (and as someone who’s taken a lot of online surveys), that the survey didn’t also take any demographic information. There are a lot of potentially fascinating metrics that the survey will be totally overlooking. I’d be interested to know, for instance, if women of my Millennial generation feel that their partners support or hinder their writing careers in different ways than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. Do we value different contributions towards our writerly lives than our intellectual mothers and grandmothers? Are our partners more likely to give one kind of support, less likely to give another? I’d also be interested to know if there are racial or socioeconomic disparities in those feelings. Does education level matter? Does it make a difference if the partner works out of the home? If the writer still has a “day job” or not? I can guess at what the answers might be, based on anecdotal evidence, observation, and a general awareness of gender politics, but it’d be nice to have numbers to dig into based on actual writers’ lived experiences.

And the survey does nothing to distinguish between heterosexual monogamous relationships and any other kind. It does consistently use the term “partner” rather than “husband/boyfriend”, which is good, but I think it’d be very interested to see if the satisfaction rates were different between heterosexual or homosexual couples, or if women in same-sex couples value different contributions or experience different detractions from women in het couples. The survey ignores entirely the concept of any other relationship structure besides a committed pair. This is not, really, surprising, since most of the world does, too, but — well, it occurred to me. When I see people in polyamorous bonds write about the benefits of their relationships, many of them talk about how it restructures domestic duties, and that does seem relevant to the survey’s purpose.

So, overall, I’m interested to see the results and what conversations they start, but I feel like there were a lot of missed opportunities here, too.

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