The Most Brilliant Woman in the Room: Creative Freedom, Gender Justice, and Female Collaboration

Read the original piece in Louder Than Ten. 

She was the most brilliant woman in the room.

She was talented, she was charismatic, and damn, could she write. I wanted her and I wanted to be her. We talked long into the night about books and what we wanted out of college. We went to parties and held hands. It was the first month of freshman year, and she smoothed back my sweat-wet hair in a steamy dorm party bathroom. Out on the beer-splashed dance floor, we kissed and kissed.

I was a writer too—or an aspiring one. The first few weeks of freshman fall, we had one goal and one goal only: get in. We craved access to those publications where the Real Writers (those juniors and seniors with personal styles as laconic as their nonfiction) sat around casting creative judgement on the student masses.

If I could only gain access, I remember thinking, I’d have it made.

It’s easy to understand gender inequality in terms of male oppression of women. It’s harder to understand the more subtle and sneaky ways in which patriarchy turns women against each other.

She wanted the same thing. But while we started as friends, compatriots, and collaborators, things quickly fell apart. These editors, cadres of junior and senior men, weren’t just judging our writing; they were judging us. Because we were women, they evaluated our social and sexual worth as much as our prose.

I felt it in the meetings, in the editors’ speculative eyes. I felt it in the party invitations I wasn’t lucky enough to get. I felt it in the subjectless one-line email an editor sent me asking me to stay after the meeting “so we could chat.”

I wanted their approval, and I wanted to get it over and above my friend. I wanted them to think I was sexier, prettier, more interesting. I felt there wasn’t room or attention enough for two. This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.

I wanted to be the most brilliant woman in the room.

A few months later, she was dating one of the big shots leaving me in the lurch. The message: I wasn’t sexy enough to be a writer, or a good enough writer to be sexy. We had once been comrades, co-conspirators, friends, but I could no longer look at this woman without feeling like I had swallowed gas. By winter break of that first year, we had the kind of fight that, at 19, might as well have been the apocalypse.

We were never friends again.

What are the barriers to female creative freedom?

Ask Virginia Woolf a hundred years ago, and (besides the secret of time travel) you will likely find this: women will be creatively free when we’re economically free. And we will be economically free when we’re creatively free. That’s the catch 22.

Things have gotten a lot better since Woolf’s time (bras burned, birth controls distributed, university admissions gained), but gender inequality remains a structural barrier to women’s full participation in creative fields.

When we look at the numbers, we find that sexism has weathered a century of progress. Women receive equal or more degrees in creative fields than their male counterparts. Yet in the upper echelons of these fields—the big names with the big publications and the big dollars—we find that rampant gender inequality persists.

The VIDA Lit Count is a group of lovely humans who devote hours each year to counting female representation in the literary world.

If you’ve heard of them, you’ve heard of some of their scarier findings. In 2014, for example, the New Yorker published a little more than half the number of women than men; The Nation published less than half.In the visual arts, these problems are deeply entrenched and more evident the more prestigious the venue.

Women earn half of American MFAs, yet receive only a quarter of New York solo shows.And the statistics march on. Women receive more than half of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities, yet earn substantially less than their male peers. According to a recent Humanities Indicators report, early in their careers, women earned $2,000 less per year than their male peers. By mid-career, that gap becomes a whopping $17,000 per year.

 When it comes to more technical creative fields, these barriers become even more pronounced. A 2009 poll found that 82.6 percent of web designers are male.
So what keeps us back?

Our society has gender inequality built into its bones. It manifests in things like the pay gap, the scarcity of women in power positions, and the fact that women are more likely to be the targets of gender-based violence.

It’s easy to understand gender inequality in terms of male oppression of women. It’s harder to understand the more subtle and sneaky ways in which patriarchy turns women against each other.

To understand this sneakiness, let’s think back to the anecdote with which I opened this piece.

As long as we accept the notion that female creativity is a limited resource, we will continue to view other creative women as enemies rather than allies.

First, in seeking to join the campus creative community, my friend and I entered groups in which most of the members were female, but most of the leaders were male. We faced male gatekeepers whose judgements seemed to mix both our sexual and creative merits; older advisers and editors had the power to accept or reject our work as well as us. This delegitimized our ability as artists, made us self-conscious about our genders, and took the focus away from our work.

While these dynamics don’t always play out in the professional world as blatantly as they do on college campuses, we can see them most graphically in cases of sexual harassment and workplace assault, and more subtly in the way myths about gender and femininity distract from women’s talents (e.g. the standards of female behaviour that penalize women for coming across as “too flirtatious” or “too frigid”).

By playing into insecurities about our work and our sexualities, this creative economy (which we both longed to be a part of) turned us against each other. We began as each other’s strongest allies, as would-be lovers stealing kisses in the dorm party steam. We ended as mortal enemies.

Why did we see each other as competition? Why couldn’t we understand the trivialization and dismissal of our talent?

The answer lies in sexist notions of female competition. Heterosexist, male-dominated societies like ours teach women to compete for the scarce resource of eligible men. When we translate this to professional settings, we find atmospheres in which women must compete for the attention of male superiors, editors, and bosses.

Beyond competition for work, this myth of female competition inculcates in us another, more subtle and insidious feeling: that female creativity, talent, and brilliance are scarce and finite resources—that there can only be so many brilliant women in a room.

And there are many reasons why this feeling won’t go away. There are too few women at the top of our fields to demonstrate the possibility of female brilliance. A lack of fair and equal compensation for female labor (damn you, persistent pay gap) discourages us from achieving. Deterrents like sexual harassment convince us that our creative worth is second to our sexualities and bodies. Cultural norms devalue female creativity as derivative.

For creative women, these factors prevent us from collaborating and instead encourage us to compete. This works to the advantage of (you guessed it) men.

As long as we accept the notion that female creativity is a limited resource, we will continue to view other creative women as enemies rather than allies.

And as long as we continue to pit ourselves against each other, rather than sexist thinking and structural barriers that say women may go this far but no farther, we will never have creative freedom.

She was the most brilliant woman in the room.

All plush voice and acres of dark hair, hands that made magic. An artist, a big figure on campus. She was a senior when I was still a confused and blundering freshman. The few times we met she crawled under my skin, prickly and sticky.

I wanted her and I wanted to be her.

Three years later we were lovers, doing each other’s makeup and eating Moules Frites in the languid New York City heat. We drank cocktails in pools and wore sunglasses and tried on each others’ clothes. We sat on laptops next to each other and clicked away, though these valiant attempts more often than not ended in sex.

No, we weren’t always great at working around each other (try editing copy at the beginning of a romance), but we were great at supporting each other’s work. How empowering: to no longer be afraid of, but to love another creative woman—to encourage, rather than discourage or compete with, another woman’s talent.

The most radical act is friendship.

What had happened in those three years?

I had changed. I had grown more confident in my own work. But I had also changed in relation to my gender. By seeing, again and again, the timidity and fear with which so many of my female peers approached their work, by seeing brilliant and talented female friends drop out of the game (or never even try), I learned that we as women were not the problem. We were not bitchy, we were not catty, we were not wrong.

Rather, we exist in a system that pits us against each other. And in the face of this, the most radical act is friendship.

Things are changing. Accountability efforts like the Vida Lit Count and networking efforts like the Facebook group Binders Full of Women Writers are building solidarity among female creative professionals of all stripes.

 But there’s a lot more to do. We can start with ourselves. We so often fear each other because we worry there isn’t space enough for all of us. But when we learn to support one another rather than view one another as competition for scarce creative and professional resources, we lift each other up. We don’t need to fight each other to enter the room. We need to link arms and smash down the door.

When we do so, we will arrive in that hallowed sanctum—a little dusty, magazines a bit out of date—and find, I am certain, that the most brilliant woman in the room is, and has always been, all of us.


Article Credits

Editors Marshall Watson
Anna Coe
Rachel Gertz
Designer Travis Gertz





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