So via Jezebel I find that Susan Orlean thinks that there is a shortage of female literary nonfiction writers because "The focus necessary plus the travel & odd hours makes it tough." From there we find ti's not the travel so much that causes fewer women to write NF but it's men and what society expects from women vs men: "1. Society expects women to do it all. 2. We (I) feel guilty neglecting home stuff. Men I know are more ok with that."
Failing that excuse, it could also be the kids (although it sounds like society yet again takes a hit here): "Society would look very harshly at a woman who missed kids' events, etc; men get a free pass on that stuff." (I should point out here that no matter what is going on in a mother's life the first thing to get blamed is the kids.)
As you read the Jezebel piece they also quote someone named "Anna H." - not sure if she is a commenter to the site or part of the Orleans twitter thread but here's what she had to say about writing as a woman:
Anna H. says that when working on her book many years ago, she "had to TELL people that I would not be calling, emailing, socializing for 7 months, and, even though I was upfront about it, I still felt very guilty." Male writers I've talked to, in contrast, sometimes view social life as an imposition, and rejecting it as an almost moral act, a la Thoreau.
It might just be due to the fact that I'm currently reading about Mary Kingsley and Mina Hubbard - two women who went way into the wild a hundred years ago when the whole travel thing was not easy - but I find this discussion and Orleans' twitters to be messed up. The notion that you can't be a writer of certain subjects merely because you are a woman isn't just very 19th century....it's kinda very 18th century. Is travel difficult for a mother? Well, yes. It's also difficult for a father. And this whole society thinks business is just lame. Don't blame society if you miss being at home with your kids - just acknowledge that you'd rather be at home with the kids. And for that matter, if you want to be a big literary NF writer who travels the globe then maybe you have to postpone having kids. And don't say that isn't fair - it's just how it is. You decide what you want to do the most and then do it.
What really strikes me as odd is that this is from a writer who primarily traveled to Florida for research on her best selling book. Is it really that hard to travel to Florida these days? (And yes, I know if you have three kids and need a month to go to the Everglades it would be tough - but if it wasn't your kids then it would be your parent's illness or your leaky roof or finding someone to take care of your dog. There is - to be frank - always something.)
It's Anna H.'s comment that is actually the weirdest part of this whole article to me - she spent seven months while writing her book with no contact with anyone anywhere? That's not what I would refer to as writerly behavior...that's kinda antisocial behavior. What did she do in that time to avoid the world and why on earth did she have to do it? And really - would it be any stranger if a man told his family he couldn't communicate with them (or anyone) for seven months?
If you try that in my family you get a visit and a heavy discussion about counseling, not a phone call.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the reason there are fewer female writers in the type of literary NF Orleans writes (travel/exploration oriented) has nothing to do with all these social reasons and everything to do with it's a subject that doesn't seem to attract female writers. Bear with me for a second as I explain (and please note that I do happen to love literary NF, both reading it and writing it). I'll make a comparison to aviation. I was always surprised by how few female pilots there are in comparison to men. There's no reason there should be so many more men flying - none. Except when I was in school and later working in the field I hardly ever saw women pilots. The reason, I believe, is because from a young age girls don't see flying as a girl occupation, like boys do. I don't believe that anyone is trying to keep women out of aviation (I don't believe this at all) but it's not presented as a career for girls from a very young age. Not in kid books or MG books or YA books or cartoons or tvs shows or magazines or family discussions or when learning about famous people. (The only female pilot anyone ever learns about is Amelia Earhart and really - that is not a career that ended well.)
So literary NF - I see it kind of the same way. Are there plenty of great female NF authors? Sure there are! As many as men? Not so much. And I'm just making my own guess here but maybe it's because there isn't a lot of NF presented to girls when they are young. Do they think about writing NF? How many female explorers do we learn about in school? Name one that you learned about when you were a kid. Can you? (I'm betting Sacawajea is the only one coming to anyone's mind and she was always presented as "helping" Lewis and Clark.)
So maybe it is nothing to do with women having children and not being able to attend soccer games while conducting research. Maybe it's just that a lot of women don't think about writing literary NF because they never have had any reason to.
Hell - at least scientists have Marie Curie.
Every great writer I learned about in school was a man (Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Williams, and on and on.) Every great explorer was a man (Lewis and Clark, Peary, Columbus, Marco Polo, Lindbergh, Scott, Magellan...and on and on.) Every great explorer/writer was a man (Hello Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt and Hemingway - again.) We never studied Mary Kingsley or Florence Baker or Mina Hubbard or Freya Stark or Dorothea Bates or Osa Johnson or Dian Fossey. They did not exist for me on any level until I was well into college (Stark was actually the first woman explorer I learned about and that was in connection with T.E. Lawrence.) So maybe if we want to get more women excited about literary NF we should introduce them to their predecessors. Let girls and women know that travel and writing is not impossible and might occur after you have spent your life nursing your ailing parents (Kingsley) or after the death of your husband (Hubbard) or along with your husband (Ann Morrow Lindbergh or Osa Johnson) or as your life's work (Dian Fossey). You can even get married, have a child and bring her along (Margaret Mead) while you conduct research.
All of these things have been done - we just don't read about them much.
I do think sexism lives in a lot of industries (oh boy could I go on and on about this) but in this particular case? I don't see it so much. Maybe society is to blame but not in the way Orleans thinks. It's not about soccer games but Mary Kingsley and if everyone knew that then maybe there would be a lot more girls out there dreaming of their own literary NF adventures.
(In addition to those noted by Jezebel, please go read Loree Griffin Burns or Sy Montgomery if you want some current literary NF for teens or adults. They did it - and they keep on doing it which I think is pretty fabulous.)
(I should note that I consider literary NF to be when the author inserts themselves into the narrative or the story they are covering or where they use a conversational style of coverage. Montgomery in particular does this with her stories on the pink dolphins, tigers and others.)
[Post pic of the divine Ms Kingsley who only had seven years of freedom to explore Africa before she was killed from fever after nursing soldiers in S. Africa. What a loss to the world.]