"If we write women out of history, we never know the truth of things."
February 8, 2018 12:18 AM   Subscribe

This is How a Woman is Erased From Her Job by A. N. Devers is the story of how The Paris Review's second ever editor, Brigid Hughes, was pushed out of her position and written out of the magazine's history. The Paris Review was recently embroiled in scandal after its latest male top editor was featured prominently on the Shitty Media Men spreadsheet and left the magazine. After her ouster Hughes went on to found and edit the excellent magazine A Public Space.
posted by Kattullus (11 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I read that story a while ago, and what struck me is how effectively the antagonist hid himself. A person or persons made a series of decisions to retroactively claim her tenure as editor didn’t happen, but no one has been found to own that decision. Someone pushed to have her taken off the masthead, someone told the Times writer that Stein was the third, not the fourth, editor, someone edited her out of the Wikipedia page. To put it crassly, Hughes has an individual enemy, or group of enemies, or at least a person or persons who were working actively and intentionally to remove her from the magazine’s history. And plenty of people who were interviewed for this story must know exactly who was the driving force, but the story they’re all telling is ‘whoops, dunno, just kind of happened.’ They’re all still covering for each other.
posted by LizardBreath at 6:21 AM on February 8, 2018 [18 favorites]

It is very difficult for women in communications to be heard, let alone acknowledged for doing anything with gravitas and vision. So much of that industry hinges on a narcissistic great man theory, and Hughes didn't fit the rig. As someone who is an author by trade, I can say that selective blindness is still alive and well.

It was a petty thing to do to scrub her contribution -- and all those who were complicit all those years should stop confusing chauvinism with culture or refinement.

Thank you.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:21 AM on February 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

This brought tears to my eyes, perhaps especially because of this:

"Over time, the effect of Hughes’ erasure calcified a false history of the magazine’s editorial lineage that did not include its first female editor. This impacts all women in the literary community who seek to be taken as seriously and as celebrated for their work as male colleagues and bosses, many if not most of whom dream of rising to the position of head editors of distinguished magazines. It also has the effect of continuing to perpetuate a mythology of the magazine as a boys’ club, led by men, where women do most of the heavy lifting under the managing editor title, and who are never given a true chance to be promoted to head editor."

They took the mythology of the boys' club and they made it fact. They made it into print, in their own magazine and in many others, and in the "paper of record", and they rewrote history because they didn't like the way that things actually happened and so they gaslit everyone into believing in the untroubled succession of Bold Literary Men.

This story really ties into the way I'm reacting to this other FPP-- is it really so irrational to wish to disappear when your entire life has been an endless series of men rendering your work and your worth invisible and forgotten? When women's voices are silenced and papered over and demeaned? When a history of doing incredible, discourse-shifting work is subject to the whims of an anonymous Wikipedia editor who erases women from documentation for the sake of "clarity"?

I am in awe of Hughes's grace in light of what was done to her, and to her career, and to her work. But for the rest of us looking on (or maybe just me?), it is like another body blow. Another reminder that you can have the most exalted mentor, and the most beautiful job, and you can uncover brilliant literary voices from around the world, and you can do everything perfectly and have it ripped away, have your history excised by people holding invisible levers of power, and asking those people about it will only get you accused of gaucheness.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:24 AM on February 8, 2018 [19 favorites]

And what it did to her career -- it put her in a position where she couldn't claim an incredibly prestigious job she had without looking like a self-inflating liar. Sure, anyone who was a real insider probably knew the story. But to anyone else, if she publicly claimed to have edited the Paris Review, and they tried to confirm that? It would have looked as if she was bullshitting them. She couldn't ever talk about her professional history without being defensive. That's awful.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:57 AM on February 8, 2018 [16 favorites]

LizardBreath: I read that story a while ago, and what struck me is how effectively the antagonist hid himself.

I think that the anonymous editor that Devers quotes names the main culprits here: “I remember coming out of a meeting once with Matthiessen, Terry McDonell, and Bob Silvers, a group that radiated testosterone, thinking, ‘Oh, shit, we’re in trouble, because whatever their politics or intentions, this was the old boy school of publishing, and that’s not Brigid.’” It’s hard to be sure, but given everything else they’re quoted with saying, it seems like they’re the most likely suspects.
posted by Kattullus at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sure, it's just not definite. And firing her, which is what that quote goes to, is one thing -- maybe a bad decision, maybe a sexist decision, but it was within the board's power. You can disagree, but they weren't acting wrongly by making a decision about who should be the editor at all. Someone particular, or some group of particular someones, maybe everyone named but there's no way to tell, decided to actively lie to erase her from the magazine's history, which goes beyond a bad judgment call into being unquestionably wrong. And yet that just sort of accidentally happened. I can't blame Devers for getting stonewalled on that point, but I kind of wish she'd been more explicit about the fact that she almost certainly talked to someone who knew, and who lied to her to protect the wrongdoer.
posted by LizardBreath at 11:38 AM on February 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

"And yet that just sort of accidentally happened."

To be clear, it obviously didn't accidentally happen, that was the narrative the cowards hid behind when trying to explain their lies and active deletion of history. I understand you know this to be true, but is misread that sentence as an earnest one in my first read of the paragraph.

The only story the men (and women?) involved with this deception should tell is 'we were bad and wrong and did a bad and wrong thing, and there is no excuse, and we do not deserve to be forgiven for it.'

In my mind, this is a greater literary crime than plagiarism. At least when you are plagiarized you can point to the truth.
posted by el io at 12:06 PM on February 8, 2018

You develop the editorial chops, and you foster writers, and you put in the hard work, and you make everything run smoothly. Finally, you oversee a daunting transition, and this is your reward.

Because, as a woman, you're just there to help. You aren't there to have ideas or take direction or be heard or respected. You're a dependable and forgettable piece of the clockwork that makes things run. "Thanks so much, honey. We'll take it from here."

Reminds me of the time that, years after I worked for him, a former boss lumped me and my female colleagues into the phrase "interns and other earnest youngsters."

In a better world, he might have remembered us not as "interns" or "assorted nameless youths," but as editors.

So, y'know, burn everything to the ground.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:28 PM on February 8, 2018 [16 favorites]

I don't usually do the eponysterical thing, but in this particular instance, evidenceofabsence, the combination of this thread, your comment in it, and your user name makes me want to cry.
posted by huimangm at 7:14 PM on February 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Because, as a woman, you're just there to help. You aren't there to have ideas or take direction or be heard or respected. You're a dependable and forgettable piece of the clockwork that makes things run. "Thanks so much, honey. We'll take it from here."

Oh this, so much, everywhere. And this is why I think it can take young women awhile to realize how sexist the world is. Because when you're young, you attribute that attitude toward your work to your youth. You're smart, you're a hard worker, you're climbing the ladder, you know your contributions are valued. You don't know that 15 or 20 years into your career, when your years of experience give you the confidence to lead, give direction, take charge -- the machine turns against you.

Recently in another thread someone introduced me to the metaphor of "NPC" or non-playing characters in video games. They're the background characters that facilitate the working of the game's world, but nobody actually plays. In the United States in 2018, a lot of people are very appreciative of women as long as they're NPC. You can NPC your way right up into middle management. But as soon as women try to influence the narrative, there's vehement, and often subconscious resistance.
posted by mrmurbles at 8:26 PM on February 8, 2018 [15 favorites]

The NPC analogy is a really great one.

Ambiguity definitely allows discrimination to thrive. It's never clear if you're being shut out because of inexperience, or because you have bad ideas, or for some other personal imperfection or failing. That lack of clarity makes it hard to address the issue yourself, or for well-meaning colleagues to intervene (as, perhaps, with Gourevitch not really thinking about what happened to Hughes when he took over her position).

So you do your best, all the while being socialized to take on subordinate roles. Your voice isn't always heard, but it isn't all bad. You're certainly praised for your hard work in support of other people's projects, or for being so "nice."

Still, you wonder if you have become the Dogmeat of the working world.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 9:26 AM on February 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

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