With the #MeToo movement and the gender pay gap among the hot-button issues of 2018 on both sides of the Atlantic, the launch this week in London of an oral history project documenting and celebrating the role of women in publishing turns out to be timely indeed.
Conceived in 2013 by Penny Mountain, former deputy editor of the Bookseller, and Jane Cholmeley, co-founder of the pioneering Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop which was for many years a destination on London’s Charing Cross Road, it aims to record women’s experiences which are “so often invisible and unrecorded” based on the history of the group WiP—Women in Publishing—and the women who were part of it 40 years ago. In those days, employers felt at liberty to inquire as to the marital status of a prospective female employee (marriage in those days meaning children), and male bosses had no qualms about asking their secretaries to collect their dry cleaning—or, in the case of a young publicist, to collect the managing director’s elderly mother and bring her to London. And all for less pay than their male counterparts, naturally.
Mountain and Cholmeley were among WiP’s founding members (nobody can now remember whose idea it was) and, both now retired from the trade, they set about raising the money to hire an oral historian to conduct detailed interviews and create a Women in Publishing History website. Around $50,000 was raised in donations from friends and supporters and from two book trade charities.
The results of their endeavors went live this week: a unique collection of 30 interviews with former WiP members—including former Random House UK CEO Gail Rebuck; Liz Calder, a founding director of Bloomsbury Publishing; and pioneering children’s publisher Julia MacRae—which will be available in full at the British Library. A number of Americans feature in the history as well, including Lisa Tuttle, Nina Shandloff, Tamar Karet, Jane Judd, and Linda Schwartz, and Canadian Brenda Gardner. Their lived experience covers all sectors of the industry.
Despite the disclosures of recent months, it’s hard now to remember what life could be like for women in the 1970s and 1980s. The story is often familiar: working twice as hard for half as much, secretaries, publicity assistants and editorial assistants doing the “hard graft” (hard work) while the men enjoyed leisurely club lunches or perhaps an afternoon of golf. The women’s movement was in its second wave, feminists still the butt of many jokes, and women of all ages were beginning to network in order to support and help train each other and to serve as role models for other women in the industry. There were six annual WiP conferences held at the University of London.
Meanwhile, in her attic apartment, Carmen Callil was meeting with a group of like-minded women preparing the ground for the launch of Virago, a list which would (among other things) revive a good deal of women’s writing that had been allowed to drift out of print.
Even in 1991, when Rebuck was appointed to head up Random House, she remembers the press “incredulity.” Private Eye called her “a Barbie doll who crunched diamonds between her teeth.” By the time the century turned, there were several companies led by women, and across the industry women were in middle and senior management positions. Sadly, today in Britain the top jobs are once again held by men, and recent surveys revealed gender pay gaps in most companies and sexual harassment in more than half. There are no figures for the percentage of women to men in British publishing, though a survey in January 2016 of American publishing found it was 78 percent female.
WiP is currently inactive, but Rebuck is among those who feels it is an idea whose time has come again—that there is an “unconscious conservatism” in publishing following the 2008 crash and that “women were seen as a risk” and men the “safe option.”