The spotlight is on women in the crossword business this week, as we head towards David Steinberg’s Saturday-evening presentation about the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project and women’s contributions to the New York Times crossword over the decades. I don’t know what David’s historical data-mining has shown, but in the meantime, let’s begin a conversation.
I asked a group of female constructors a few questions. Here’s question 1 and a few responses:
Q: In the ’60s and ’70s, about half of the New York Times crosswords may have been by women. (This is based on Mark Diehl’s peek at several random weeks from 1967 and 1979. David Steinberg is likely to report more comprehensive data during his ACPT talk.) In recent years, the newspaper crossword bylines have been averaging more like 20% to 30% women. None of the current newspaper crossword editors is female (though puzzling’s earlier decades had some women editors like the great Margaret Farrar). What key factors do you think lead to this underrepresentation? (E.g., is it male gatekeepers, women having more of a work-plus-home-life time crunch, innate female inferiority, the societal patriarchy in general, potential constructors seeing so few women’s bylines that they are deterred from trying to make puzzles, or what?)
C.C. Burnikel, prolific LA Times/NY Times constructor, founder of the Crossword Corner blog: Constructing crosswords is largely a hobby, a solitary one. It requires long hours and days of uninterrupted focus. I often feel guilty ignoring my family and friends. I imagine other women feel the same. They just can’t find enough spare time (or find it worthwhile) to make puzzles which do not always have a good chance of getting accepted owing to the extreme competitiveness.
Tracy Bennett, NY Times/Chronicle of Higher Education constructor, crossword creator at Bust, a feminist magazine: My first commissioned puzzle was for the magazine Knitty, and during the process of studying the world of knitting and the beautiful variety of knitting patterns, I felt a lot of kinship with the (mostly, but not all) women who devote their creative energy to this craft. Like puzzle-making, it’s got its own community and can be as artistically sophisticated as anything you’d see in a gallery or museum. Both endeavors require patient, steadfast attention to interweaving details in order to make a pleasing design. I began to wonder later, when I saw the disparity between men and women in the bylines, if the computerization of the craft of puzzle-making had any impact on the gender shift we see today. I don’t like or support this “women craft, men work with computers” notion at all, but if there’s anything to it, it would tie into the larger paradigm historically of boys being encouraged to pursue mathematics, science, and computers, and girls writing, reading, and crafting. It’s just a sense I have that the men now dominating the constructor bylines are quite savvy with the technical aspects of constructing, either by education or by choice. So it’s not necessarily that puzzle-making is unattractive to women now, but rather that it may be more attractive to computer wonks generally, in this era, and I think that “techy” group still skews male.
Other thoughts I’ve had: How much are women encouraged to do the work and spend the time it takes to be great at something? I was very struck by the stories of women artists profiled in the documentary Who Does She Think She Is? Even today, in our much more liberated culture, it seems that society does not expect women to be great. We must be more than extraordinary, still, to end up having our work in a museum, for instance, where we are still hugely underrepresented. For some women, at least those with children, it can be nearly impossible to get a “room of one’s own” and even harder to demand it. A woman taking time away from her kids to pursue her art tends to be seen as self-serving, while a man who does so is seen as putting the time in that he needs to in order to be great. I don’t know what it’s like for twenty-somethings now in this regard. I just know what it’s been like for me, at almost 50, to get that space. It took waging some personal political wars in my home and trading hours I might have slept for constructing time. It means a lot to me and encourages me when I see other women in the bylines! It means I can do it and it’s worth the sacrifices I’m making.
Amy Reynaldo: I suspect that C.C. and Tracy are on key here, and that the all-too-common difficulty many women have in carving out some time for themselves slashes the time available for quasi-obsessive pursuits like making crossword puzzles. Married women and women with children generally shoulder the bulk of their family’s housework and childcare, while even men who have kids at home find it easier to devote time to leisure pursuits. Some of the most prolific female constructors are single and/or have finished raising their children, so their personal time is often easier to reclaim.
What are your thoughts on this question? Let’s move the discussion into the comments.