Is Catholic publishing sexist?

If women want to succeed in business, politics, or entertainment, they have to put out. The sexual revolution didn’t create this state of affairs; it only gave plausible deniability to predators who’ve been doing their thing since long before the 60’s.

It’s only now, in 2017, that society is listening to women’s age-old complaints of institutional sexism, and it’s only now that corporations are cracking down on the male predators they employ. Whether this response is a passing mood or a lasting change, it’s too soon to say.

Is the Catholic working world different?

I don’t know if I can bear to dig too deeply into this question. Certainly, countless Catholic men have discovered that a combination of authority and spirituality makes a fine snare for the vulnerable. The priest sex abuse scandal, especially the ongoing Legion of Christ debacle, illustrates that horror all too well. And, just as in the secular world, many Catholics will excuse and forgive predators and discredit their accusers, and will blame women and young people for tempting and seducing those who prey on them.

But what about in the Catholic working world that extends beyond the actual Church? Are women constrained more than men? If women want to succeed, are they expected to behave in a certain way? Or are Catholics better than the secular world?

It’s becoming more rare, in mainstream Catholicism, for women to be shamed and castigated for simply working outside the home, but sexist attitudes are still pervasive in more conservative circles. Even in online groups specifically dedicated to supporting Catholic working moms, the very members of that group will sometimes suggest that, if a working woman is struggling in any way, maybe the Holy Spirit is telling her to quit work (or to trade in her actual career for an MLM scam).

In some professional Catholic circles, if you do your work, meet your deadlines, and don’t cause scandal, your work is respected, whether you’re male or female. But in other circles, you’ll still hear that it’s actually wrong for women to go to college. I reject the tired notion that the Catholic male priesthood is evidence of systemic sexism, but it’s undeniable that Catholics use the male priesthood to justify that sexism.

You’ll hear that it’s just to pay women less than men, because men are supposed to be the breadwinners, and women who work are robbing men of opportunities (and their manhood). You’ll hear the word “feminine” used as a synonym for “shoddy, inferior, and trite.” You’ll hear that women are, as a species, too emotional and flighty to contribute much of intellectual value.

My personal experience is limited. I only know what I’ve seen and what I’ve read in Crisis and from the Catholic authors at The Federalist. But one thing I’ve actually lived is Catholic publishing, and here’s what I learned:

You can say whatever you want in your Catholic lady book, as long as it’s 90% uplifting, joyful, and encouraging, amen.

Did you ever wonder why I initially self-published my book about NFP? It’s because I approached several Catholic publishers (with the NFP book and with previous book pitches in the same vein), and they told me my book was too dark, too negative, too discouraging, too snarky, too problematic. It frankly acknowledged the struggles of living the faith, and that was unacceptable. It might possibly lead people astray. No one claimed it was was heterodox. It simply wasn’t joyful enough.

I thought they were wrong. So I published it myself, as an ebook. It was exceedingly popular, and then Catholic publishers — including more than one that had rejected my proposal for the very same manuscript — approached me, looking for printing rights. It seemed there was a market for my problematic negativity after all. (And yes, I cackled like Yosemite Sam as the offers poured in.)

Now, once upon a time, Catholic readers tolerated something less than joy-joy-joy from women writers. Dorothy Day, Maisie Ward, Caryll Housleander, and even the humorists Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck spring to mind as non-saints who acknowledged that Catholic woman could find Christ in other places besides kitchen sinks, nurseries, and fields of daisies. (Note that Kerr, Day, and Bombeck were published by secular presses, and Ward started her own company to publish her work, Houselander’s, and others’.)

Today, Heather King, Eve Tushnet, Leah Libresco, Emily Stimpson, Jennifer Fulwiler, Amy Wellborn, Sherry Weddell, Leah Perrault, and Elizabeth Scalia come to mind as Catholic female authors who don’t shy away from troubling questions. I’d be interested to know whether they felt constrained to uphold a certain image of Catholic womanhood, or if they felt free to speak their minds.

Whatever their answer, my own experience is undeniable, and it left a mark. Catholic women writers aren’t required to put out. Instead, they’re all too often required to stuff down. Stuff down anything ugly, anything problematic, anything risky, anything that doesn’t end up with an edifying bow on top.

I’m not naive. Catholic publishers bear a responsibility under which secular publishers do not labor. Catholic publishers must, like everyone else, know and please their audience; but there’s more. What if they publish something by an author who’s so gritty, authentic, and honest that, two weeks after the book debuts, it’s revealed that the author has slid past authenticity and straight into debauchery? A secular publisher doesn’t want to get caught out promoting an author who turns out to be a liar or a pervert, and a Catholic publisher doesn’t want to get stuck with six thousand copies of a Catholic book by someone who doesn’t act remotely like a Catholic.  What Catholic publisher in its right mind would take that risk?

Well, they might, if the author is a man.

In our conversation of several weeks ago, Jessica Mesman Griffith told me that several years ago, she pitched a memoir to Loyola Press. The name inspired by her daughter’s pretend game which involved the seasick pilgrims on the Mayflower. Together, they drew stick figure pilgrims with X’s for eyes, suffering through their strange journey.

Griffith told me:

I always wanted to do something with that title. It was so resonant with what my own spiritual life was like. I’d had this private dream to start a publishing house. I was really inspired by Sheed and Ward, loved reading about their philosophy of publishing and their approach.
I wanted something for Catholic writers where you didn’t have orthodoxy policing. I wanted a space where people would be Catholic, or cultural Catholics, or lapsed Catholics, where we could talk about beautiful things that inspired us.
Loyola declined the book, and the project was put on the back burner. Mesman then met Jonathan Ryan when he was acquisitions editor at Ave Maria Press. In December of 2015, she agreed to co-blog with him at Patheos, and they decided the name “Sick Pilgrim” (again drawing on her daughter’s game) would work well.  The blog, and the accompanying online discussion and support group, took off and developed a wildly devoted following.
Griffith says:
That’s when Loyola came back and said to pitch the book again, but with Jonathan as co-author. Even though it was the exact same book and same title. They said the male voice brings something special.
She emphasized that phrase several times. “The male voice brings something special.” Griffith said:
I recoiled. But, you’re a writer, you’re broke, someone offers you money . . . you do it. It was essays I had already written, about my spiritual life, my background, how I came back to the Church as an adult. I saw how [the blog and group] Sick Pilgrim was affecting people in a good way. I felt like it was its own kind of ministry for people who feel excluded. I saw people coming back to the Church, just from having another voice out there saying, “Whatever, I messed up, and I still go [to Mass].” The good outweighed the bad, even though I was reluctant. 
 And so Griffith agreed to co-author the book with Ryan. It was her idea, her essays, and her title, drawn from her life. But, Griffith says, Loyola didn’t want to publish it unless there was a man involved.
Then, in November of 2017, less than a month after the book debuted, it was spiked . . .  because that same man was involved.
This is just one example. And my own experience is just another example. And what I read in comment boxes is just what I read in comment boxes — those are all just more examples.

After a while, you have to wonder how many isolated examples there can be, before they form a pattern spelling out “Catholic publishing is still sexist.”

So you tell me. Is there a problem in Catholic publishing, or in the Catholic working world at large? Are women allowed to admit to being human beings with complex, untidy experiences? Are women expected to conform to ideals of womanhood, while men are given more latitude? If there’s a problem, is it getting better?  What do you think?


EDIT and clarification, 12/7/17: After some justifiable criticism, I have taken out a few sentences that referenced an essay by Jody Bottum. The essay wasn’t actually a good example of what I’m talking about, and bringing it up distracted from the point of this essay. I don’t blame Bottum for being annoyed to be dragged into it.

I did frame my essay as a question, and I wish I had made it more clear it was a sincere one, not a rhetorical one. Several people have answered by suggesting that the more prevalent problem is Catholic publishers being unwilling to publish anything that’s too risky (by way of being honest, not-altogether-tidy, etc.), whether it’s written by a man or a woman.

It happens that women are probably more likely than men to accommodate their editors by toning things down, trimming away the darker stuff, and adding a tidy bow. The result is that women authors get published plenty, but what they publish tends to be more facile and shallow than what men publish. But there can be reasonable argument as to whether that’s due to sexism or more complicated issues.

Image: Detail from photo by Andrew Toskin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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14 thoughts on “Is Catholic publishing sexist?”

  1. I am the sole breadwinner for my family of three while my husband is in school. I have a secular job that treats me with respect, provides paid maternity and nursing breaks, and pays a living wage.

    I want to teach religion. I was offered a job as a middle school religion teacher. They offered me $30,000 salary. How am I supposed to support my family on that? Does the Church realize how expensive daycare is? Rent? Healthcare? What happened to the principles of a living wage laid out in Rerum Novarum? Is it a coincidence that teaching is a female-dominated field? Would the Church expect a man to support his family on so little?

    The job was given to a celibate friar who had taken a vow of poverty. As for me, I guess I’ll continue selling insurance.

    1. A job as a middle school religion teacher was never designed to support a family, just as working at McDonalds won’t likely do the same. Most of the lay teachers I had throughout Catholic school worked once all of their children were school-aged (no daycare). Their husbands’ wages supported the family, and most of their income went towards tuition.

      1. It just surprises me that “teacher,” a job that requires a degree and involves the formation of our young people, falls in the same bucket as fast food employee. The Church loses many smart, qualified people as a result.

  2. My experience as one who has published and taught extensively in the secular world and has only managed very few engagements in the Catholic one is that in the Catholic arena by and large men teach, women inspire or self-disclose past inadequacies, experiences, tragedies, or are supported by clergy or well-known male educators. The exception are female theologians writing and teaching in a university or like setting. I also agree with the author’s mention of “orthodox police” in publishing houses. I had an article published once that by the time it was in print didn’t look like my article at all. In fact, the entire opening paragraph had been deleted and replaced. Finally, someone above mentioned marketability. I have seen a disclaimer on a publisher’s website stating they weren’t responsible if an in-house established author publishes a book on a similar topic to one that is submitted. Begs the question where that new potentially unmarketable writer’s proposal idea could end up. So I ask: isn’t that a form of consumerism at play? Are such practices in line with Catholic teaching? Good and safe business policy, probably. But reflecting Catholic ideals or secular ones?

  3. I work in a Catholic organization (not publishing) that reaches out to the people in the pews. We have anecdotal evidence that women are treated differently than men. Or perhaps it’s clergy are treated differently than non-clergy (most of us women have shown up after a deacon has been with a group, so I’m not sure if it’s the ordination or the gender that leads to the different experiences we have). Thinking about the clergy made me wonder: So many of our clergy seem to have been trained to give safe, comfortable homilies. They may have solid content, and they may be pushing us, but even if speaking about the challenging realities of life, they use language that is “soft” rather than “stark”. I travel through a few dioceses in my job, and hearing homilies that truthfully speak of personal struggles or use pointed language (calling a spade a spade, pointing out the reality of sin and pain even for the people at church) is rare. So I wonder . . . if the male leadership isn’t (overall) doing it, does that make women who do seem out of bounds? And if our priests and deacons were stronger in their preaching, could women be stronger without appearing out of control or upsetting “the way things should be”? We certainly know men and women are perceived differently; there was just a study done with video gaming that showed men get “angry” when a female more “competent” than them shows up. Could this be part of the same? Not necessarily about “competence” but making people feel uncomfortable when it isn’t what they are used to from the men around them? Interesting things to mull on for me, certainly.

  4. As a mother of a large family who is also a writer and part of one of those MLM scams- I agree wholeheartedly in your take on things. I do see progress though! Thank you for being a forerunner!

  5. Another spot-on post. I heard a wonderful homily a few years back about how there is no one-size-fits-all way to be a “good” Catholic. Ditto a good writer, mom, wife, woman. I too shudder at some of the stuff that Catholic women have been told through the years about what they “should” do, how they “should” act, or pray, or what they “should” wear at Mass. The truly sad part for me is that we are all trying to get to heaven the best way we can, and except for condoning sin (which could mean you are wearing pants to church), we should be positive and help each other.

  6. I work for a widely-known and well respected Catholic publisher, and can sincerely say that the author’s gender makes no difference in whether a tough, real-life, manuscript is more or less likely to be accepted. It’s their writing skill and marketability, but mostly skill in what they’ve submitted. We do not at all shy away from tough topics, and quite frankly reject a LOT of fluff that’s submitted to us (a whole different topic is the quality and topics of unsolicited manuscripts). I am proud of our standard in what we publish, which includes many ‘real’ Catholic women I think it would be a shame to censor. So no, Catholic publishing is not across the board sexist. Women are fully capable of being excellent writers, and don’t need men to co-author a good manuscript to legitimize it. That’s really terrible, and it’s grossly unprofessional and should never happen. Thankfully that’s not how everyone does it.

  7. I was an editor at a Catholic publisher when I had my first child and FMLA was not an option for me; I’d have basically gotten a few weeks of unpaid leave, can’t recall how much they said they could offer. Four or six? The pay was so low it didn’t make sense to stay, couldn’t have even covered daycare, and there was no real attempt to work out a flexible solution. My manager told me later after he’d hired my replacement that she was young, married and childless like I had been so he thought he “might run into the same problem”.

    I have a friend who worked in parish ministry when she had her first child and she also has stories about clueless coworkers/bosses with unrealistic expectations and unwillingness to accommodate a pregnant or nursing mother (pumping breaks, what are those? Working just as many evenings/odd hours, etc.).

    I’ve seen changes in the past five or so years which make me think that there’s a greater appreciation of what it means to actually seek to integrate the “feminine genius” into Catholic workplaces and offer more family-friendly policies to working mothers, but old attitudes and habits die hard. Working for the Church in any capacity can truly be a spiritual challenge.

  8. I have a hard time trusting writing that leaves out the messiness of being human. Also, as someone who came into the Church after much meandering (my adult daughter calls that meandering ‘spiritual whiplash’) one of the things I’ve often said to people is that I finally found a place where I could be fully human. That has led to more change within me than pretending to be otherwise.

  9. The first problem is that a very small percentage of people read actual books. And of the that group, Catholics are an even smaller subset. There are more and more pages in Catholic book catalogs taken up with DVDs. Publishers are less willing to take chances on new authors if their margin of profit is shrinking.

    I think most Catholic writing (male or female authored) today is fluffy, not subtle and poorly written. I went to a large second-hand book sale at a Catholic parish this past weekend. I ended up loading my bag mostly with hardcover books from Sheed and Ward or their contemporaries. Aside from someone like Alice von Hildebrand, I find most contemporary women authors too sentimental and navel-gazing. I’ll stick with Sigrid Undset, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth Goudge, and Rumer Goden if I want to read female authors.

    1. You hit the nail on the head, Kathy. I am a voracious reader (and buyer of books for a large family of readers), and I skip all the fluff that is being put out by Catholic publishers. Luckily our parish bookstore is very discriminating about what it will carry. Not a single author that was mentioned in this blog post would make the cut. Sentimentality, navel-gazing, and chapters that read like extended Fakebook posts of “isn’t my Catholic family life wacky?” are not worth my time or money. I’m looking for writing that helps us to seek holiness.

  10. I don’t know, but as someone who has played with the idea of entering the writing field someday, it’s a bit intimidating.

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