It’s Women’s History Month! Woo! Women still earn 83 cents on the dollar compared to male state workers in Oregon! Woo - Women’s History Month! Lawmakers in South Carolina think women who get an abortion should be punished with the death penalty! Hey-o! Women’s History Month!
A man on Twitter scolded me for being a bit too salty lately, but I would say “salty” is just me on a good day. The rest of the time I am seething, or at a low simmer, or boiling over with anger at all the ways that this country, and my chosen profession, attacks and marginalizes women, people of color and the LGBTQ community.
This month seems like a good time to finally tackle a reader question that’s been sitting in my inbox for a few months. It comes from a lovely person and a supporter of my work (who I am henceforth referring to as “reader.”) It’s about being a woman and a journalist, or what I like to call “the affliction of reporting while female.”
I will do my best to answer, but know that I could write on this topic for the rest of my life and likely never feel like I have found the warm and beating heart of it. Here is my attempt:
Reader Question: … How do you think your gender as well as your personal style and gender presentation affects your reporting and interactions with sources, particularly in more conservative and patriarchal communities? It seems like there's a somewhat wider range of presentation and better opportunities for men to be perceived as unbiased and politically neutral (or politically in agreement with the source), but assessment of women starts with many aesthetic indicators of background, values, political stances, etc. right from the first impression.
What do you think your clothes, accessories (or lack thereof), hair, makeup (or lack thereof), and body stuff says to potential sources about who you are? Do you think their first impressions are accurate?
Does it make you frustrated and/or angry that men don't have to deal with this as much as women and people of marginalized genders do?
My first reaction when I received this question was to avoid answering it at any cost. Like maybe if I didn’t acknowledge it, I could hide the fact that I am a woman from you and everyone else for one more day.
The honest truth is that I walk through life like most women: clear-eyed and knowing that I will never be seen by some people as anything more than the female body I was born into. And that gives me a great deal of anger. It has my entire life, from the time I was very young and cried when my mom put me into a frilly dress, and the crying only stopped when I was back in overalls and a t-shirt. It was never the dress I hated, but the way people turned and smiled and fawned, their eyes lingering too long. To this day I am an extremely reluctant public speaker for this and this reason alone: I don’t like being looked at.
An avoidance of being looked at has caused me to make a number of decisions that, I’m certain, have impacted the trajectory of my professional life. Networking is my nightmare. I despise conferences. I have always hidden behind a hope that my work — my words — are enough. A few years ago, I started making podcasts — not something I intended to do, but I did. It was a process that I enjoyed for the challenge, but that suggested to a lot of people that maybe because I talk into a microphone means I also like to talk in-person to groups. I’m trying to get better at doing this, and in a way, I think it’s good for me to learn how to be looked at and not want to shrivel.
The function of journalism is to document the world. Some journalists create the public record that people 100 years from now will look back on to understand this time. Other journalists, like me, add context to that record. As the journalist, you are like a camera and the focus is on someone else. You are not the story. 1
But, back to your question, reader: I am hyper-aware of the ways I can affect the story. I see every interview — no matter who it’s with — as an opportunity to learn something, and the success of that interview lives and dies on the rapport I have with an interview subject. I create a rapport with someone, often, by over-preparing for my interviews. I realize, this, too, is my response to the way my gender presents me to the world: like, yeah, maybe I just look like a woman to you, but be ready to answer some questions. I am not there to prove anything, but to have a conversation and learn.
I am cognizant of the fact that sometimes I arrive in someone’s life because of their losses: like the family dealing with the aftermath of their teen daughter’s suicide, or the family grappling with the loss of their son — who was killed by police, or the man trying to understand why his brother thought he had to die. My job in those situations is to arrive and listen, and make all of those people know I am there not to judge, but to understand something complex. I will ask questions, and it won’t be easy on either of us. If you cry, sometimes I will start to cry, and I don’t care if that makes me a woman. I’m a human.
I agree with you that snap judgements of women can be very harsh, and I can tell you that people’s initial impression of me tends to be more like: wait… you’re the person that wants to interview me?
The way I carry myself, and the way my body looks is reflective of who I am in the rest of my life: an artist with cut-up hands, an anxious thinker who chews their nails, a baker. If the first impression people get is that I am a professional ragamuffin, that’s pretty spot-on. So I think many interviews start with expectations low. It is later, when people realize what kind of reporter I am, and what kind of listener, and what kind of investigator, that I think people realize their first impression was off. And if they feel a little bad about that, that’s fine.
There’s a moment in The Ghost Hunter, the story I wrote for The Atavist in 2020 about the wreck of a Manila galleon on the Oregon coast, that I think illustrates this really well. Here’s the setup: I was on the way to see one of my favorite bands, Neurosis, for the tenth time, and stopped into a lecture about some shipwreck research at Oregon Historical Society before the show. Here’s an excerpt:
I had dropped in to [La Follette’s] talk at the Oregon Historical Society on my way to a heavy metal show. This is to say: I stuck out. I sat in the back, craning my neck to see the screen at the front of the room and filling my notepad with questions. Afterward, I waited in line to meet her.
When I reached La Follette, I couldn’t help but notice her eyes flick down at my dark clothes and the tattoos covering my arm. Did a flash of doubt cross her face? She agreed to speak to me on the phone, and two weeks later I called. One of the first things she said was that I was absolutely not allowed to write about her galleon research for Playboy, a magazine I often freelance for. I told her no problem, writing for skin mags wasn’t my sole focus.
Even with that assurance she was prickly, in a professorial way. I got the sense that she thought I was incapable of telling the story of the galleon with the necessary care. “This is a really important part of Oregon history,” she said. “It’s a tragedy. It needs to be treated with gravity.” I assured her that I could do that. And I told her that I felt I had to tell this story. I talked about being from Oregon. I talked about the reporting I’d done. I listed my credentials. I promised to be careful, factual, accurate, precise.
I think one thing people are surprised by is that I’m not the media-elite they had pictured in their mind. This is something I spoke with Kathleen McLaughlin about last month: that media should be comprised of people from across society and have a variety of lived experiences.
In 1992, the artist Zoe Leonard wrote a poem about this — called “I Want a President” — about how power in America should reflect the lived experiences of real Americans. Here’s a snippet:
I want a president with no airconditioning, a president who has stood on line at the clinic, at the dmv, at the welfare office and has been unemployed and layed off and sexually harassed and gaybashed and deported. I want someone who has spent the night in the tombs and had a cross burned on their lawn and survived rape. I want someone who has been in love and been hurt, who respects sex, who has made mistakes and learned from them. I want a Black woman for president. I want someone with bad teeth, someone who has eaten hospital food, someone who crossdresses and does drugs and been in therapy. I want someone who has committed civil disobedience. And I want to know why this isn’t possible.
I love that last line. And I want to know why this isn’t possible in media, too. Because if people see the journalists in the same way they see the powerful people holding them back, then who is media actually for?
The story my appearance does not tell you is that my love for reporting in rural America speaks to something deep in my character. My grandfather was born in 1921 and dropped out of school after eighth grade to become a farmworker. Later, he made pots and pans in a factory. I knew him as quiet man who, when dinner conversations got too heated, would clear his throat and step out into the yard to rake, or mow the lawn, or yank up some weeds. He was not an arguer or a yeller by nature. He was a worker and nothing he could ever say would change the fact that work needed to get done.2
He found solace in being outside and working hard, and those are things I relate to. It was important to him to acknowledge other people’s hard work, too: when my grandparents were informed they would be getting a new garbage service, he was up early waiting for the truck, ready to shake their hand. I loved my grandpa, and tagged along at his side as he worked. He helped shape my view of the world.
And so while I might initially appear as an outsider in the rural west, pretty quickly it becomes clear that I come from long lines of working class people who struggled and dragged themselves forward, who were proud of what they had. I know what it feels like to be overlooked and passed over, and how this society can eat away at a person. I relate: I have had a car repossessed, utilities shut off. I've borrowed money, been sent to collections more time than I can count and thought I’d never get through it. I might pay off my student loans by the time I turn 50, but even that’s not certain.3
From the time I got my first job I got in journalism, in a rural Washington town, I realized people didn’t trust media because they didn’t take the time to understand what their lives were like. This was some 15 years before the term “fake news” was a thing. I’ve been a hearing a version of this grievance my whole career, and often I ask people to start there: tell me what every other reporter got wrong. I want to know. This doesn’t mean I’m kowtowing or failing to think critically about their story. But it does show people I’m there to give them my time, and will try to understand their perspective.
Now, reader, let’s talk about the last part of your question — Does it make you frustrated and/or angry that men don't have to deal with this as much as women and people of marginalized genders do?
Yes, but neither “frustrated” or “angry” do not capture the rage and disappointment I feel at the ways, again and again, I have seen men fail continually upwards in this field, and the ways non-male-bodied, non-white people journalists struggle. Recently, a male journalist emailed me and another female freelancer, asking both of us if our husbands’ jobs were the true reason we could freelance. She had the guts to tell him the framing of the question was patriarchal; I didn’t even try.
On another occasion, a male reader reached out to thank me and my husband for writing my book: a comment that made me crack up laughing. What exactly did my husband have to do with my book? And then I remembered that to much of this society, women are nothing more than a rib taken from Adam’s body and shaped by God.
I despise the fact that no matter what I do, I am a body and only a body, forever just a body. And this is me: a cis-gendered white lady with full knowledge of how much privilege my specific body gives me in this world, in my field. I am frustrated that our society is so un-evolved when it comes to this: we are Adam and Eve and glands and genitals and that’s about it.
Earlier this month, I published a piece in High Country News that I worked on for years, called “The Sentinel.” It started with my question of why a 90-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary, dedicated to women and mothers, stood over Butte, Montana. What I learned as I worked on it was that the way people in Butte think of that statue has evolved and changed over the 30 years it has been on the mountain. To a lot of people, it is a very large acknowledgement that the community has, and always will be, quietly run by women. In the process of reporting, I learned about the rebel identity that Butte nurtures, about the abortion doctor who operated in the city before Roe, about the woman who ran a brothel and killed her abusive husband, and sat down for a beer after doing so.
In the process of writing it, I found a salve for all of the anger I’ve been feeling over the way this country governs and politicizes bodies: that when some people are only seen for their flesh, they don’t go quiet. They start whispering. They figure out work-arounds and create systems of their own to take care of each other.
When I show up out there in the world to do my job, a part of me knows that is seen as political in some way. And if that’s how it has to be, so be it: I’m attempting to create the kind of journalism I don’t see.
In 1973, the artist Valie Export wrote exactly why this kind of thing is so political in “Women’s Art: A Manifesto.”
… if reality is a social construction and men its engineers, we are dealing with a male reality. women have not yet come to themselves, because they have not had a chance to speak insofar as they had not access to the media.
… we women must participate in the construction of reality via the building stones of media-communication. this will not happen spontaneously or without resistances, therefore we must fight! if we shall carry through our goals such as social equal rights, self-determination, a new female consciousness, we must try to express them within the whole realm of life. this fight will bring about far reaching consequences and changes in the whole range of life not only for ourselves, but for men, children, family, church… in short for the state.
Reporting from a female perspective, or a queer perspective, or a Black perspective means readjusting the lens: ensuring that stories that get remembered don’t only come by way of the majority.
And, look, I don’t want my job to be a fight. I want it to be a job. But I know better. So here I am. I’m in it, typing with the only fingers I’ve ever had. Reporting to you from inside the only body I will ever know.
Hey, real quick — I’ve got a couple of announcements about writing workshops and readings coming up soon, and wanted to make sure you know about them. Like I said, I’m trying to get used to standing in front of crowds, and its always nicer with newsletter-friends in the audience.
On Monday, March 20 at 7 pm PST I’ll be doing a virtual reading with the other nominees for the Oregon Book Awards’ General Nonfiction category. (Did I tell you When the Moon Turns to Blood is a finalist?) Register to watch here.
In April, I’ll be up in Spokane for the 25th Annual Get Lit! Festival, teaching a nonfiction workshop — called “No Such Thing as a Dumb Idea” — doing some panels, eating at Ruins as many times as possible, parking myself at Atticus, etc. Come say hi!
On April 29, I’ll be giving a talk called “Writing the Weird West” at Newberg, Oregon’s Terroir Creative Writing Festival. The schedule is filled with so many cool writers, and you best believe I’ll be there all damn day. Register here.
The exception to this being reported essays, which I believe are one way a journalist can deploy first-person in order to investigate a greater point.
In 2013, I wrote a short 300-word profile of my grandpa. I’m still proud of how much detail I packed into that small space.
No Joe Biden’s plan doesn’t help me, please don’t ask.