Strength in Numbers: Jessica Esch Keeps Counting The New Yorker

photo credit: Jessica Esch

photo credit: Jessica Esch

In 2016, I considered surrender.

I’d been tallying gender ratios in The New Yorker for four years. This year I created a spreadsheet to better understand the results over time and identify trends. The numbers haven’t varied much. I was entertaining conspiracy theories.

And I was tired.

The New Yorker is a weekly magazine with a few double issues thrown in for everyone’s respite. The writing is so universally good that I’m rewarded for reading everything. But reading everything takes time. Hours and hours. Add to this the post-election demands required to reconcile a country I now saw more clearly as well as racism and sexism I couldn’t unsee, and it was all just a little much.

Too much, actually.

So I wrapped up 2016 thinking this would be my last Gender Tally.

image credit: Jessica Esch

image credit: Jessica Esch

This summary would be my swan song. I’d reveal that only six of the 47 covers in 2016 were illustrated by women and Malika Favre was responsible for three of them. (Lest you think that’s a lot for one person, know that Barry Blitt illustrated 10.)

Now that I had three years of data in one place, I could easily tell you that six covers by women in 2016 was two better than the year before. I could also report that my previous sentence was slightly misleading because the 90th anniversary issue in 2015 had nine different covers. Two of those nine were illustrated by women (Roz Chast and Anita Kunz), so now 2015 total doesn’t look quite as good as it did a moment before.

No longer would this GenderAvenger be cringing while crunching the gender of cartoonists. Next year someone else would need to point out that cartoonists Roz Chast and Liana Finck were the most prolific, each appearing in 28 of the 47 issues but never more than once.

The Cartoon section has always been my least favorite aspect of the tally (but one of my favorite parts of the magazine overall). I wouldn’t miss grumbling about the percentage of cartoons drawn by women remaining consistently paltry for three years (16% in 2014 and 2016, 15% in 2015).

When I first started counting, I thought the answer was that women just needed to submit more cartoons. Today I know that’s not the case. In 2016, eight cartoonists who are women were published three or fewer times. The previous two years included five cartoonists who were not published at all in 2016. It’s hard to believe that these 13 cartoonists all stopped being funny at the same time.

The May 16 issue had no cartoons by women at all. That’s just not funny.   

If honest, I’d miss being able to bestow GenderAvenger Hall of Fame status to two sections: "Poetry" and "Briefly Noted". Fifty of 92 poems published in 2016 were by women (54%), and women wrote 46% of the 188 books featured in the "Briefly Noted" section. These two bright spots each month reminded me of what could happen when gatekeepers pay attention. And it gave me hope.

Most gender disparities in the magazine narrowed a bit compared to 2015. The biggest swing toward equal was in "The Mail" section (44% of letters were submitted by women in 2016 vs. 27% in 2015). The humor section, "Shouts and Murmurs," took the biggest step back with women contributors dipping to 33% vs. 47% in 2015. Nothing funny about that either.

At year end, women fared a shade better in The New Yorker than they did 2015. There’s still a long way to go. Just like in everything else.

So it’s decided: bring on the 2017 Gender Tally!

Now isn’t the time to cede progress or merely wish for things to be different. Now is the time to act, to focus on what you believe. And I believe in The New Yorker. By counting and sharing the tallies, I’ve connected with those who make The New Yorker such a joy to read. My attention and focus is payback for all the magazine has given me. I owe it this.

When I started counting in 2013, I was curious. Four years later, I’m committed.

You can count on that.

Jessica Esch

Jessica Esch is a writer and illustrator who lives in Portland, Maine. Follow her on Twitter at @jesch30.

Click here to find Jessica's latest 2016 The New Yorker Gender Tally.