The Woman Problem On Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac

Let’s be clear about one thing: I love Garrison Keillor and just about everything he does, including The Writer’s Almanac.

I’ve been a fan for decades, have seen his live performances many times, and would buy a ticket to see him again.

I love his sense of humor and agree he’s the “Mark Twain of our times.” His political views match mine, and his wry observations of human behavior strike me as deeply perceptive and revealing. He was an English major in college, as was I, and he’s a prolific writer, matching my habits if not my publication record!

Our similar worldview is not surprising. Like him, I grew up in the Midwest – Nebraska in my case, not much different, ethnically and politically, from his native Minnesota. I even lived in Minnesota for 5 years in the 1990s.

I’d say we have a mutual admiration society, but he doesn’t know me, and besides…

The Writer’s Almanac has a “woman problem,” a failure to equitably include women.

Each 5-minute daily program features a poem plus 2–5 vignettes highlighting events and people of literary, cultural or historical importance, typically on their anniversaries or birthdays. Narrated by Garrison Keillor and produced by American Public Media, it broadcasts on hundreds of public radio stations across the U.S., plus XM Satellite Radio and online. Since 1993, it has reached millions of people every day.

Years ago, some Minnesota friends told me would deliver The Writer’s Almanac to my email inbox every day, both audio and written text of each program. I’ve been reading it daily for 5+ years.

The gender imbalance was immediately obvious, and I started keeping tallies. Then I started emailing them every time they ran an all-male program, which happens regularly.  Never, in all those years, has a program featured only women. In fact, rarely is a program 50% female. Sometimes I send them What Happened Today In Women's History to show them who they could feature. No response, no change.

December aired 106 poems and vignettes by or about men and 34 by or about women (76% vs. 24%).  To be thorough, December also had 12 historical events referencing neither men nor women. Including those in the analysis, December The Writer’s Almanac was 70% male, 22% female, and 8% neither.

Even more disturbing: the website names 5 program writers — all women!  What is wrong with this picture? Garrison Keillor is the narrator and the website lists two men as editors, so maybe they push the women around?

Equally mystifying is the fact that Keillor’s vast body of published work provides ample evidence that he “gets” the issue of women’s inequality. For example, read this recent The Washington Post column for his description of his taking his daughter to a women’s basketball game: "Idealists Can't Win".

Sadly, I have to admit that program writers and producers have paid no attention to my emails. When I found GenderAvenger, though, I knew I had a great new tool with which to publically expose the failings of The Writer’s Almanac.

I learned early that the world favored men over women, boys over girls.

I’ve been a GenderAvenger, making tallies of those imbalances, all my life. I’ve also loved literature and history all my life, even while mourning the relative lack of women in the record. Oh sure, we read Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters when I was in high school, but the vast majority of my English classes there and in college were dominated by male writers (mostly white, too).

Later, in graduate study, I learned that children, by age 4, have already classified most professions as male or female, limiting the choices they see for themselves and their future endeavors. And that’s why it’s important for programs like The Writer’s Almanac to make the effort to include women as frequently as men.

Never mind the injustice that women had to publish their work using male pen names and sometimes not get published at all. Never mind the fact that some women did the work — in literature, in science, in art, in many fields — and men took the credit. Never mind the fact that a few women accomplished prominence anyway, against these odds. The real issue is that our children are watching. They may not listen to The Writer’s Almanac yet, but their parents do, and they will reflect what they hear back to their children.

What we do and say shapes children’s worldview and the opportunities they envision for themselves.

What they see in schoolbooks, on television and in movies, and what they hear in music and from nearby adults shapes their thinking about what they can do.

That’s why the folks who produce The Writer’s Almanac need to get their gender act together.  If they won’t pay attention to the steady drip, drip, drip of my email complaints, then maybe frequent publicity on social media via GenderAvenger will do the trick.

Kathleen Schatzberg

Kathleen Schatzberg lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. After a 35-year career in community colleges, she now works as a writer and consultant for organizations engaged in social justice advocacy. Her cookbook collection exceeds 300, and she was a bibliophile and GenderAvenger even before she knew those terms!