Before our office moved further north of the city, we used to get visits by the most delightful retiree, a former Writer’s Digest editor who would occasionally come by to dig a clip out of the archives, tell us she enjoyed a recent issue, or just say hi. Her name? Well, on the masthead, at least, it was Kirk. Kirk Polking.
Was it a state secret that she was a woman? No. Did it sometimes help that not everyone realized that was the case, as evidenced by her inbox filled with letters addressed “Dear Sir”? I’d imagine so. It was enough of a novelty that the August 1971 edition of Cincinnati Magazine profiled her under the headline “The Editor Is a Lady.” In the profile, written by Charles Westheimer, it was pointed out (in his words, not hers) that she had “experienced no handicap because of her sex” and cited the many (many!) awards she had won over the course of her career as proof.
The article concludes with this paragraph:
Writer’s Digest carries the Cincinnati dateline to writers everywhere, and warm-hearted, practical minded Kirk Polking is the gal who gets it done. … In addition she leads a life of fun. I asked her what exciting things she had done recently. Her face lit up. “Not much,” she said. “Well—one thing. I was speaking before the Woman’s Club and I said ‘Hell,’” and she laughed. That’s Kirk Polking.
Some 45 years later (let’s pause for a moment to consider what a short time that is), no one really marvels (at least, not publicly) that I am the “gal who gets it done” here at Writer’s Digest. And for that, I can say: Oh hell, Kirk! Thank you for helping to pave the way.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, let’s look more closely at how the evolving roles of women in writing were reflected in the pages of WD.
In the November 1937 cover story “This Is How I Got There,” freelance writer Betty Wallace details how she came to make “about five times as much as I made when I was somebody’s secretary.” Her secret to doing it all?
I conduct it like a business. I do nothing else—not even housework, not even the care of my children. When I found that one maid wasn’t enough for seven rooms, a husband and two small babies, I hired another maid and wrote her salary down to ‘necessary business expense,’ which it is. When I found I couldn’t write at home, I got myself an office.
At that time, I couldn’t afford to pay office rent. I put an ad in The New York Times, “Girl writer will answer phone in exchange for free office space.” I got twenty-seven replies.
(Note to self: Look up current IRS regulations on the following writing-related expenses: cleaning services, babysitters and pizza delivery.)
In this February 1960 cover story of “Crashing the Journal,” Margaret Oppen (pictured) tells how in just three years of writing she has come to land boast-worthy bylines in the likes of Ladies’ Home Journal—and what life is like as a “typical busy person”:
I have seven white shirts a week to iron, 125 high school English students to teach five days a week, and their themes to read weekly, floors to mop at regular intervals, a husband to feed at more frequent intervals, twenty-three magazines a month to read, golf to play, and parties to attend.
In short, I am a typical busy person who finds time to do a little writing for fun and profit. … It’s as simple as this: Send editors something they would like to publish.
An April 1965 cover piece by husband and wife team Arlene & Howard Eisenberg highlighted their story, in their own words, of how they came to share billing on their articles:
A wife need not be to the byline born. In our case, Mrs. E. was, though not illiterate, certainly unpublished before our marriage. She had planned to avoid all entangling alliances—to offer only cooking, kisses and cheery encouragement, and to spend the rest of her time shopping at Saks. That astigmatic vision of the Writer’s Wife did not even outlive the honeymoon.
It goes on to explain how she had a habit of making herself useful when her husband was researching articles:
Her presence disarmed a shotgun-toting North Florida moonshiner so much that, instead of stuffing her too-curious husband with buckshot, he invited them to dinner and talked freely of his life and hard times. From then on, her presence at interviews—to take notes and record observations—has been a constant and increasingly valuable fact.
(They do both highly recommend teaming up, by the way. The whole article is quite jovial, as children and puppies enter the mix and they grow as a team.)
By October 1976, Ann Toland Serb was our cover story under the following deck: “Just move those papers off the sofa and sit down. Watch how a determined mother of eight lives for both a family and a writing life.” Eight! My hat’s off to her by ANY decade’s standards. Her supportive husband, it’s worth noting, received his own sidebar. In it, he touches on compromises they’ve made but also speaks sincerely about how he deeply respects “her talents, her abilities, her thoughts.” Although the box does mention that he is also an editor who “sometimes dealt with housewife writers—and sometimes they drove him up the wall.”
Interestingly, that piece ran a full decade after our piece on legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who was making waves. Attitudes were shifting, albeit unevenly. Change was afoot.
Gloria Steinem helped see to that.
As did Erica Jong.
I’ve always loved looking through old magazine archives (ours date all the way back to 1920, and they’re dusty and musty and crumbly and leather-bound—just as you’d imagine them) because, evolving writing styles and topical choices aside, they are reflections of the audiences they served and the times in which they were published. Today, of course, we aim for even handed treatment regardless of sex in Writer’s Digest, though that’s not to say that industry-wide there don’t remain more strides to be made, more glass ceilings to be shattered.
Sometimes, however, we should stop and look back. And marvel at how far things have come.
Learn more about my debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.