Gender Trends at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

By Loren Glass and Nicholas M Kelly

Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Program Era Project (PEP) team and the resources of both the University of Iowa Libraries and the University of Iowa’s Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio (DSPS) work continues on our database. This database will offer an extensive overview of the professional itineraries, accomplishments, and connections of students and faculty involved with creative writing at the University from the founding of the Writers’ Workshop up to the present day and this information will be accessible and explorable through a future PEP website.

As the PEP team continues to aggregate data, we gain the capability to observe macro-level demographics and trends in creative writing cohorts. We now have enough data to visualize the gender breakdown of all the students who ever attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1932 to the present.

While there are no remarkable revelations here, our data does confirm certain anecdotal assumptions about the demographic composition of MFA programs over time. This potential to support or contest anecdotal assumptions about Workshop demographics with macro-level data in itself is something of a victory. Moreover, as more demographic data is collected and, eventually, made public via the PEP web presence, this information will be accessible for scholars and students of creative writing.

Before we discuss our visualization, a quick note on the methods employed here. Whenever possible, the PEP team turned to biographical data available on authors to ensure correct gender identification. When this was not possible, gender identity was inferred based on first name, doing so only when the name clearly indicated a specific gender. If these criteria were not met, writers were left in the unknown category. This means there is a certain margin of error, one which we feel does not affect our observations. As we continue to develop our database, we will work on refining how we define gender, exploring more inclusive, non-binary methods for tracking gender identities.

Below is the gender breakdown in its entirety. Showing trends over time in the male, female, and unknown categories. Looking more closely, discrete trends reveal themselves.

First of all, it is worth noting that before WWII, women predominated as students in what was a small and fledgling program. We also know from high school graduation dates that most of these women were older than standard college age.  The program in its early years, in other words, was less about professional credentialing than continuing education.

Then, after WWII, with the inception of the GI Bill, the program is flooded with male students, usually older than standard college age and (based on anecdotal accounts of this period) frequently married, and this pattern persists into the seventies. The image also shows the overall growth of the Workshop program.

Looking closer to the present, we see the first year in which female students predominate is 1983 and from then on there is a marginally larger percentage of female students, which reflects national trends as established by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

We hope this illustrates how the PEP will assist scholars and those interested in the history of creative writing to obtain insights and information about connections and trends in the field. As PEP’s database of institutional and biographical data continues to grow—and is accompanied by a  host of computer-collected text analysis metrics from Workshop-affiliated writing—we hope to offer scholars new ways to make discoveries that will lead to new lines of scholarly inquiry on the rise and spread of creative writing in the United States and the world.