Counterview: Urvashi Butalia’s rejoinder to AR Venkatachalapathy on women publishers and editors

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Long years ago, when I began working in publishing, it was an almost entirely male world. Women were to be found in some publishing houses, but mainly in administrative and secretarial positions. The bosses were all men – at least in English language publishing in India – and so were the editors. There was something about their anatomy that seemed to qualify them more to work in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge – an activity that is generally governed by the brain, something that lies between the ears (and not the legs) and looks the same no matter what sort of bodily shell it’s placed in.

As women, we – the handful of us who joined the industry at that time and who slowly made our way to becoming editors – knew well we would never rise to the top of our professions. My bosses at the Oxford University Press were concerned that I was a woman: “We’ve never employed a woman in an executive position,” they told me. “They get married and go away.” They made it sound like a crime – one, clearly, that the men never had to answer for.

The Oxford University Press, where I began work, was filled with kind and caring men: Charles Lewis, Santosh Mukherjee, Ravi Dayal, Adil Tyabji, Adrian Bullock, Dipen Mitra. Yet none of them ever had to answer to the kind of questions posed to me. None of them needed to worry about how they would get home at night if they had to work late. None of them needed to be concerned about the safety of seedy hotel rooms when they travelled on business. None of them had to defend themselves against leering printers who wanted to take you out to coffee when all you wanted was to get a book printed. Not surprising then that their paths to the top were smooth, whereas ours were non-existent.

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