The New Yorker declared in 1959 that the “most important person in the world of the crossword puzzle” was a woman: Margaret Farrar, then the crossword editor of the New York Times. Here in the twenty-first century, whether the most important person in the world is a woman or not seems to be a thornier question. A 2014 work of criticism by constructor Anna Shectman reported that the crossword world was very much dominated by men, and that this problem had only worsened in the previous two decades. An important development since that piece’s publication is the Los Angeles Times’ recent announcement that PuzzleNation’s own editor, Patti Varol, will be taking over as its crossword editor, but while this is a huge step forward, a lot of work remains.
In her Washington Post piece earlier this month, “I’m a Black woman who creates crossword puzzles. That’s rare, but it shouldn’t be,” Portia Lundie summarized the central ironic issue at play: “crosswords as we know them were standardized by a profound woman, yet the authority on language still seems to be in the hands of a few White men.”
For Women’s History Month, rather than looking back at Margaret Farrar, we want to look forward: toward the women making crossword history in the here and now, paving the way for a more equitable future. Toward Anna Shectman, Portia Lundie (see the “Three of a Kind” crossword for more of Lundie’s work), and other profound women seeking not to standardize crosswords, but to complicate the idea that standardization should be the ideal.
These days, The Inkubator is a funded and functional crossword subscription service, sending puzzles by women and nonbinary constructors to subscribers a few times each month. As their mission statement puts it, the project serves as “a venue for women to exhibit and get paid for high-quality puzzles, especially (but not exclusively) puzzles that may not have a chance at mainstream publications due to feminist, political, or provocative content.”
Back in October 2018, The Inkubator was just a dream with a Kickstarter. Around this time, Hailey Gavin interviewed co-founder and constructor Laura Braunstein about her vision for The Inkubator’s future. In response to a question about the suffocating nature of mainstream crossword norms, Braunstein put forth the inspiring challenge: “If this is a pluralistic culture and people are threatening that, could the puzzle be a place where we fight back? Could the puzzle be a place of resistance?”
Braunstein nods to another project, spearheaded by Deb Amlen, Amy Reynaldo, and Patti Varol. Women of Letters is a puzzle packet by some of the industry’s top constructors who happen to be women. The puzzles serve as an incentive for solvers to donate to women-centric causes—if you give at least ten dollars to one of the charities listed on the project’s page, and email your screenshot to WomenofLettersCrosswords@gmail.com, you’ll receive the packet in return. By combining a platform for crossword-constructing women with a call for financial support for activism, Women of Letters shows us a concrete way in which the puzzle can be a place of resistance.
Even if it didn’t link arms with other causes, Women of Letters, like The Inkubator, would be a remarkable example of women fighting for a pluralistic culture. It is a radical act just to represent an alternative set of perspectives to those typically laid out in the grids that we allow to define valuable knowledge (“Crosswords are strange arbiters of cultural relevance,” after all). These projects are especially radical because they put a name to how these constructors’ perspectives defy institutional norms, shining a light on gender’s importance. Portia Lundie put it elegantly: “In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere,” no such thing as an objective relationship to language or to knowledge of the world around us.
A pluralistic culture can only be represented in the plural, by a rising tide of women, all with different views from different places, lifting all boats. Solidarity matters more than figureheads when it comes to making real change.
Daily POP walks the walk, regularly bringing you puzzles constructed and edited by women.
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