In this second post of the summer we’re highlighted the work of the digital magazine Lady Science. In the interview below I spoke with co-editors and creators of Lady Science Anna Reser and Leila McNeill. Leila is currently an independent researcher and freelance writer. She studied History of Science at the University of Oklahoma and Literary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. Anna is a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma in History of Science, and previously studied art at the University of New Mexico.
Sarah Naramore: Where did the idea for Lady Science come from? Also, what were the steps you needed to take to go from idea for full-fledged digital magazine?
Leila McNeill: I don’t think we had that idea in mind when we started. It was the year after I had left OU [University of Oklahoma]. Anna was a year behind me and we wanted to keep working together so we started a women in science newsletter. It started as a TinyLetter, just us writing some essays, and it got popular quickly. It became clear that it couldn’t just be a newsletter anymore. There was more potential to it than just us writing a newsletter every month.
Anna Reser: Yeah, once we realized that there was a potential audience, I think that was motivating to try to figure out ways to grow the project and kind of knuckle down and be like, “Well, people are going to read this. We should be serious about it.” Think about the future of what we want to do and start making some plans. We just kind of jumped into it. Once we got a little bit of a readership, that was sort of all the push that I think we needed.
SN: What is the readership at this point like?
LM: It’s a lot of different people. It started out, with the H-Net post and most of the people signed up in that initial launch were historians and academics. Then, over that first year, it steadily grew beyond just academics. Then we got covered in Slate on the “Bad Astronomy” blog, and that brought in a lot of more science-y people, not just history people. And we’ve gotten a couple surprising plugs as well. One was from a fashion and makeup magazine that featured us in a Snapchat thing. So it’s really cool that we’ve been able to see how this content appeals to so many different people.
AR: I don’t know what our numbers are right now. We’re a little bit spread out over different platforms. We still have the TinyLetter. We’re syndicating with the The New Inquiry, and then we have our own website. We have about 580 TinyLetter subscribers.
SN: On that note, would you describe your content a bit? Is there anything that’s been recently published that you’re excited about?
AR: We don’t focus just on women as practitioners in science. We look at women as having been objects of scientific inquiry, like the gendered understandings of nature and science and we’ve had several issues unpacking that, and we also look more, at the structural things going on there. So not only do I think we tell different stories about women in the history of science, I think we also tell stories about science.
LM: What makes us different than others writing about women in history of science is that we don’t do profiles. And we don’t like to that whole unsung women in the history of science type of stuff. We like to do more critical theorizing about things. Right now we’ve got our special series on “Fascism, Gender, and Science”. Part of that was because we wanted to address things that people were thinking about with what’s going on right now, and give people a historical context for where we’re at. I think historians always have a lot to offer when it comes to that, and I think that a lot of academics don’t know how to do that or don’t know what platforms are out there.
SN: Speaking of practice, that leads into something else that I wanted to talk about, your collaborative editorial process. Why is that something important that you and how does it affect the magazine?
AR: When we first decided to have outside contributors, one of the things that we were really adamant about was that there wasn’t going to be any revise and resubmit kind of journal-type format. We wanted it to be more like a traditional magazine in that you would submit a pitch instead of a finished piece, and that the process would be a collaborative one between writer and editor. As an editor, one of the most surprising things that I found about working on this project after we started having other people write for us is how rewarding I find that process and how useful it is for me as a writer to have editing experience. I have found it really rewarding and really a rich experience to work with all these different types of writers and to get to know their style, and it’s nice to hear that the work that you did with someone is something they’re proud of.
LM: Yeah, I like that we personally respond to all of the pitches. We are the ones who edit them. We use Google Docs on purpose because it is collaborative and you can see who is doing what. We do have a certain style and word count that we have to stick to so that there is some consistency that our readers come to expect from us. But we’re also really careful to try not to change someone’s voice and tone and that they get to write the way that they want to, or the way that feels good for them or natural for them. We want them to feel that at the end of it that it wasn’t just a chop job that we did because it was what we wanted. We want it to be something that they’re also happy with and proud of.
I’ve been freelancing a little bit, and there is just so much variation in the way that editors work and the things that they expect from their writers and that they expect from cold calls or prior relationship pitches or whatever. I wish it was the way that we did it everywhere because it’s meant to be welcoming to people who don’t have experience, sort of writing out there in digital media. And I think that sets the tone for a less adversarial kind of interaction. You know what we want and you show us what you want and we will work together on it.
SN: If people are interested in writing, what would you be interested in hearing about?
AR: We are always accepting pitches on our website. Fill out the form, it will send us an email, and we’ll get back to you usually within a week. If we decide to go ahead and assign it, we will send you a writing guideline, and ask that, if you haven’t already, look through some old issues to get a feel for the essays that we publish. Then we’ll assign you a month to write in, set some deadlines up, and then you can get started. Right now, we’re particularly interested in more non-western history of science as well as pre-modern. Can we add one thing about our crowdfunding? Right now we are crowdfunding using Patreon in order to expand how much content we can offer and also to be able to host all of our content ourselves.
LM: Yeah and did we mention that we do pay you for the essays? If you pitch and we assign you a piece, it’s $50 per piece. Because of that, we’re locked into only two essays per issue, but it would be really nice if we could do more than two essays.
SN: Is there anything, looking over your experience with you found important or surprising, just either from the experience of putting this together or the feedback you’ve gotten from people?
LM: Any of it! That we’re still sitting here talking about it at all!
AR: I think part of the reason for that is that there are a lot of things that we didn’t know that we would be able to do until we did them, and for me, that was the big lesson of this project. We would talk about doing something, and we would be like, “Do you have any idea how to do that?” “No, do you?” “Well, I will just figure it out.” So everything was like that. It’s also much less scary, I think, to say “I have no idea how to do that; I will just figure it out,” if you’re not doing it alone. So forming and growing our partnership has been really rewarding, both for us as friends but also all of the things that I’ve learned how to do because I have Leila’s support. If we’re just going to jump into something, I know that if I screw it up, she’s there to back me up or fix it. It becomes a lot easier to try new things and learn new skills. That’s something that is a really important part of the project to me personally that was also surprising.
LM: I feel the same. I never would have done any of this on my own for sure, and something that was surprising—the full-time thing that I did outside of the thing that I got paid for, I turned out to be okay at it, and something that I want to be doing as a full-time thing eventually. That part of it, the personal trajectory is a thing that I would probably never have done without being partners with Anna. So it’s been really rewarding. We do try to have, to make it feel like a team. Academia can be so isolating. Even if you’re in a cohort together, at the end of the day you still go back to your thing, to your books, alone, sad, crying in fear. Whatever your method is.