Project for Women-Created Crossword Puzzles Finds All The Right Clues

Nov 22, 2018

Laura Braunstein is a librarian at Dartmouth College in Hanover, and she's also a constructor of crossword puzzles.

She's aware of the gender disparity among crossword puzzle editors. Most are men. So she and a colleague teamed up to create the Inkubator.  It's on ongoing subscription venue for publishing twice-monthly crossword puzzles created by women. Her Kickstarter campaign, which ended Tuesday, has raised more than three times its $10,000 goal. She joins Morning Edition to speak about her venture. 

 Why in your view is it important to have more women constructing crossword puzzles?

Well I should say that there are a lot of women constructing crossword puzzles now. I think the problem has been publishing and I think in general I would have to say in any kind of culture it's great to have diversity because it makes things better.

And how would diversity look in this case. How would it change a crossword puzzle?

I would think that you would see more variety in the kinds of clues and answers -- we call them entries -- themes that you'd see in a puzzle. The puzzle would have broader appeal to greater audiences. I think there's a cliché that the crossword is all about minor characters and operas or somebody who is on a baseball team in the 1950s and I think you know those are great things to know. But I think we can also become engaged with contemporary culture. The crossword puzzle can help people learn about things they didn't know about before.

So this is not necessarily constructed to bring in things that women stereotypically know about but just things that more people might know about in a sort of a wider sample of the population?

I would say that's true. I would also say that, occasionally -- and this is really I think a reflection of the broader culture, of the wider culture -- is that you do see things clued in a crossword in a way that might objectify women or not really frame women as agents or might take what we might call a hetero normative perspective. You might see the word say, like a word like Mom, clued as dad's partner, whereas you know I think we would be more inclined in our project to clue a word like, you know, if we had the word moms in a puzzle to clue that as some families have two. So I think sort of not assuming who the person is who's solving it and what that person's perspective on that knowledge might be as well.

As you are constructing a crossword puzzle, did you ever have any trouble working with a male editor trying to get your point across?

Well I once put the word sass in a puzzle: s-a-s-s. And I knew this would get edited but I clued it as what assertive women speech is sometimes characterized as, and that's a little bit too long write for a newspaper puzzle anyway, but it got edited to backtalk, which is, granted, a synonym for sass. But I just thought it was really ironic because in some ways what I was doing was sassing the clue a little bit.

Your Kickstarter campaign stresses that the constructors of the crossword puzzles will be paid. Why is that important? Are most constructors not paid?

They are paid for the major newspapers and for some of the more independent projects that you can get subscriptions by email, which is what our project will do. But there has been ... one of the ways that people often break into this business is by setting up their own blog and just giving away their puzzles for free and kind of developing a reputation that way. It was important for us that people would want to publish with us, that women constructors want to publish with us, not just for exposure but because we're paying them and valuing their work.

Your project had a big response on Kickstarter you well exceeded your goal. Why do you think the project has struck such a chord?

I don't know if it was a combination of the time that it came out and just that this has been I think in our community. Our subculture, this has been needed for a long time. You know I had a little bit of soul searching after the election and I thought, wow, why didn't I spend,  why didn't we spend all this time and all that you know raising money for candidates who would you know - for progress and for change - instead of  puzzles, instead of something that could be construed as a distraction. But some friends of mine gave me some feedback and said, you know, making something is also a kind of activism, making something is an intervention into making the world into something you want to see.