Last month, Sally Hoelscher published her first crossword puzzle in The New York Times. It was Presidents’ Day; the theme was memoirs by first ladies. Like lots of nerdy subcultures, the crossword puzzle has a buzzing ecosystem, and it whirred into action. Hoelscher posted a photo of the newspaper her husband rose early on his day off to buy, and veteran crossword constructors, as they’re called, offered congratulations in a Facebook group that develops constructors from underrepresented groups. Some of the Times’ 600,000 digital-crossword subscribers finished Hoelscher’s puzzle with their thumbs, extending their solving streaks, and crossword bloggers (yes, they exist) favorably reviewed the puzzle’s theme, non-thematic vocabulary, and clues.
In comments sections on crossword blogs, alongside off-color jokes about hypothetical titles for a Melania Trump memoir, a debate raged. Jenni Levy, an internist and a writer on the review site Diary of a Crossword Fiend, applauded how Hoelscher’s puzzle “passe[d] the crossword Bechdel test.” But Levy bemoaned a “missed opportunity.”
“I went through looking for men’s names with mounting excitement: What if there weren’t any?” she wrote. Alas, 66-Across, DEE, was clued as “Billy ___ Williams,” not as the letter or the grade. Responding to Levy’s lament, a commenter wondered: “Why is it desirable/necessary to have women’s names predominate in crossword puzzles … I ignore the male/female body count.” Levy’s response was a perfect, full-throated call to arms for inclusivity in the crossworld:
Because women are underrepresented in puzzle content and creation. Clues and answers that are stereotypically masculine are “general interest;” clues and answers that are stereotypically feminine are “niche” or “obscure” … We’re so far from [parity] that a few puzzles with exclusively women’s names wouldn’t get us there … [and feminism here means] “we acknowledge the systemic forces that threaten women, we speak up when we see those forces represented in crosswords, and we call on our community to do better.”
Hoelscher appeared, replied to Levy, and said she’d submitted the puzzle with no men, but wasn’t surprised when the Times editors changed that.