Women Writing: Views & Prospects 1975-1995
Panel Session: Publishing: Fact and Fiction / Stephanie Dowrick
This talk is about the Women's Press, its creation and social context, and how the press affected the literary landscape. I close with some observations on types of writing. Just to locate the remarks that will follow, which are, I think, rather informal, you should perhaps know that I grew up in New Zealand and I left there in 1967. I lived in Europe between 1967 and 1983, and my publishing life was born and developed there. My knowledge of Australia began in 1983 and I have made a few pathetic attempts to catch up on the history, the long history, that preceded that time.
What I am going to talk to you about mainly comes out of that European context. The fact that I went to Europe as a young adult makes a very great difference in the ways that I experienced it and also in what I was able to achieve, because I was always coming as a kind of double outsider: the outsider who was a woman and the outsider who was a woman from another land. This was actually a very good position to be in; I highly recommend it.
I thought I would just ask you to imagine for a moment that you lived a life in which there were no books written by women with a woman's consciousness. What a very bleak place that would be. Most of you have come here, I assume, because you responded to something that was on the front of the seminar brochure, the word women. I notice that with one or two exceptions those of you who have come are women. This arouses a lot of feelings in me. I have published for women primarily; I write for women primarily; my world is a world of women primarily and yet I think this situation is quite remarkable.
Let me relate a telling vignette from my own life. My children are 12 and 11. My 12-year-old son will just about read TV Hits, even if there is a girl on the front, but he would sort of skip over that bit. My daughter would read TV Hits whether there was a boy or a girl on the front. Neither of them reads Jane Eyre or Bleak House.
My son has vitually always attended a Steiner school and I think he is relatively non-sexist, but he would not read a novel with a girl on the front. There is this notion that somehow women will enter the place of writing and men, largely, will not enter places that are delineated as places of women's writing and women's thinking and women's articulation of their problems, of their interests, of their passions, of their desires, of their joys and so on. I wonder how that has changed in 25 years; not much, it seems to me.
Anyway, on to the setting up of The Women's Press and a little bit about the social context of that. The Press was created in 1977, when I was a young woman and everything seemed possible. That is the nature of being young: everything seems possible. It is, of course, very wise of publishers to hire young editors and young publishers because they work so incredibly hard; indeed because they do believe that everything is possible. With getting older you realise that some things are less possible, like men appearing at a seminar on women's writing.
So, in 1977 it happened that I was young, and also that some ideas were young, or rather some ideas were young in that they had been reborn. It was so unbelievably exciting. It was not simply that there was this amazing movement called the Women's Liberation Movement, but that there was also a civil rights movement, and there was an environmental movement and there was still a very strong peace movement. Of course, people still believed in socialism in those days, which made a great difference. It is harder to believe in socialism now-at least it's hard to believe in the ways that it is mediated through the bureaucracies.
So, all of those things were incredibly exciting at that time. I came out of mainstream publishing where I had been latterly publishing some books which were markedly feminist, by which I mean that they took a woman's point of view as absolutely central and perhaps arguable but not defeatable.
Then the opportunity arose, in the way of these things, to set up a new press. 'Synchronicity' of course played its part. I had a certain profile in publishing at that time, and Virago had started a year or two before and was publishing only non-fiction. Therefore it seemed it might be possible to find financial backing to publish fiction. So, that was the idea, that The Women's Press would be set up to publish fiction. But that notion only lasted about five minutes because clearly we were going to be a political press and therefore we had to take on the entire world-I mean, what else is a political press for?
We called ourselves The Women's Press because there was at that time a whole movement in Europe of various presses which identified themselves unequivocally in this particular kind of way, for example Edition de Femme and Frauenoffensive. There were others too in Italy and Spain and elsewhere. It was quite important: that we should state our case so explicitly. Then, of course, we brought in the jokes too, which centred on the emblem of the Press, our little iron. This was a joke about not being oppressed. Ironing is extremely repetitious and typically women's work and we were asking you, with this little iron, steaming ahead and red hot and all of that, not to be quite so oppressed. So, that was the image and we were full of hope and promise.
What did The Women's Press allow for readers? I will talk about that because what it allowed for writers is, I think, fairly self-evident; that is, it allowed a place where your work could be respected in very particular ways, because you could trust that it was not only the editor (mainstream houses have always lived on the work of highly intelligent women editors) who understood what your work was all about. The entire publishing house existed to share with readers the substance of your work. For readers there was this promise or guarantee; even if you liked one book more than another, you would not mistakenly waste your money on a book which would in any way insult your intelligence, your knowledge of what life is or could possibly be and your own lived experience. It would acknowledge that you had visions and passions and desires beyond the ordinary.
Of course, it was never easy, and it still isn't. The Women's Press these days exists with an exceptional and strong backlist but always in a climate in which it is hard to survive; always with financial crises and always with slightly bizarre attention from the press. For example, when there was a big crisis within the company a few years ago, the press were incredibly excited that women seemed to be fighting women. We have recently seen this again in Australia with Helen Garner and The First Stone controversy.
How did The Women's Press affect the literary environment? Well, of course we profoundly affected the literary environment. Every mainstream publisher began to publish feminist books and indeed made great efforts to poach our authors and, in some cases, did succeed. But we also affected other environments: we affected the political environment; we affected the social environment; we affected the economic environment; we affected the inner environment of readers, women and men; we affected the way that people thought about themselves in everyday life and I think that was extremely important.
My own books-the two books that I regard as my major books-Running Backwards Over Sand and Intimacy and Solitude, illustrate in different ways a concept that comes out of this milieu, that is, women are entitled to an intellectual life. If you grew up in the fifties and sixties you understand how incredibly important that concept is; then, it was okay to be clever; but it was not okay to have an intellectual life, and there is a real difference between those two things. It was okay to regurgitate facts, to pass exams very fluently and so on; it was not okay to have opinions. I think one of the things that The Women's Press undoubtedly did was to allow women to have outrageous opinions and to be published and to have those opinions defended.
What really interests me now is not so much the 'women and men' question in terms of writing, because what we see now, 20 years on or so, is that there are many, many women writing in all sorts of ways, some of which are not at all interesting or even feminist or uninterestingly feminist or whatever. What I am really interested in is that a certain kind of feminine consciousness is very hard to find, is very easily ridiculed and is very under understood.
So, the feminine writing which I think is tremendously under siege-sometimes written by women, sometimes written by men, sometimes completely ignored by women-is subjective writing in the sense that you own the relationship between yourself and what you are doing. It would be allusive, it would be uncertain and exploratory; it could also be unbelievably exciting. It is a kind of 'wet' writing as opposed to the 'dry' writing, which I'll speak about in just a second. It is the inner life, the unconscious, the non-linear, the introverted, and it can occur in all kinds of writing. You know, you could make an economic analysis of what is happening in Australia right now from that perspective and it would be enormously interesting. On the other hand, of course, 'wet' writing is set up against and judged by the dominant standards of masculine thinking-also as practised by some women. This other, so-called dry writing is cognitive, linear, argumentative, (immensely argumentative,) immensely certain, implicitly or even explicitly denying the intuitive, unconscious of what it is doing, objective, extroverted, acting out rather than diving in. *
*This paper is based on an edited transcript of an audio recording, with the permission of Stephanie Dowrick.
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