Women Writing: Views & Prospects 1975-1995
Different Views, Longer Prospects / Bronwyn Levy *
Looking back over the past 20 years from a 1995 vantage point, when more works by both contemporary and past women writers are in print than ever before, there is a lot to celebrate.
Today there is such a range of writing by women-many fictional genres, poetry, drama, novels, short stories, also essays, biography and autobiography. But in 1975, on a surface view at least, there was comparatively little in terms of book-length publications by women.
In 1975 Monkey Grip by Helen Garner, often seen as an early, if not the first, feminist novel in Australia, had not yet been published; this occurred in 1977. And, in an interesting prefiguring of the 1995 debate about Garner's book The First Stone, there was much argument among feminists in 1977 as to the feminist status of that early novel. Monkey Grip, written from an implied feminist narrative perspective-but about a not-yet-liberated woman in a broadly alternative, rather than women's movement in an urban subculture-raised questions of prescription in some of its feminist readings, at the same time as it was attacked fairly soundly for immorality by a number of reviewing critics. These elements of problematic reception and definition of feminist works recur throughout the period under discussion.
In 1975 we had poetry by Oodgeroo, who was then writing as Kath Walker, but we had no book-length, fictional or autobiographical works by black Australian women. This occurred with Faith Bandler's Whack Thee in 1977 and Monica Claire's posthumous novel Carabran published in 1978 and Ella Simon's autobiography in 1979, which is the same year Roberta Syke's Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Actions was published in collected form. Most book-length writing by Australian Aboriginal women dates from the mid-to late-1980s, with writers like Elsie Rufsey or Ruby Langford Ginibi, Mavis Edmond, Doris Pilkington, Jackie Huggins, Sally Morgan and many others.
In 1975 we had several books by Thea Astley but none, yet, by Elizabeth Jolley-they were all in the bottom drawer of her desk at that stage seeking publication. We had two by Barbara Hanrahan but as yet no Rosa Cupaello, Olga Masters (another bottom- drawer writer), Kate Grenville, Sara Dowse and Marion Halligan. We were just rediscovering Christina Stead. Compared to today, this seems like an almost unimaginable literary landscape-so much has been published, has been written, in the past 20 years.
What women writers were we able to read in 1975? Of course there were earlier writers who were in print at this point and whose interests, interestingly enough, prefigured or anticipated some of the books from the 1970s and onwards, including, for example, Elizabeth Harrower, whose 1950s and 1960s novels include The Long Prospect, a title which coincides with the title of this seminar, with the prospects for women's writing and with the title of my paper. This leads of course to the question of whether a difference of view, or rather differences of view, multiply with women writers.
By and large I think the outlook does alter, but how that happens is not straightforward and not necessarily obvious even at the time. So, at this point I caution that, while I think we have a lot to celebrate, I don't want to be uncritical in this celebration. The situation of all women writers is not the same; it is a complicated terrain and there are a number of conflicts and arguments as well as achievements.
I was struck, when thinking about Elizabeth Harrower and her Long Prospect and the prospects of this seminar, by the desolation or even cruelty that is implied in the titles of some of her psychological novels about the condition of women-titles like The Long Prospect, The Catherine Wheel, The Watch Tower-very spooky, grim titles. She is a very interesting writer with quite an important anticipatory position in terms of women's writing today.
Also published in 1975, and important in terms of the development of Australian women's writing were two novels. The first, The Commandant by Jessica Anderson, is a critique of colonialism and convictism. The second, the pseudonymous Elizabeth Riley's All That False Instruction, represents what is, I think, the first second-wave feminist novel in Australia (rather than Monkey Grip) and oddly enough was published by a major publishing house. It is often seen as the first lesbian novel in Australia. I claim this as an early feminist novel because I think the narrative viewpoint of pre-women's and pre-gay liberation days, which is in part the topic and the point of the book, is explicitly lesbian feminist. All that False Instruction can be read as being written out of and perhaps written into (in terms of audience) a specifically feminist and lesbian feminist context. Of course, this is not the only definition of a feminist novel; there are a range of definitions and perhaps different definitions might be used by different people for different reasons, as well as different definitions by the same person for a range of reasons or strategic positions.
Another feminist novel might be Glenn Tomasetti's 1976 account of family life, Thoroughly Decent People. All That False Instruction was not immediately joined by other book-length lesbian works. This occurred more from the mid-to late-1980s and into the 1990s with writers like Helen Hodgeman, Susan Hampson, Claire McNab (who first published in the United States), Finola Moorehead, Kathleen Mary Fallon, Shayne Rowlands and a number of others, but a little earlier if you include some of the works with lesbian themes by Kate Grenville, Beverley Farmer and Elizabeth Jolly. There is, I think, an unevenness in the publishing history of lesbian writing, at least book-length works, in Australia.
Well, the difference of view leading to longer prospects is thus rapidly becoming differences of view, from Australian women writers. But first I need to qualify the impression that I have already conveyed of Australian women's writing in the past 20 years.
In the 1970s, for example, we need to question some of the criteria of mainstreamed accounts of literature, including women's literature, if we are to be able to see the women's writing that was in fact going on at the time. The usual rather generalised and often masculine critical shorthand of the recent development of Australian women's writing might go something like this:
In the 1970s there wasn't very much. This was a decade of the expansion of Australian literary publishing, but very largely by men-Frank Moorhouse and others: the Frank Moorhouse phenomenon. Then the 1980s might be seen as a decade in which there was a dramatic growth in the women's novel, leading, some conspiracy theorists have erroneously argued, to its dominance. Some male novelists got a little edgy about the number of women novelists who were being published at this point-some of you may be familiar with Gerard Windsor's conspiracy theory from the mid-1980s. The 1990s necessitates a superseding of the assumptions in categories like Australian women's writing-this is a dominant account and not one that I myself would agree with. With the phenomenon of both Helen Garner and Helen Demidenko/Darville, not just on the literary pages but on the front pages and editorials of newspapers in 1995, we have to ask what this means, if anything, for Australian women's writing in general.
So, we have had the 'two Helens' phenomenon, along with the 'too many books, too many books' (including women's maybe?) syndrome, currently experienced by commentators like Luke Slattery in the context of a broad attack on what has been, until very recently, the norm of Australia Council literature funding.
My own account of this period would be rather different. I would say that, apart from the book-length publications that I have already mentioned, the 1970s, in terms of women's writing, were characterised by a lot of interesting, often experimental, often very punchy, and quite explicitly feminist, women's writing, but not in novels. Instead you found women's writings in short fiction, in prose pieces, in poetry, in performance.
There were a number of small anthologies, and some large ones like Mother I'm Rooted. For this period you would need to look in the small literary magazines and journals, including feminist journals. Some of the writers, including Anna Couani and Ania Wolwicz, Joanne Burns, Pamela Brown and a range of others, have been publishing through the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Women writers hadn't always made it into 'big books' at this stage, even though there were novels published. There was a lot of experimental and innovative writing but, for the average reader, whoever she may be, it was harder to find this material. So, in my generalised account of the 1970s, there are questions of accessibility and networks and how people find out, how women find out, about the books that they want to read.
The 1980s were characterised by a growth in, or perhaps more correctly, increased visibility of the Australian women's novel-although not a dominance as some nervous people have said. While the women's novel was published and received quite a lot of critical attention at this point other genres such as poetry and drama did not receive the same attention and were still neglected. Collections of short stories and novels were published mainly in the mid-1980s. A number of writers who came to prominence usually gave white, maybe middle-class and heterosexual perspectives in their books and debated, quite interestingly, the experiences of women from those backgrounds. Perhaps more importantly, these works tended to be read largely as being about (even if critical of) the private sphere, the personal life, the family and other love relationships, of women.
We had the addition of a 'women's sphere' but in rather limited terms. I think some readings limited what those books were actually doing, focussing on the domestic or private sphere setting, rather than on what the texts had to say about it.
What we also see happening in this period, and again it is not as visible in the dominant accounts, is the concerted production of writings by women who were not as well known and not always as well marketed, but who narrated from rather different perspectives. While there were a number of important anthologies that promoted writing of this sort at this time, the name of one of them, Difference, edited by Susan Hawthorne, encapsulates the variety of perspectives. Difference was published in 1985. In the introduction Susan Hawthorne said that the anthology attempted to 'reflect the diversity of backgrounds and interests displayed in women's writing'.
Hence there was an alternative current in the literature published in a number of anthologies, small journals and so on. How you might describe these kind of differences was a debate at the time and remains one, but it was this notion of diversity and the idea of female difference that controversially marked Hawthorne's account. She saw difference as a source of strength rather than weakness, something which represented a significant shift from the previous years of discussion about women's writing: difference as strength not weakness.
What we see emerging around this time is a reconceptualisation of the feminine as a feminist literary practice. This was beginning to be talked about and to be written. It marked the practice, I think, of writers as differently placed in terms of their relatively formal relations with feminism as say Beverley Farmer or Marian Campbell. Campbell's novels can be read fairly easily within some of the theoretical discussions going on in post-structuralist feminism whereas Farmer's are more easily read in relation to feminist debates rather than placed within them. There is a tension between liberal pluralist approaches to diversity and more overtly politicised concepts that continues through the 1980s and into the current period, the 1990s.
Well, of course the 1990s are not finished yet and so I am loath to start making very clear pronouncements about how we might describe present trends. However, I can point to some key developments that seem to be emerging with some strength more recently. There seems to be a renewed experiment in sexually frank writing by women: writing the body. That is in part, although not entirely, associated with the emergence of the second generation, of the second wave of young women writers, (the second generation, second-wave women's movement).
There is also the growth and consolidation of indigenous women's writing, along with an interest in critiques of colonialism, national identity and so forth in some of the fiction currently being published. This represents, I think, a distinct shift from some of the 1980s' work. There is an emergence of Asian-Australian women's writing following the earlier 1980s' oppositional current of various European-Australian women's writings. I am thinking about writers like Simone Lazaroo and Beth Yahp joining some who published earlier, like Wen Lowald, and also of experiments with the new media.
A key difference between any fiction of the past 20 years and what preceded it is the growth in Australia of feminism-or feminisms-following on from the earlier women's liberation movement. There's actually an argument in feminist circles about what these different terms mean: women's liberation, women's movement, feminism and so on, which is why I am cautious about the use of terms, or at least careful to indicate there are different terms. There are questions of broadening-out of concerns, and loss of political impetus.
The difference in context between now and 20 or 25 years ago cannot be emphasised too much. Women's writing at present, whether it relates to that difference directly or not, is written and will sometimes be read in a cultural context that includes the recent women's movement with all the debates, arguments and conflicts that these involve.
The way that these relations can be read may, of course, be fairly direct or may be very highly mediated. This was not the case for earlier women's writing-for Elizabeth Harrower in the fifties and sixties for example. The earlier absence of this women's movement context provides a key reason for the critical neglect of that writing, as well perhaps, for the kinds of dismal associations implied for women in the titles of Harrower's novels. This does not mean that all recent women's writing is feminist, not at all. The term 'feminist' is hotly debated and, of course, for some it is rejected as too much and for others the term is rejected as inadequate, as not enough. In any case, applying categories like feminist to a fictional work, even considering the changes in the term in the past 20 years, is far more complicated than applying it to a theoretical work or indeed to an individual.
A defining feature of literary and other artistic works is an informing structural and generic assumption of multiple, although maybe not always infinite, meanings so that different modes or registers of feminist affiliation produced in the act of reading as well as in writing have been developed. On the one hand is the identification of subversive notions of the feminine in texts that may not always seem all that explicitly political-subversive writing or reading against the grain was often mentioned rather loosely in relation to the better-known women writers of the 1980s. On the other hand is the identification of more or less consciously feminine uses of language in writing (uses of language that are likely to be recognised as encoding feminist affiliation) and the retrieval and reinterpretation of feminist possibilities in pre-second-wave women's movement texts.
Think of the re-readings of already well-known writers like Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson and Christina Stead, or the restoration of feminist meanings to 1930s' and 1940s' women writers more generally. The reading context for works by Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Jean Devanny or, for that matter, Dorothy Hewett's novel Bobbin Up, is very different now than when they were first published, and also in comparison to the reading context of the romance tradition of the late nineteenth century.
Another version of a feminist reading would be a more limited but more precise triangular relationship as proposed by Cora Kaplan of reader, author and text in an explicitly women's movement context. The Elizabeth Riley book mentioned earlier provides an important, early-Australian example of this.
My own preference, as a critic, for texts of the recent period is to describe texts in which this triangular relationship occurs as feminist, although there are always arguments about just what feminist means, in order to preserve the more explicitly politically conscious connections that can be found in some writing, but to talk of feminist readings and, where appropriate, to talk of readings that aim to draw out the political dimensions of these cultural artefacts, bearing in mind that feminist readings, like readers, will vary and that the politics of gender are not adequate alone to describe the situation or the imagination of most groups of women.
Whatever the questions and debates raised by this practice, I take it to be creative rather than an act of labelling, to be multi-directional. This is something that is not always recognised. One thing that interested me about the recent Demidenko/Darville controversy, is that feminist critics generally were not asked for their comments-a lot of Australianist critics were, but not many feminists. It is as if feminists are only asked to speak specifically about gender.
Marilyn Lake mentioned something similar a couple of years ago. Talking about how as a feminist historian of Australian history, she had not often been asked to comment on broad questions of national identity, as if gender is the only issue involving women and that a feminist critic would be concerned with. Since then, Lake and a number of others have actually entered into the identity debate, the Australian republic debate. But I don't think anyone actually asked them to do this; I believe they have had to clear the space themselves.
A problem with some feminist readings centres on questions of proscription-what used to be called 'role model readings'-proscriptions which should be seriously avoided. My main point here is that without the development of a critical discourse that was able to sympathetically consider the phenomenon of women's writing, no matter how difficult to define, I don't think we would have been at a Women Writing seminar in celebratory mode. And neither would we be at the seminar without the work of many others in cultural institutions generally-women writers of course-but also women in publishing, whether in small independent presses or in larger ones; women working on various journals; librarians, teachers, not to mention readers; those who buy, borrow, discuss and share books.
Without this cultural context we would not be able to witness what I see as the main achievement of recent Australian women's writing. Despite all the unevenness and conflicts that I have indicated, I believe that women's writing in Australia represents the single most important cultural site in which the sign 'woman' has been debated over the past 20 years. This is a larger cultural site than in the areas of theory, history and sociology, for example, and in literature I include autobiography, biography and essays.
What then of the writers themselves, those writing the plot, all faced with specifically gendered and also class- and race-inflected complications of the relations between writing literary texts, the body, politics, language for national identity, and critiques? What kinds of things has the recent great experiment of women's writing achieved? One area that is especially interesting, among innumerable other achievements, is how the woman artist or questions of art and writing have been figured in a number of recent women's texts, as well as in the works of Christina Stead, Henry Handel Richardson and so on.
In a number of the recent literary texts we often find a questioning of individualist notions of the woman writer, or indeed of the woman heroine, sometimes of the feminist heroine altogether. The rebel stereotype is being questioned-how she fits into the rest of society, how she relates to other women is being questioned. An example of this occurs in Finola Moorehead's Still Murder. Our heroine, who is a policewoman, is shown to be not very capable of interpreting what is going on around her and more marginal women; a mad woman, so-called, and a nun actually have a better idea of what is going on. That may also be one way of thinking about Helen Garner's problem in The First Stone. I think she wants the Ormond College women to be much more anarchic kinds of heroines than they actually were. They were working within, were accepting, a system, and it seems to be this that Garner objected to-revealing her uncertainty about women who might contemplate wearing shoulder pads perhaps-but maybe not entirely fairly in this case.
We have a very rich range of literary texts that involve a reworking and sometimes a rejection of more bourgeois notions of individualism in terms of the woman artist. An example is Drusilla Modjeska's Poppy where Modjeska moves interestingly between criticism and theory. Another writer who has done a substantial amount of art criticism as well as novel writing is the Melbourne writer Janine Bourke. Her most recent publication is an edited collection of letters. All of her works, whether critical works, biography or novels, are about artists or writers in one way or another and her novels tend to question the position of the woman writer fairly centrally. Second Sight has a critic who conveniently loses her manuscript and decides to write a novel instead, after having seen herself trapped as a subject or object in her boyfriend's photographic exhibition. Her first neglected novel Speaking, published in 1984, looks back over the decade of the 1970s. There's a lot of discussion in that book about how writing might be done, about how various fragmented impressions can be put together in the one text.
In an interesting recent autobiographical text by Penelope Nelson called Penny Dreadful we get quite a powerful undermining of what is often a very masculine individualist tradition of the artist. Penelope Nelson says in her autobiography that, oh yes, she has happened to write a few books but the question then for us as readers is: how do we understand this? Do we see her as being perhaps rather feminine and modest and self-deprecating? Or do we, given the other material in her autobiography, see her rather, as trying to displace some oppressive traditions of the male artist? One of the motivations impelling Nelson to write her autobiography is to argue against the representations of herself that appear in some of the films by Bob Ellis. Set in the 1950s and 1960s before the women's movement, the book provides a really interesting picture of a confused young woman struggling into some sense of identity. I think Nelson actually refuses a narrative of feminine or feminist heroism in relation to herself as an artist figure quite deliberately, and this is because of the oppression she has experienced in the face of the masculine artist hero.
Nelson in some of her other work is preoccupied with questions of what stories get told and who tells them, and with the structures of memory and feeling. Her novel Prophesying Backwards fictionalises some of the material in her autobiography as a rebellious young woman in the 1960s getting into various messes. The young woman is juxtaposed with another rebel heroine who is an artist at the end of the nineteenth century. The earlier heroine is brutally treated by her family and does not fulfil her artistic potential. Her sexual transgression with an Aboriginal man also makes clear that the likely outcome for him would not have been disgrace, as it was for the woman, but death. And, interestingly, Nelson also looks at nineteenth century anti-Chinese prejudice. This is a book that is quite clearly trying to intervene in some of our national identity debates.
Another book which engages in this debate is Joan Dugdale's autobiographical Struggle of Memory, where an old woman tries to retrieve her past memories, a lot of which have been very severely psychologically repressed, including her feelings over the internment of her German-born but Australian-naturalised husband in World War I.
What of other writers? What are they doing in relation to national identity? I am interested in the technique of Ruby Langford Ginibi's history, My Bunjalung People (1994), which, as part of its narrative, explicitly discusses the work she did to write the book-the journeys, the interviews, the adventures along the way. Ginibi has said on several occasions that as an Aboriginal woman she does not see herself as writing only about herself but rather in some ways writing for her people. In conventional white male terms, she has come late to writing but is not deterred by that. At the end of the book she tells us that her fifth book is planned, she is writing her fourth and she is also writing protest letters about the closures of Aboriginal hostels. There is a quite remarkable energy going on here.
Another important book published in 1994, Mad Meg by Sally Morrison, gives a long, very complicated and very powerful discussion of art and the figure of the female artist, going back to earlier in the twentieth century. She also looks at the art movements, including the feminist movements of the 1970s and the 1980s, and at motherhood and its conflicts. The book is named for the Breughel painting of an anarchistic, energetic female figure who, in the novel, gives her name to a women's art gallery where the characters work. Mad Meg's last paragraphs, just a couple of sentences, offer some salient observations for me to finish up on. Morrison (1994) says through the narrator, the artist narrator:
What do you want to know? What can I tell you? About a lonely cup on a table top I once painted? Womb and nourishment but through art - the gift the world would not allow me to bestow. I didn't think it mattered if a painter was male or female. I started out thinking a woman could be an artist but now I know the artist is also a woman.
The rain has stopped and everything is clear.(p. 424)
Our artist figure in this novel is rather thwarted at the end. She has painted but she has not done as much as she has wanted to. The position that she arrives at, that the artist is also a woman, not just that the woman is also an artist, represents the kind of shift or the development-the trajectory-of a lot of feminist thought and a lot of other discussion about women writers and artists in the past 20 years.
So, the rain has stopped at the end of the novel and everything is clear, but we may well want to question whether there is an irony involved in this statement. Still, if everything is clear then we can see, if not forever, then at least for a very long way, which brings me to the longer prospects which I suggest are the differences of view that this seminar embraces. Difference is what we are aiming to see.
*This paper is based on an edited transcript of an audio recording, with the permission of Bronwyn Levy.
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