Society of Women Writers 1925-1935
Heath, Lesley, Australian Literary Studies
THE Society of Women Writers was established in Sydney in 1925 and today continues to operate. Throughout its life, one of its key functions has been to provide a point of contact for women writers. A study of the society's first decade provides an insight into the cultural and social milieu of the founding members, and charts the change in the working life of women writers from casual contributors of articles, stories and poetry to the formative years of full-time paid employment in journalism and, for some, publication in book form. The early years also reveal the growth of support for Australian literature within the membership and practical measures undertaken to foster its growth and recognition.
In the years when literary journals did not exist or were short-lived, and when newspapers and magazines provided the principal outlets for creative writing because publishing opportunities were scarce, a literary career usually meant a career in journalism. The Society of Women Writers brought together a membership whose writing had a connection, overwhelmingly, with journalism. Some of the membership were contributors on an infrequent basis, others were freelance writers who were published more regularly, and some had permanent employment. Writers who had been published in book form, and aspiring playwrights, were also represented. It has been asserted that in order to reconstruct the cultural history of women between the wars, significant value should be accorded to 'non-traditional sources such as committee minutes', 'sensitive to the fact that what passes for gossip and trivia' can be 'profoundly philosophical' (Dever citing Berkinow, 144). Looking at the Society of Women Writers as an entity--and its committee minutes are an invaluable source--rather than at individual writers allows us to observe the dynamics and interaction of a wider social group, and reveals issues considered important to most of the membership, as well as issues of concern to only a few.
The membership of the new society was composed of women from a variety of middle- and upper-class backgrounds, whose connections with other societies placed them within an active social network with a diversity of interests. It was a membership with striking parallels to that of the Society of Women Painters established in 1910. Just as the older women of the Society of Women Painters provided a direct link back to the women's painting societies of the 1890s, of which they had been part, so the older members of the Society of Women Writers provided a similar link to the nineteenth-century women's literary societies of Sydney. The older members of the Women Painters and the Women Writers dominated proceedings in the earlier years when activities included those aimed at social and cultural improvement, a cornerstone of the work of the nineteenth-century societies.
The younger writers and painters were distinguished from the older founders by virtue of greater expectations of a serious career; their participation wrought changes that transformed both societies into more professional bodies, leaving behind much of the older emphasis on social amelioration. The Society of Women Painters has been described as marking a transitional stage in the gradual surfacing of 'gentlewomen's accomplishments from the home into public visibility', and as 'a group caught in the middle of a period of great change, aspiring to the new order but tied very much to the past' (Philp 3, 4). There is a sense of the latter description in the early years of the Society of Women Writers, but the fifteen years which elapsed between the establishment of the two societies, and the greater number of working women journalists in the full-time workforce compared with women painters, probably account for what seems to have been a comparatively painless transformation of the Society of Women Writers from its rather uncertain, hastily-formed inception--externally inspired--into a more focussed and modern institution. …