'Women's Writing' and 'Feminism': A History of Intimacy and Estrangement

By Simic, Zora | Outskirts, May 2013 | Go to article overview

'Women's Writing' and 'Feminism': A History of Intimacy and Estrangement


Simic, Zora, Outskirts


Women's Liberation in Australia and elsewhere created feminist readers and writers. Consciousness-raising and reading and writing were intimately linked. Within the women's movement, journals, magazines and newspapers were launched, small presses inaugurated and writing and reading groups formed. Subscription lists charted the explosion in new titles by, for and about women, and feminist bookshops stocked them. Women's writers' festivals, poetry readings and book launches were opportunities to find and promote new work, and to meet other feminists. Some women writers from the past were rediscovered and many contemporary female writers were championed. One of the most successful writers to emerge on the Australian literary scene in the 1970s - Helen Garner, whose debut novel Monkey Grip (1977) won the National Book Council's Book of the Year award in 1978 - directly linked her ascendency to feminism. A specifically feminist literary criticism began to develop. More generally, feminism also helped to expand the market for women's writing, so much so that by the 1980s major publishers were developing lists of women's fiction and/ or subsuming feminist presses into their operations.

One of the net effects of all of this activity was that within and outside of the women's movement, 'women's writing' and 'feminism' were increasingly and variously conflated and separated. This article historicises and analyses these processes and moments of connection and disconnection, or intimacy and estrangement. In the present cultural moment, where the need for a woman's only literary prize, called the Stella Prize, after Miles Franklin's first name, and awarded for the first time in April 2013 to novelist Carrie Tiffany, is easily justified on a number of fronts - ranging from a lack of parity in books reviewed and book reviewers to an enduring set of problematic assumptions about what constitutes 'women's writing' - it is worth revisiting the 1970s and 1980s as a formative era in which feminism was a crucial contributing factor to, and context for, a more diverse Australian literature in which female writers were integral and numerous. Yet, as the Stella Prize also reminds us, feminist politics and activity continues in the service of 'women's writing', and also in conflict with it. If feminists were the first and most eager champions of 'women's writing' in the 1970s, they were also at the vanguard of critical interrogations of the same field.

It is also hoped that this short, episodic history of Australian feminism's engagement with 'women's writing' will provide further evidence of a multiplicity of feminisms within the women's movement, evident from the first instance of Women's Liberation. These have been categorised into reformist and radical, institutionalised and grass-roots strands, though these divisions are perhaps too neat. Ann Genovese's description of a 'strange mix of liberal/ socialist/libertarian feminists' who by the 1980s began to be distinguished from a radical lesbian feminism offers a more evocative account of the shifting terrain (1996 142).

In the roughly twenty period traversed in this article - dated from the beginnings of Women's Liberation in Australia in the early 1970s to the end of the 1980s, the so-called 'Woman's Decade' in Australian literature and publishing - I will trace a number of ways and contexts in which the place of 'women's writing' within feminism, and feminism within 'women's writing' was discussed and debated. Firstly, I begin with the women's movement itself, where 'women's writing' - sometimes used interchangeably or in crucial distinction from 'feminist writing' - was part of a broader 'culture renaissance' (Magarey) that emerged from within second wave feminism in Australia and elsewhere. For the majority of women in the women's movement, reading and/ or writing were part of a broader commitment to feminism, and one of any number of activities that made up their political and cultural engagement and activism. …

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