Why Feminism is Personal: Lunchbox/Soapbox
Christine Gordon, bookseller and Stella Prize committee member, delivered our Lunchbox/Soapbox on International Women’s Day, to a rousing crowd response.
She talked about why sharing women’s stories is central to the success of feminism, reflected on some of the storytellers who’ve resonated most in her life – and explained why we need to give stories by Australian women their proper due. Here is the edited text of her talk.
There are so many options when talking on International Women’s Day.
I could talk about the history of this fine day. I could talk about gaining the vote, gaining the right to work, to education, to divorce, to have an abortion, to choose a certain lifestyle. I could talk about my anger – or indeed, the collective anger of women. I could talk about my pride in being a feminist, or the collective pride of feminists, for all that has been achieved and all that will be achieved.
But what I remember after listening to someone talk is not statistics, nor facts: I remember stories. That’s why I work in the book trade, as opposed to nuclear science.
Stories – my stories and other women’s stories – are what bring me here today.
Stories are what The Stella Prize is all about. The Stella Prize, an Australian version of the UK’s Orange Prize, will be an annual prize for the best book by an Australian woman writer published that year. The concept emerged following a panel held at Readings, on the 100th International Women’s Day, on the under-representation of women writers in our reviewing and prize culture. Conversations after the event led us – a group of passionate readers, writers and publishers – to begin the arduous task of setting up a prize to raise awareness of Australian women writers. We have some way to go, but we are determined; excited about both the process and the end result.
It seems right and just to me that such a prize should exist. Feminism – and International Women’s Day – is about sharing stories. Today, I want to reveal the journey of shared stories that led me here.
Growing up, I was one of those kids who read. I lived on the outskirts of Melbourne, on a hobby farm surrounded by paddocks. Some weeks, I would read a book a day. It was my transport. I favoured stories written by women; stories written by Australian women. Some of those books, some of that writing, stays with me now.
Let me paint you a picture.
It’s 1981. I’m a relatively sheltered 13-year-old, catching the bus to my all-girls’ private school. I’m wearing a kilt and a blazer. There is a kerfuffle on the back seat. Sailing over heads, a tattered copy of Puberty Blues lands in my lap. Written by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, it’s a proto-feminist teen novel about two 13-year-old girls from Sydney who attempt to become popular by integrating themselves with the ‘Greenhill gang’ of surfers. On that bus trip up the Calder Hwy, the back-seat tough girl (you know the one) grabs it from my lap with a snarl. ‘Give it ’ere,’ she says. ‘That’s mine.’
It took me another year to read the book, when a copy (that very same one, I believe) did the rounds of Year Eight. We schoolgirls talked about it endlessly. I had no idea people lived like this. More importantly, I had no idea why they wanted to live like this. I guess that was the whole point of the book.
I knew then that I certainly would not be jumping into the back of a van at the whim of some bloke who doesn’t even know the meaning of angst. Oh no: I was meant for better things. From that moment on, I knew I was a feminist.
It took me another few years to really work out exactly where I positioned myself. I found out mostly by talking too much – but in the end, it was by listening to other women’s stories.
Publisher Louise Swinn says she is ‘in this fortunate position of having people’s stories in my head all the time’. I appreciate what she means. Knowing other people’s stories (fictional or not) is a passport. One of the gifts Lette’s novel gave me back then in the early 80s was a love of the Australian woman’s voice; a voice that doesn’t bullshit. The Australian woman’s voice is the voice of honesty.
Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne takes in the Melbourne literary scene, with frequent mentions of writers like novelist Helen Garner and historian Robyn Annear. Again, it is a gathering of women’s take on the world, to make sense of your own landscape and your own truth. Looking at a bookshelf is like looking at a person’s diary. There it is: all laid out; harbouring secrets and desires among the words of others.
Towards the end of my high school years, I was given a copy of Anne Summers’ book, Damned Whores and God’s Police. It is the story of Australia and the women that helped shape it as the nation we know today. A missing chronicle of Australia. It drove me to preach out loud (and often) on my soapbox about the need for women’s rights. It gave me the anecdotes I needed when justifying my position.
What was impressive about Damned Whores and God’s Police was its call to arms – to join this vast, optimistic political movement. Summers taught me that being a feminist wasn’t just about saying no. It means engagement. I wanted that engagement. I wanted choices. And I wanted to be noticed. I wanted to be part of a collective that stood up and transformed the environment we lived in. I learned you do that best by sharing stories and experiences. You can change the world by forming friendships – or indeed, by forming committees. Dare I say, The Stella Prize is a beautiful example of that.
My memory of reading Helen Garner’s coming-of-age book Monkey Grip at university was actually all about the mutual analysis of it, the mystery and possibilities of the characters. I read this book because a friend gave it to me. It was the topic of conversation over many long nights. We couldn’t work out if we wanted to be playing starring roles in the novel or to be better, more smug, than those inner-Melbourne urbanites. (I was living in Brunswick at the time.)
I read this book because I was working out who I wanted to be.
The group of women friends I made in that first alcohol-fuelled year at university are the very friends I tried all of my beliefs on before I went public. They were the first to hear me read passages from Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, to dish politics, to wear purple for International Women’s Day. And they were always the first to hear me cry. Now, of course, we continue to swap books, TV shows, quips about our lives - and we do so with the knowledge that all of what we are now, all of our politics and meanings and quirks, can in some way be attributed to one another.
Monica Dux, in an essay for Kill Your Darlings, wrote that the difficulties people have had in judging the legacy of such a book like The Female Eunuch is that the personality of its author tended to get in the way. Does this happen to male authors? Are their personalities ripped apart and displayed with public glee?
‘It’s not easy to talk about so celebrated a publication without lapsing into clichés and banalities, and repeating the things that have already been said, not once but dozens of times.’
Monica knows though, that these accounts need to be told over and over, to all and sundry, because there is always a teenager, just over there, waiting to hear.
Kirsten Tranter is committed to supporting younger writers. In an article for the Wheeler Centre last International Women’s Day, she wrote: ‘I think the future belongs to the young women starting to shape the literary landscape, such as Angela Meyer’s super-sharp Crikey blog Literary Minded and the editors of the new magazine Kill Your Darlings.’ This is true. Different influences, experiences and histories must be recorded, must be reviewed, applauded and built on, for feminism to stay vital and current.
Every ten years or so, a feminist must reinvent, repurpose, or reinvigorate a belief. Being a feminist allows us to continue to be active and to give continual support to those striving for equality and respect.
There is an inspiring passage in Anne Summers’ introduction of the newly released version of Damned Whores and God’s Police:
‘I don’t want to wait until I am 98 to try and explain to a 25-year-old what moved me and so many of my generation to activism and revolt. I want, while there is still some chance of communicating, to tell you the story of the modern women’s movement. I want you to know how it started, what we did, and what it did to us. In hearing our story, I hope you will also learn something about yourselves, about where you stand in this great movement of change, and that it might just move some of you to reach out for the torch. It is time for it to be passed.’
To finish, I want to tell you another couple of tales about women who write about how it is.
I’m going to start with a quote from one of my all-time favourite books, Thea Astley’s Coda: ‘There are four ages of women: bimbo, breeder, babysitter, burden.’
Coda did not win prizes like Astley’s other work; perhaps because it is about an older woman. But did have an impact on me. Kathleen, the strong and funny heroine of the novel asks herself as she reaches the ‘burden’ stage of life, what am I going to do with myself? She wants to remain independent, but she also needs people to recognise that she now needs support. In her candid prose, Astley is showing us a woman who refuses to be invisible.
Thea Astley published her writing for over 40 years, from 1958. At the time of her death in 2004, Astley had won more Miles Franklin Awards than any other writer. She won the prize four times.
Let me tell you another story…
It is about a woman called Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin: also known as Miles Franklin. Her best known novel, My Brilliant Career, tells the story of an irrepressible teenage feminist growing to womanhood in rural New South Wales. This heroine, Sybylla, is one of the most endearing characters in Australian literature; she obviously had much in common with Franklin herself, who wrote the novel as a teenager.
It was published in 1901, with the support of Henry Lawson. Remember, International Women’s Day was not even official until 1910. As Franklin had feared, her gender influenced the critical reception of My Brilliant Career. When her identity as a woman was made public, judgements about its literary merit were common.
After its publication, Franklin (who could not survive as a writer) tried a career in nursing, then as a housemaid in Sydney and Melbourne. It’s interesting to note how many Australian women writers have had jobs as teachers, nurses, cleaners to support their art. (Ah, women’s work: never quite done.)
While working in these roles, Franklin contributed pieces to the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald under the pseudonymns ‘An Old Bachelor’ and ‘Vernacular’. During this period, she wrote My Career Goes Bung, in which Sybylla encounters the Sydney literary set. The book, sadly, proved too hot to publish; it did not become available to the public until 1946.
Franklin was committed to the development of a uniquely Australian form of literature. She actively pursued this goal by supporting writers, literary journals, and writers' organisations. She has had a long-lasting impact on Australian literary life through her endowment of the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize.
Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin is set to have still more of an impact on Australian literary life – Australian women’s literary life – through her actual namesake, The Stella Prize.
Let me finish with the words, the honest, no-bullshit words, of a great Australian author, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin, from My Brilliant Career:
As a tiny child I was filled with dreams of the great things I was to do when grown up. My ambition was as boundless as the mighty bush in which I had always lived. As I grew up it dawned upon me that I was a girl, the makings of a woman, only a girl, merely this and nothing more. It came home to me as a great blow that it was only men who could take the world by its ears and conquer their fate, while women, were forced to sit with tied hands and patiently suffer as the waves of fate tossed them hither and thither, battering and bruising without mercy.
Here, on 8 March, 2012, on the 101st International Women’s Day, let us ensure, together, that this does not happen.