[Published on Meanjin.com.au, August 20 2011]
For anyone who dared to question the premise of Sophie Cunningham’s Big Ideas address, A Long Long Way to Go: Why We Still Need Feminism, Sunday night’s turnout alone said it all. She spoke before a packed BMW Edge, a sea of (mostly female) heads nodding in agreement and gasping in disgust throughout its duration as Sophie detailed women’s invisibility in industries across Australia. The arts, sadly, is no exception. The overwhelming support that followed on Twitter, to the point that Sophie’s name was trending in Melbourne, showed exactly how important feminism continues to be for so many.
Those that have been following the current debate surrounding women in Australian literature – which began after the Miles Franklin Award announced their all male shortlist in April this year and the women-only Stella Awards were established in response – would have been familiar with many of the issues that Sophie raised. Her excellent essay in July’s Kill Your Darlings, ‘A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, Cock-Forests and Dreams of a Common Language,’ detailed the shocking state of gender politics in the realms of literature and publishing. But the statistics are no less horrifying the second time around: in May, Esquire’s list of 75 books every man should read included only one written by a woman author; since the Miles Franklin Award began in 1957, a woman has won only 13 times; women have received only eight of the 26 Victorian Premier’s Awards. The list goes on. Women write just as many books as men, but are less likely to win awards, to be reviewed or to be published in the first place. And as Stephanie Honor Convery has pointed out, over the Melbourne Writers Festival’s 16 years, the opening night keynote has been given by only one woman – Germaine Greer, on two occasions. Moreover, such statistics surrounding women’s systematic exclusion are mirrored in theatre, classical music and visual arts.
But even more sadly, Sophie discussed the way women have been discouraged from identifying as feminists in recent years and that, in some ways, the movement may have gone backwards. She talked of the way women’s invisibility and over-visibility intertwine – how women foreground their shame and their self-loathing at the sacrifice of their advancement. As she also noted, however, there are some excellent events happening across Melbourne that are indicative of a shift in the right direction – Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire’s Women of Letters, the recent Slutwalk against sexual assault and the monthly Cherchez la Femme events in Collingwood. These may well be signs that the needed “fourth wave” is already on its way.
I must admit that when I initially heard about the Stellas, I expressed worries that a women-only prize may reinforce the current divide rather than rectify it – that it has the potential to ghettoise female authors further. But the attention that the prize has already bought to these issues, before its nominees have even been announced, is a major achievement in itself. As Sophie said on Sunday, “one thing is certain: passively assuming women are equal and will gradually work their way to equal status doesn’t work. We need some different tools”. Hopefully the Stella’s recognition and celebration of Australia’s female authors will force institutions such as the Miles Franklin Awards to address the reasons why such a massive gender disparity plagues their selection process year after year, and plagues Australia’s literary culture more widely.