Monday musings on Australian literature: some Australian feminist “classics”

Jane Caro, Accidental feminists

Tonight I went to an ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event featuring author and journalist, Jane Caro, in conversation with local radio personality and booklover, Alex Sloan. It was of course inspired by Caro’s new book, Accidental feminists. So, I thought it might be fun this Monday Musings to just list some of Australia’s best-loved feminist books – in chronological order of publication.

While I call myself a feminist, I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the history of feminist writing in Australia – and most of what I’ve read I read before blogging so I have minimal reviews here. Consequently, I don’t want to pretend to be offering anything like a complete or thorough list. Instead, this list is just a taster, a sample, an introduction to some of the best-known books and writers. (Oh and I admit up-front that I’m using the term “classic” loosely as I will be including some rather recent books which might, in time, become classics.)

Here goes:

Louisa Lawson’s The Dawn: a feminist magazine published between 1888 and 1905, The Dawn was established by feminist Louisa Lawson (under the name, Dora Falconer). It became, according to Wikipedia, the official publication of the Australian Federation of Woman voters. The journal has been digitised on Trove, and this comes from its first issue, May 15, 1888.

Every eccentricity of belief, and every variety of bias in mankind allies itself with a printing machine, and gets its singularities bruited about in type, but where is the printing-ink champion of mankind’s better half? There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voice of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions … Here then is Dawn, the Australian Woman’s Journal and mouthpiece – phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood.

Here we will give publicity to women’s wrongs, will fight their battles, assist to repair what evils we can, and give advice to the best of our ability.

Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch: first published in 1970. Reading this while still a teen was my founding feminist moment. I had been brought up believing I was equal, that I could go to university and get a job just like my brother and the boys around me, that I didn’t have to marry to live a good and enjoyable life, but Greer’s book gave me an understanding of the structural, personal, psychological issues behind the struggle women faced (and still face) to gain true equality.

Anne Summers, Damned whores and God's police

Anne Summers’ Damned whores and God’s police: first published in 1975, this book examines the two main stereotypes that are used to define women – “bad girls” who refuse to conform to society’s expectations of “the good girl”, or “good women” whose role it is to civilise society, to keep everyone else moral. Forty years on, Summers believed that, despite some progress, the stereotypes persist, and a revised edition of her best-selling book was published in 2016. Lisa (ANZlitLovers) posted on this book, focusing on the introduction to the new edition.

Jocelynne Scutt’s Different lives (ed): published in 1987, this is less a feminist treatise, than an anthology of writing by women who were active in the second wave of feminism (either formally through organisations or informally through individual action.) This is just one of feminist lawyer Scutt’s several books on feminist issues.

Dale Spender: I’ve included Spender here because of the volume of her writing on women’s issues, in the 1980s and 1990s in particular, rather than for one particular book. Her focus has largely been women writers, and their neglect. Her first book, Man-made language, analyses how the English language is constructed from a masculine point of view, and the ramifications of this. Other books include Writing a new world: Two centuries of Australian women writers and the provocatively titled The writing or the sex?, or, Why you don’t have to read women’s writing to know it’s no good. I have her Mothers of the novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen, in which, among other things, she discusses how and why the work of these early women writers has been lost while that of their male peers has entered the canon.

Tara Moss’ The fictional woman (my review): published in 2014, this explores her thesis that women’s lives and roles are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in representation, status, value. I’m not sure of Moss’s longterm standing in feminist literature, but I found this an engaging read.

Clementine Ford, Fight like a girl

Clementine Ford’s Fight like a girl: published in 2016, this book belongs to the new generation of Australian feminists of whom Ford is clearly one of the frontrunners. The book’s starting point is that things have not changed for women – at least they haven’t changed enough. The book is therefore, writes Readings bookshop, “a call to arms for all women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that still considers feminism a threat.”

There are many other Australian writers who explore aspects of women’s experience from a sociopolitical, and feminist, perspective, including Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at home, on Australia’s lively, fierce and often activist women writers of the 1930s; Diane Bell’s Generations on the way women pass on traditions; and Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza (on my TBR) which takes on colonialism – and how the attendant stereotypes and myths have played out in the treatment of indigenous people, particularly women, since 1788. But, I had to stop somewhere…

Now, over to you: do you have any favourite feminist texts, Australian or otherwise, you’d care to share with us?

35 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: some Australian feminist “classics”

  1. Thanks for the mention – I love that first edition cover of the Summers book! I just looked it up at Goodreads because the icon on the cover was too small to see, and it was a Pelican. I don’t think that was the edition I read all those years ago, because I’m sure I would remember that cover! I couldn’t afford to buy it back then so I borrowed it and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan from the Bailleau, (which is why I bought the new DWAGP edition when it came out).
    What I do have on my shelves is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (plus a couple of her novels), and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (a novel, but revelatory all the same). I’d also count A Room of My Own by Virginia Woolf because from the moment I read it, it made me determined to have an independent income and a ‘room of my own’ at home and at work – and I got it too.

    • Thanks Lisa , yes I have those books too of course and, like you, I found Woolf’s book particularly memorable. It made a big and unforgettable impression on me too. Of course few people have rooms of their own at work now do they?

      BTW, you can click or tap on the images on my blog to see them slightly bigger. Faster than going to GodReads. I chose it because I don’t have it either, nor do I have that stunning original Female Eunuch because it was lent to me.

      • I think that’s true of people in offices, (and there’s something called hot desking where you don’t have even your own desk!) but it’s become the norm for teachers in primary schools to have an office, at least in newer schools. But it was never the norm for teachers to have a ‘principal’s desk (i.e. a big one) but I had one!
        I still have my dog-eared Female Eunuch:) It’s a hardback, which means someone gave it to me because I couldn’t afford hardbacks.

        • Yes, I must say I had to offer a bit of hotdesking in my work place when, because I supported women working part-time I had significantly more people than desks. The women were happy to share because they loved being able to work part-time – but that wasn’t real hotdesking because they did have their own desk – they just had to share the one they had. Real hot desking where you have to put all your stuff in a locker or some such because you don’t know where your are working the next day seems so antithetical to productivity.

          I’m pretty sure my primary school teacher son doesn’t have an office – in fact some years he hasn’t really even had a proper classroom but some space at the end of a hall or open space I gather – but I’ll ask him.

          I wish I had that original Female Eunuch.

      • I have both (Summers and Greer) original covers, not first editions but early reprints which I have picked up in second hand stores. Perhaps one day I should offer them as prizes.

  2. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve read most of these. Because my interest is literature rather than feminism I think Spender is the most important, and I’ve argued elsewhere that Summers ignores early Australian women writers. Like most men I find Ford too strident but I did give Fight Like a Girl to one of my daughters for a recent birthday.

    • Don’t be embarrassed Bill, be proud! You are among the male champions we need, something (not you particularly!) that will come up in my next post.

      Spender is great I agree, but less read probably because of her focus.

        • Thanks Angela. I’m glad you commented. My response though is that that’s largely why I think it is a classic. I actually didn’t agree with her take on the issue, but I think that it and the discussion it engendered is an important part of Australian feminist history and for that I’d accept it as a “classic”. (The fact that some of the “conversation” became bitter and divisive is to some degree a comment on the feminists involved? I will never forget, though, the discussions that I had with some work colleagues about it.)

  3. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique made a big impact on me when it came out in Australia – a small Penguin edition in about 1967? – and inspired a lot of later feminist writers.

    • Thanks Margaret – and welcome. It clearly depends a bit on what was around when we read our first book or two doesn’t it? Friedan was certainly significant for feminists everywhere wasn’t she.

  4. Clearly I have not read enough Australian feminist literature.

    While not Australian, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth made a huge impact on me as an 18yo – sometimes it’s less about the book and more about the timing of reading it.

    • Ah yes, I read that one too!
      And made the decision to stop wasting money on fashion (helped along by those absurd frilly shirts that Lady Di wore. Alright for her, she didn’t have to iron the frills!)
      (I’ve never wasted money on make-up, except maybe a bit of lipstick, which I mostly forgot to use).

      • Haha Lisa… I don’t wear make up either, or colour my hair, or shave though now I don’t need to shave even if I wanted to. One advantage of age, though I don’t look so rebellious as I did. All that was due to Greer in 1971. I do have some lipstick I admit which like you I rarely remember to wear.

        • Haha Lisa, good one! At the time when I set off down this path, I wasn’t thinking of Super, but I was thinking of books and travel and theatre! Also, it’s not just the money. It’s also the time makeup and hair colouring, perming etc takes. I have better things to do with my time. Like reading…

        • Yes, time … I know a young woman who gets up half an hour earlier than the rest of her family to do the makeup.
          But it’s the principle of the thing: as Naomi Wolf says, why should one gender feels it’s normal to spend all that money and time on appearance, while the other doesn’t? It makes no sense to me.

        • Yes, that’s exactly been my argument. Why should I spend my time and money on such behaviour while men can use theirs on more meaningful (to my mind anyhow) things. Not all men do of course, but they are allowed the choice while women are expected to beautify themselves. (And the fact that the appearance culture is now creeping into the men’s lives doesn’t justify it!)

        • Haha Bill. And did the colour help you slide gracefully into middle-age?!

          I had a great hairdresser who wanted to colour my hair, and I kept refusing. He would say “don’t you want to look nice?” He just couldn’t understand. As far as I was concerned he was the best cutter I’d ever had (for my naturally curly hair) and I thought he made it look nice. But, in the end I left him. I’ve never had as good a cut since (and that was over 20 years ago) but I just got tired of defending myself.

    • Thanks Beverley. Yes, that’s a good one. I was focusing on non-fiction here – I may not have made that clear – but if I weren’t My brilliant career as you suggest would definitely up there.

  5. Hi Sue, I think of myself as a feminist. I am for women making and achieving their best without gender bias. I think of Thea Astley novels when it comes to feminist novels Her novels usually concern women coming to terms with themselves. And I liked to think of a feminist as a person who accepts herself as the one in control of herself. I myself where tinted SPF and lipstick. I don’t do this to impress anyone else, it just for me. It makes me feel better about myself, it adds colour and protects me. I too also thought of My Brilliant Career, and I consider it a fiction novel, as does my library. Though, at the same time I agree some parts are based on Frankli’s early life.

    • Thanks Meg … oh yes, if I were talking novels Thea Astley would be there. And I agree that My brilliant career is a novel but like so many – particularly first novels – it has a strong autobiographical flavour. I think this comment thread shows us just how important fiction is to our understanding, values and attitudes, doesn’t it?

  6. How I loved Dale Spender when I discovered her at my local women’s bookshop in the early ’90s. Anything she wrote, and which was available over here (although at the time I wouldn’t have thought much of that potential complication), I bought and devoured. Even a slim and superficial book of hers on how women should make use of the internet to connect with other women! (It didn’t stay on my shelf for long however; it actually had printed URLs inside, as if they would remain static for any length of time. And a terribly dry book on teaching and how girl/boy children were/are treated differently in classroom settings.) My favourites of hers are Women of Ideas and the collection of letters she exchanged with her sister Lynne. Many of the others you’ve mentioned are not familiar to me, but I suspect the same would be true if I were to compile a list of Canadian feminist writers. Still, it’s nice to know!

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