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MWF '11 Coverage: A Long Long Way To Go - Why We Still Need Feminism

Rebecca Harkins-Cross August 30

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.

For those that missed it, Slow TV has posted Sophie’s address online this morning. You can also read an extract on Crikey. Viva la fourth wave! How do you think it should roll out?



by Bruce
30 Aug 11 at 12:07

I was profoundly pro-feminist for some time. Now, however, feminism has pushed me to the point where I am not only anti-feminist but, by and large, anti-women—-a difficult position for an heterosexual to find himself in.

Now, however, the idea of a women’s only awards appeals to me. Of course, the Miles F. would have to become “officially” male only. (Let’s ignore the irony in the room, okay?)

And, women’s only journals,and…

I think, I believe, that feminism needs to push itself to the limit, and save us all from having to actually cope with the fact that we are all unequal in the light of day; to cope with the fact that some very good writers of both sexes are never published, while other appalling writers of both sexes are published. And et cetera

by Ben Eltham
06 Sep 11 at 10:26

Bruce, that’s a bleak post indeed. “Anti-women”? Why not go the whole hog and out yourself as a straight-up misanthropist pure and simple.

by Simon
08 Sep 11 at 14:18

Every time I see this Big Ideas address mentioned, I wonder about the same questions: During Cunningham’s time as publisher and Meanjin’s editor, did she publish more female writers than male writers? During her 25 years as gatekeeper, what has she done to promote women’s visibility in Australian literature? I hope I’ll find hte answers once I watch the entire address.

by Zora Sanders
08 Sep 11 at 14:37

Hi Simon, obviously I can’t speak for Sophie, but she talked about this at an event earlier in the year, which was written up at Kill Your Darlings. To quote:

Sophie Cunningham, talking about her recent role as editor of Meanjin, had a particularly interesting story to tell – gender ratios “varied wildly” depending on the genre of the submission. “I had to work very hard to make sure that women were properly represented in non-fiction,” she said. “Because in terms of essays received, I was getting a lot more essays by men, if you keep memoir out of it. The pieces by women did tend to be a lot more personal and written out of their own experience.” Looking back on her time at Meanjin, Sophie said that while 52% of the essays overall were by women, 75% of the memoir pieces she published were written by women. (In that time, incidentally, 53% of the fiction and 35% of the poetry was by women.) Speaking specifically about Meanjin’s CAL-sponsored series of essays on cultural institutions, Sophie said it was difficult to find women to write these pieces. “Women often said, I’m not an expert, I don’t know that I’ve got the time, and were generally a lot more diffident about tackling those subjects where they were expected to be fairly aggressive in their analysis.”

This is the link if you’re interested: Thanks for the comment!

by Lynne Bird
22 Sep 12 at 1:41

Sophies address was powerful and clear. It was akin to saying ‘the emperor wears no clothes’ and equally amazing that it is not noticed or articulated by more people.



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