To paraphrase Jeanette Winterson in Art Objects: in a sane society, art is not optional.
Some might argue that our society is no longer sane. Would a sane society lock children in detention; continue to treat our first peoples as second-class; characterise our Muslim citizens as terrorists and our newly arrived neighbours from Africa as gang members; allow us the dubious honour of having the worst species extinction rate and one of the worst deforestation rates of any country in the world?
I don’t think so.
We need art now more than ever if we want to tease sanity out of the knots and tangles of the society we have constructed for ourselves.
Art tells stories, and stories are what connect us to each other. Stories anchor us in the flow of time, help us to make sense of the past and imagine the future. Stories carry us in their slipstream; they help us wade through the rapids. Stories can be mirrors, they can be warnings, and they can be subversions. Telling stories can be a revolutionary act.
But what about the stories that are untold; the stories of voices that are silenced?
In her latest book, Women and Power, British classicist, Mary Beard says:
when it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.
Beard traces the silencing of women back three thousand years to Homer’s The Odyssey and other Greco-Roman narratives which see women’s voices erased by all manner of charming means: having their tongues cut out, their heads decapitated, and their forms metamorphosed into non-human shapes. No act was considered too drastic to shut women up and to keep them out of the masculine sphere of public discourse.
These foundation stories are important because they form the cultural templates and archetypes from which we derive the western tradition; our understanding of relationships, societal norms and the place of women relative to men.
It explains why these foundation stories are being reclaimed by women writers. The epic poem, Beowulf, has been reimagined as The Mere Wife by Maria Davhana Headley, who is also working on a translation of the original. Emily Wilson has produced the first translation by a women of Homer’s The Odyssey, while Madeline Miller has taken that same story and recast it as Circe.
Patricia Barker has rewritten Homer’s Iliad as The Silence of the Girls, specifically to give voice to the women in that story. These writers have pulled at the threads of traditional narratives to unpick a female perspective, to subvert the long-accepted view that women should be shut up and shut out of power.
And while we’re on books—isn’t it also telling that dystopian feminist fiction is so popular right now? You may have read Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale or watched the visually stunning but harrowing television adaptation. For a novel written over thirty years ago, it’s eerily prescient today.
Over the last few years, many women have written on the themes of sexual and reproductive control: here in Australia, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things sees women exiled for being involved in sex scandals with powerful men, and S.A. Jones’s The Fortress sees women living in a walled matriarchal city-state. From the UK, Naomi Alderman’s The Power tells the story of teenage girls who have the literal power to hurt men, and from the US, Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God takes a first nations view of dystopia. In her book, an authoritarian government controls women’s bodies in the wake of an evolutionary crisis.
These works of fiction seize on our contemporary anxieties, playing them through to frightening conclusions. They are powerful portents of a near-future world; chilling because they are so plausible.
Women are telling reimagined traditional stories and dystopian speculative narratives, and they are also sharing deeply personal stories via social and mainstream media.
The #MeToo campaign erupted with allegations against Harvey Weinstein, then burst into a flood of accusations against big-name Hollywood men, before rippling out to a social media movement.
It felt like a seismic shift in the landscape, a ‘turning point’ as Clementine Ford titled her recent Meanjin essay on #MeToo. It felt like a time of reckoning, of possibility.
Ford’s essay is an excellent analysis of the #MeToo campaign and its impacts. As she points out, the repercussions for the accused have radiated out, and there’s a visceral shift in power in the entertainment industry. The campaign has helped bring perpetrators to account, and raised consciousness of the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse.
#MeToo has forced a necessary public discourse on these issues, but talking isn’t enough. We talk about the mental health crisis and yet access to proper treatment and support are still elusive for many. We talk endlessly about climate change and continue to pander to the interests of the coal industry.
How do we convert the #MeToo moment into lasting change? And how do we take a movement that has mostly benefited privileged white women and make a tangible difference in the lives of those who are most vulnerable to the insidious, daily aggressions that keep women silent: the single mothers, sex workers, cleaners, carers, office administrators, hospitality workers, women of colour, and Indigenous women?
Where Ford’s essay is optimistic, closing with the words ‘we will be heard’, Roxane Gay gives us an alternative view. In her recent essay, ‘Why the #MeToo movement still has a lot to do’, she says:
We take stands great and small in our personal lives. We try to advocate for ourselves and each other. We fight. We hope. And still, the socio-political structures that shape our lives remain immovable. We talk about resistance when what we need is a revolution.
I’m with her. If you think women’s voices are finally been heard, don’t be fooled.
Like I said before, the evidence suggests that we’re not living in a sane society.
It’s 27 years since Anita Hill testified in a senate hearing against the nomination of Clarence Hill to the US Supreme Court. Sound familiar?
If women have been effectively silenced (in the west, at least) for the past three thousand years, they will be silenced again.
Even when women do get to speak up they are called whingers, whiners, liars and hysterics by anyone who doesn’t like what they have to say.
We’ve seen the backlash to #MeToo, the claims of it being a witch hunt, and the #NotAllMen counter hashtag. It isn’t just men, the backlash is from women too, commentators in Australia like Miranda Devine, and overseas, celebrities such as Catherine Deneuve, take pains to distance themselves from this movement, label it as puritanical, defend men, and downplay the experiences of the female victims.
You just need to venture onto Twitter—a platform that sold the dream of democratic conversation—to witness this in action. You’ll see how women are abused and trolled whenever they dare speak out about anything. They are threatened with rape and murder and told to shut up. As Mary Beard points out in her book, the threats delivered via Twitter closely mirror the retribution dished out in the Greco-Roman narrative tradition.
Listen to the appalling conversation between 2GB’s Alan Jones and his on-air bullying of Louise Herron, the CEO of the Sydney Opera House, and you will know with absolute certainty that even the most highly-successful women in senior leadership positions in this country are told to shut up.
If we agree the premise that art is necessary, the question then is, how do we achieve equality in the arts and ensure women’s voices are heard?
I feel extremely privileged to have a leadership role in one of this country’s pre-eminent cultural institutions, the State Library Victoria. I can have my artistic practice —writing—on the side, and not have to worry about trying to scrape together a living from it.
The average wage derived from writing for authors in this country is around $13,000 a year. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that most Australian writers—around 70%— are female. Salaries for other artists are similarly dismal.
I feel immense gratitude for the women who have gone before me, who fought for my rights so that I can have both a career and children (though at times these feel very much at odds with each other and a compromise to both); as well as the right to vote; to gain a tertiary education, to have sexual and reproductive freedom; and the agency to make a whole raft of choices about how I live my life, choices that were not available to my grandmother, or even my mother, and the generations of women before them. These have been hard won victories; and they are shifts that have happened only in relatively recent history.
Every day, I walk through the beautiful State Library’s Latrobe Reading Room, whose domed ceiling has inspired great works of literature to be written. At any time, I can wander through our exhibitions or let myself into the hidden stacks that hold rare and unlikely treasures; signed first edition books by the world’s great authors; intricately coloured illuminated mediaeval manuscripts; jewellery woven from the intertwined hair of lovers; letters sent from war zones by service men and women who never returned home.
Each of these artworks tells a story. Libraries are built on stories and stories have power. That’s why libraries are sacked and burned in times of political upheaval.
But there are some stories that have not been told; the shelves of libraries echo with these absent voices. Their power, their potential energy, still waits to be released
Rebecca Solnit, in her essay ‘A Short History of Silence’ says:
If libraries hold all the stories that have been told, there are ghost libraries of all the stories that have not. The ghosts outnumber the books by some unimaginably vast sum.
The State Library was founded just twenty years into Melbourne’s life as a colony. When it opened, it was surrounded by opium dens, shanty houses and brothels. Melbourne was a tough, muddy town in 1856 but the library’s founders had a vision; it would be the ‘people’s university’, accessible to anyone over the age of fourteen. This included women, who, at the time, were excluded from universities, which were strictly the domain of men.
Still, in our 162 year history, a woman has never been the president of the Library Board, despite the library profession being female-dominated.
We say that libraries are free, democratic and egalitarian, that we welcome everyone. While this is true in principle, we need to bring the ghost library—referred to by Solnit—to life, by illuminating the stories of our first peoples, the stories of people of colour, the stories of queer people, and the stories of people with a disability. While it’s true that all women are kept quiet, the voices of these women are barely discernible whispers.
We need to decolonise libraries, for they are colonial institutions. Decolonising the library means to shifting from a Western view of history, recognising the impact of colonialism on how we shape our identity, and embracing the experiences of people of colour and Indigenous people.
And what of the wider arts sector? We won’t ever achieve equality for women in the arts if our brand of feminism is white and middle-class. We need to tap the rich vein of intersectional feminism and understand that class, race, sexual orientation, age, and disability are interdependent factors which disadvantage women.
Leaders in the arts must ensure the stories of our most vulnerable and marginalised are heard, by amplifying their voices, and helping them to participate in forums of power and decision-making.
What are some of the ways we can do this? How can we make positive inroads into gender equality?
We should diversify our workforces so they are more representative of the glorious diversity of the Victorian community and we should use our organisational and personal buying power to make a difference. Buy products and services from companies that support equality in their workplace—including in their leadership teams. Put clauses in contracts that stipulate workplace diversity. Demand it from suppliers and partners.
We need to buy art by diverse women, read books by diverse women, watch films and plays written and directed by and starring diverse women, we need to see exhibitions of diverse women’s art, and we need to listen to music by diverse women. You get the gist.
We need to actively mentor and support women from all backgrounds, help build their confidence, open our networks to them, give them space to talk in meetings, call out the imposter syndrome when we see it and collectively smash it, and we must tell women to stop apologising all of the time.
We should structure opportunities in the arts—such as grants and residencies—to cater for the specific circumstances of women. The Next Chapter from the Wheeler Centre is a great initiative, and while it’s not exclusively for women, in the first round of grants half were awarded to women and all of these women were from diverse backgrounds. Each recipient receives $15,000, mentoring, access to networks and support to develop their work.
At the State Library we’ve teamed up with ACMI to run Foundry658, which is funded by Creative Victoria. It is one of the world’s first creative industries business accelerator and will support artists to build their business muscle. Optimistic estimates put the rate of female founders in Australia at around 25%. These female-led companies receive a whopping 5% of venture capital invested in Australia. We’ve set our target for female or non-binary accelerator participants at 40%. We expect to exceed this target. Each participant in the accelerator program will receive $20,000 and will develop first rate business skills.
We need more awards, like the Stella Prize, that celebrate and advocate for women’s artistic practice. The Stella gives $50,000 annually to a winning Australian women writer of fiction or non-fiction. In the six years since it was established it has had a positive impact on the profile and sales of women writers as well as nudging up the number of books written by women that are critically reviewed and the number of women book reviewers in Australian newspapers and journals.
We need to support art forms that tell diverse women’s stories in their own voices. In the literary sector, great work is being done by Brow Books who have published experimental literature by diverse women, including queer and transgender women. Independent Melbourne publisher, Black Inc, has spearheaded the stories of diverse groups through their ‘Growing Up’ series of books which includes ‘Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia’, ‘Growing Up Asian in Australia’ and other forthcoming titles.
And we need to tell men to shut the fuck up more often.
I said before that I was thankful to the women who came before me, those who have cracked open the fortress to allow some light to seep out. But let’s not kid ourselves, the path before us is as long as it is exhausting.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know by saying: there’s a gender pay gap; women have less superannuation then men on retirement; women are less likely to apply for jobs and ask for pay rises than their male colleagues; women are under-represented on Boards and at CEO level; and access to affordable child care and flexible workplaces could be vastly improved.
These are all seemingly obvious issues; we talk about them endlessly and we should be able to fix them, and frankly, it’s bullshit that we haven’t.
I want to go back to Mary Beard for a moment. In her book she says:
‘You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure’
And it is this, I think, that is at the heart of the question of equality. We can tinker at the edges of the garrison and we can try to shoehorn women into male shaped territories, but that will only get us so far.
The question is: how do we change the structure? Patriarchy isn’t a single thread. It is intricately woven together with capitalism and class.
I started out talking about why we need art, and so that’s where I’ll finish, with a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin in a speech she gave at the National Book Awards in 2014. She said:
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
Justine Hyde is Director, Library Services and Experience at the State Library Victoria and a freelance writer. @justine_hyde
This is an edited version of a keynote speech given at Latrobe University’s Bendigo Campus ‘Women in Leadership’ annual event on Friday, 12th October 2018.