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Volume 18, May 2008

Manifesting Literary Feminisms: Drafts, Grafts, Nexus, Faultlines.

13-14 December 2007
Monash University, City Campus.

This conference brought feminist literary critics, scholars and writers together exclusively for the first time in many years. It was an extraordinarily generous and warm conference that shared a politics and a disciplinary training rarely encountered. For me this was particularly potent in the broad ranging but recurring set of references to Australian women novelists, poets, critics, theorists and historians as well as their context in the broader Western project of feminism. The conference was anchored in the important contributions of its keynote speakers, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Susan Sheridan.

It was a treat to have long-time and highly regarded US poet and critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis in attendence from Temple University, Philadelphia. Her keynote beautifully reaffirmed and updated issues of feminist aesthetics and ethics through activating ten ‘gender buttons’, with due debt to Gertrude Stein. Intellectually eloquent, committed and inspiring, the ideas of her keynote and its button format percolated through the conference’s proceedings, with many papers taking up a button or two to press. The Drafts and Nexus from the conference’s subthemes are from DuPlessis’ work on interconnecting social fields of practice and production (nexus) and her extended poetic process/revisioning/rewriting of which two volumes of Drafts have been published. The other two subthemes refer to key ideas from Susan Sheridan’s books Grafts, and Along the Faultlines. Sheridan’s keynote address on the second day mapped the nexus of Australian women writers from the 1940s and 1950s, reading them together as a literary formation despite their apparent isolation from each other but through the apparent similar conditions of their literary production and reception. The eclipse was an image Sheridan drew on to suggest the cycles of publishing and reception but also the dialectic relation between gendered preoccupations in literature. Reading this generation of writers emerges from Sheridan’s cultural analysis of the Australian Women’s Weekly in the postwar years, and samples her most recent work undertaken since her ‘retirement’ from formal university teaching in 2005. This conference honoured Sheridan’s important contribution to Australian literary feminism, specifically through a dedicated speech delivered by Barbara Baird, longtime friend, student and now inheritor of the Head of Women’s Studies at Flinders University recently vacated by Susan.

A panel on new directions for manifesting Australian literary feminisms by Nicole Moore, Brigid Rooney and Bronwen Levy provided questions and reflections, raising provoking ideas about the perceived separation of literary and cultural studies, the instability of the terms literary and feminism and Australian, and issues of ‘global’ feminisms and public rhetoric which takes up feminism to support projects of Western democracy. The legacy of Virginia Woolf’s texts infused many discussions and there were many fine papers in parallel sessions of exemplary feminist literary criticism of Australian and ‘overseas’ writers, methodologies, genre, statistics, the everyday, and the 1970s. An innovative intervention into the usual conference format was a seminar on experimental feminisms which consisted of four pre-read position papers and a leader who summarised and suggested issues raised by the papers, beginning a discussion between the participants. This format worked well to bring the 4 intersecting papers together to discuss and build on. Delegates audited this session and were invited to participate, which provided a rare space for group discussion around experimental writing, its ethics, aesthetics, methods, histories, politics and practices. This experiment in conference format was entirely worthwhile, formally enabling the group discussion that often goes on between individuals in the minutes between papers.

Over and over presenters thanked the organisers – Margaret Henderson from the University of Queensland, and Ann Vickery from Monash – for organising the occasion, bringing together a surprisingly familiar and yet rare gathering in which everyone is feminist, with similar reading histories and webs of citation. It provided a wonderful occasion to celebrate the work of Susan Sheridan as one of Australia’s formative literary feminists, and followed in her footsteps by bringing to Australia a significant international feminist scholar and writer, in Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

Alison Bartlett
The University of Western Australia

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