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Zora Simic

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About the author

Zora Simic is a Lecturer in History and Women's and Gender Studies in the School of Humanities at the University of New South Wales. She has published widely on the past and present of feminism in Australia, including in her 2008 book The Great Feminist Denial (with Monica Dux).

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Volume 28, May 2013


Women’s Writing’ and ‘Feminism’: A history of intimacy and estrangement

Women’s Liberation in Australia and elsewhere created feminist readers and writers. Consciousness-raising and reading and writing were intimately linked. Within the women’s movement, journals, magazines and newspapers were launched, small presses inaugurated and writing and reading groups formed. Subscription lists charted the explosion in new titles by, for and about women, and feminist bookshops stocked them. Women’s writers’ festivals, poetry readings and book launches were opportunities to find and promote new work, and to meet other feminists. Some women writers from the past were rediscovered and many contemporary female writers were championed. One of the most successful writers to emerge on the Australian literary scene in the 1970s – Helen Garner, whose debut novel Monkey Grip (1977) won the National Book Council’s Book of the Year award in 1978 – directly linked her ascendency to feminism. A specifically feminist literary criticism began to develop. More generally, feminism also helped to expand the market for women’s writing, so much so that by the 1980s major publishers were developing lists of women’s fiction and/ or subsuming feminist presses into their operations.

One of the net effects of all of this activity was that within and outside of the women’s movement, ‘women’s writing’ and ‘feminism’ were increasingly and variously conflated and separated. This article historicises and analyses these processes and moments of connection and disconnection, or intimacy and estrangement. In the present cultural moment, where the need for a woman’s only literary prize, called the Stella Prize, after Miles Franklin’s first name, and awarded for the first time in April 2013 to novelist Carrie Tiffany, is easily justified on a number of fronts - ranging from a lack of parity in books reviewed and book reviewers to an enduring set of problematic assumptions about what constitutes ‘women’s writing’ - it is worth revisiting the 1970s and 1980s as a formative era in which feminism was a crucial contributing factor to, and context for, a more diverse Australian literature in which female writers were integral and numerous. Yet, as the Stella Prize also reminds us, feminist politics and activity continues in the service of ‘women’s writing’, and also in conflict with it. If feminists were the first and most eager champions of ‘women’s writing’ in the 1970s, they were also at the vanguard of critical interrogations of the same field.

It is also hoped that this short, episodic history of Australian feminism’s engagement with ‘women’s writing’ will provide further evidence of a multiplicity of feminisms within the women’s movement, evident from the first instance of Women’s Liberation. These have been categorised into reformist and radical, institutionalised and grass-roots strands, though these divisions are perhaps too neat. Ann Genovese’s description of a ‘strange mix of liberal/ socialist/libertarian feminists’ who by the 1980s began to be distinguished from a radical lesbian feminism offers a more evocative account of the shifting terrain (1996 142).

In the roughly twenty period traversed in this article – dated from the beginnings of Women’s Liberation in Australia in the early 1970s to the end of the 1980s, the so-called ‘Woman’s Decade’ in Australian literature and publishing – I will trace a number of ways and contexts in which the place of ‘women’s writing’ within feminism, and feminism within ‘women’s writing’ was discussed and debated. Firstly, I begin with the women’s movement itself, where ‘women’s writing’ – sometimes used interchangeably or in crucial distinction from ‘feminist writing’ – was part of a broader ‘culture renaissance’ (Magarey) that emerged from within second wave feminism in Australia and elsewhere. For the majority of women in the women’s movement, reading and/ or writing were part of a broader commitment to feminism, and one of any number of activities that made up their political and cultural engagement and activism. This opening section is necessarily a scene-setting, condensed history of how the women’s movement in Australia demanded, nurtured, historicised, anthologised, defined, debated and published ‘women’s writing’ in its first decade, and in particular in 1975, International Women’s Year. This work was part of what Margaret Henderson has described as the women’s movement’s broadened definition of culture that was creative in two senses: ‘it [made] feminist, identities, groups and objects come into being and cohere’, and also served as ‘a mode of liberation – political, personal, historical and social’ (108).

The second part of this paper focuses on the challenges from within the women’s movement to what were sometimes perceived to be unexamined or under-theorised notions of the ‘woman writer’ and ‘women’s writing’, including its conflation with social realism and autobiography. In particular, I examine the emergence of feminist literary theory which in Australia played out not only in relation to an established tradition of literary criticism, but also in dialogue with Anglo-American and French feminist models, though hardly derivative of either. The rising influence of French feminist thought encouraged an interrogation of sexual difference that destabilised heuristic notions of ‘women’s writing’, or what historian Joan Scott termed ‘the evidence of experience’ (1992). This theoretical turn which began in Australia, as in the United States, ‘around 1981’ (Gallop 1992) is positioned here as part of an ongoing assessment of what ‘women’s writing’ entailed for and in relation to feminism, and in the light of various developments and challenges, including commercialisation, postmodernism, co-option, institutionalisation and proliferating feminisms. While these assessments could be pessimistic or critical – for instance of the category of ‘women’s writing’ (like feminism itself) to be both marginalised and marginalising – any sense of loss and disillusionment must also be understood in relation to the creativity and optimism that marked the first decade of Women’s Liberation.

The concluding section considers the impact of ‘women’s writing’ - commonly represented from the 1970s into the 1990s as a feminist field (whatever the protestations of writers, or their distance from an organised women’s movement) – on the broader cultural scene. The rise of ‘women’s writing’ was contemporaneous with the wider distribution of migrant writing, Indigenous writing and the writing of various ‘other’ constituencies that reaffirmed or challenged understandings of mainstream and margin. The success of these various projects was assessed to be considerable enough by the mid 1980s for writer and reviewer Gerard Windsor to complain that ‘women writers get favoured special treatment’, thus creating the possible corollary that the ‘worst position for a writer to be in is that of being a middle-aged, Anglo-Celtic male’ (1986 16). Successful female writers were also increasingly asked to ponder the connection between their writing and feminism, a stock-taking exercise that on the one hand reflected the mainstreaming of women’s writing and perhaps even feminism, and on the other solidified what Bronwen Levy critiqued as both a fairly narrow definition of ‘women’s writing’ and a ‘socially-acceptable feminism’ at the expense of a robust engagement with writing by women – from the perspectives of race and ethnicity, class, and lesbian sexuality for instance – that challenged and extended existing definitions of ‘women’s writing’ (1987 153).

This is a survey not so much of the writing itself, as the discourses around and about ‘women’s writing’, primarily in the new journals of the women’s movement, the introductions and prefaces to key anthologies, and in established literary journals such as Meanjin and Australian Book Review which underwent a ‘feminisation’ in this period (Whitlock xvi). The emphasis is on the significance the women’s movement assigned to ‘women’s writing’ and the role assigned to feminism to account for the rise of ‘women’s writing’. Within Women’s Liberation, initially at least, ‘women’s writing’ that privileged the ‘truth’ of female experience was especially championed, while in the wider literary culture, by the 1980s, ‘women’s writing’ in Australia was predominantly associated with fiction – novels and also short stories, a genre that struck some critics as particularly amenable to ‘female’ themes (Whitlock xxiii) – and the success of writers such as Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley, Barbara Hanrahan, Jessica Anderson, Beverly Farmer, Olga Masters, Thea Astley and Helen Garner, to list the Eight Voice of the Eighties, edited and anthologised by Gillian Whitlock in 1989. As I will show, feminist literary theory intervened at the point where the women’s movement’s initial privileging of the intimacy of ‘female experience’ as a - or the - feminist form of women’s writing became a restrictive and essentialising discourse. ‘Women’s writing’, it was broadly argued, needed to become disarticulated, or estranged, from both feminist and market demands that it confirm to a standard set of criteria.

The question of feminism’s proximity to the success of ‘women’s writing’ in the 1970s and 1980s also animated North American and British feminists, particularly in the wake of the best-seller feminist ‘blockbuster’ novels such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977), dismissed by some feminists as feminist propaganda rather than successful literature, or as politically suspect for its universalising and individualist themes (Coward). In Australian feminist journals, British and American texts, including anthologies and new literary criticism, were routinely reviewed, and publishing developments (such as the establishment of Virago Press in the UK in 1973) were duly noted.

However, while the British literary tradition loomed particularly large over Australian literature, Australian debates about feminism and writing were part of a specific cultural moment, beginning with the new liberalism of the Whitlam era (1972-1975) that recognised the women’s movement with some essential funding (including small grants for new journals) and the first advisor to the Prime Minister on Women’s Affairs, Elizabeth Reid. The Whitlam Labor Government also established the Literature Board in 1973, a vital impetus to the ‘new’ Australian literature that began to be properly taught in universities, to appear on best-seller lists and to be internationally recognised. This period, wrote Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman in their historical survey of Australian fiction from 1970 to 1988 The New Diversity, saw ‘a new, explicit treatment of sexuality in fiction; an exploration of the aspirations of women in response to post-1970s feminism; a range of voices reflecting the multicultural effects of Australia’s post-war migration programmes; and the first examples of Aboriginal fiction in English’ (1989 8). Post-Whitlam and into the 1990s the content and status of Australian identity and culture were challenged by feminism, multiculturalism and Aboriginal protest; these were questions of difference that were to become an enduring preoccupation of feminism, particularly from the 1980s, and they also figured centrally in a new cultural nationalism in which Australian women’s writing was implicated (though some feminists resisted it).

I: circa 1975

Early Women’s Liberation in Australia, reflecting its partial origins in various left wing social movements, was largely socialist in orientation, but with necessary caveats: Marxist analysis could only go so far in comprehending and explaining the place of women in society; as such, the ‘independent insights of feminist theory were necessary’ (Lake 233). A growing library of imported and eventually local material, much of it sociological or historical, but also including fiction and poetry, was a feature of Women’s Liberation meeting places around the country. Reading groups were established to disseminate and discuss this material, though some Liberationists preferred direct action to sitting around talking to each other about books (Lake 235). Bookshops such as the Feminist Bookshop, established in Sydney in 1973 by two former librarians June James and Julia Sugden, also functioned as a resource centre and social hub. And if by 1975, International Women’s Year, their best-sellers were the non-fiction works Damned Whores and God’s Police by Anne Summers and Joy Nicholson’s What Society Does to Girls (“It’s a Success” 24-25), fiction and poetry, and perhaps especially novels, held special status as a form of self-discovery and/ or self-identification. ‘When I read women’s novels’, shared Christine O’Sullivan in Scarlet Woman in April 1975, ‘I indulge a part of myself to which feminist theory only tentatively clings.’ (13) Novels, wrote Deborah McCulloch in Refractory Girl in the same year, ‘are particularly important to women’s readers, because women’s lives are not explored, greatly, elsewhere’ (1). Further, women did not just want to read novels, they increasingly wanted to write them, ‘especially since the women’s movement’ (5).

Newspapers and newsletters began to circulate from 1970, and the first feminist journal Refractory Girl was published from Sydney in 1973, followed by Brisbane-based Hecate and Scarlet Woman – ‘a socialist feminist quarterly’ alternately edited by two collectives, one in Sydney, the other in Melbourne – in 1975. These journals were wide-ranging in their concerns, and while there were ideological and editorial distinctions between them, each regularly published fiction, poetry and literary criticism and history, particularly Hecate. Magazines such as Womanspeak, launched in 1974 to extend Women’s Liberation to the suburbs, also gave coverage to women’s writing, though in a less sustained and critical fashion. Some of these periodicals were published by one of the two feminist presses that were launched in 1976: Everywoman Press in Sydney and Sybylla Press in Melbourne. By 1982, Sybllya began publishing its own commissioned books, starting with the anthology of contemporary fiction edited by writers Alison Tilson and Anna Gibbs, Frictions (Brown 480). Sisters Publishing was launched in 1979 with a book club and subscription mailing list (Higgins and Matthews 325). In the same year, twenty female writers established the No Regrets cooperative to publish their own material: by 1988 they had published three anthologies (Couani 14). Other presses, book clubs, writing groups and bookshops continued to emerge throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s, sometimes aided by government funding, but always motivated by ‘culturally-led rather than market-driven’ imperatives (Poland 123).

The first major feminist anthology to be published was Mother I’m Rooted: An Anthology of Australian Women’s Poetry, edited by 26 year-old feminist and poet Kate Jennings, and published by Melbourne-based Outback Press, a press sympathetic to, but not of the women’s movement. Women poets were already getting increasing - though still limited - opportunities to publish in the radical small presses that had emerged from the counterculture and ‘New Australian poetry’ from the late 1960s on (Vickery 265), and some of the poets featured in the anthology (Judith Rodriguez and Vicki Viidikas, for example) had been previously published by poetry presses (272) and in feminist publications, including Jennings herself (274), while about twenty other contributors – including Colleen Burke, Lee Cataldi, Helen Garner, Antigone Kefala and Jennifer Maiden – released their first books roughly around the same time (Lilley 266). Still the majority of the 152 contributors, narrowed down from over 500 submissions, had never been published before. Eschewing what she called the ‘posturing, in-group, obscure, tricksy, mystified bullshit’ that for Jennings characterised ‘most poetry’, as editor she sought out ‘poems mainly on the grounds of women writing directly and honestly’. (Jennings 1975 11) ‘At this point in time’, she continued in her introduction, an all-women’s anthology ‘is necessary’ (12). In rejection of hierarchy, and presumably to illustrate the anthology’s status as ‘a collective statement about the condition of women in Australia’ (11), the poets were published in alphabetical order, sometimes interspersed with images of unnamed women going about their daily business. Surveying feminist publications in Meanjin four years later, Susan Higgins and Jill Matthews noted that the anthology had ‘raised questions in relation to women’s literary work’ that until that stage had been more vigorously pursued in the feminist art scene, about ‘feminist attempts to deconstruct patriarchal culture’s dichotomies between artist and critic, art and politics, ‘significant’ and ‘trivial’ art’ (326).

Mother I’m Rooted was a zeitgeist text and was packaged accordingly, with photographs of a semi-naked woman cleverly foregrounded against a collage of windows, barbed wire and glimpses of contemporary advertising and pornography by feminist artist Ann Newmarch thus inviting recognition of ‘the shock of the feminist’ (Henderson 117) in the 1970s. While some bookshops and newspapers refused to stock or review it, the anthology was also front-page news in some states (Vickery 274); the ‘sort of front-page publicity’, Jennings later recalled, many of ‘the boys…lusted after.’ It also sold over 10,000 copies and ‘was one of those rare occasions when a book of poetry had a social as well as a literary impact’ (2010 15-16). This impact was certainly registered in the journals of Women’s Liberation, where the anthology was lauded for making the ‘writing (and reading) of poetry …both a personal and political act’. A poem may be personal, and reflect the ‘subjective experience’ of one woman, continued Kay Iseman in her review in Refractory Girl, but in cohort with others in the volume ‘readers identify with and validate the commonality of our experience of oppression [and] throw off the mystifications of the oppressor’ (1975). In Hecate, the anthology was reviewed by a man – literary critic Peter Howarth – who did not so much identify with the poems as celebrate their collective political and aesthetic challenge, its strength derived from ‘the diversity and wholesale inclusiveness’ of the anthology and ‘from the rawness of the poetry, uncompromised and undiluted by the male publishing regime’ (87). Jennings’ stated editorial preference for ‘women’s subject matter’, for the ‘childbirth, babies, menstruation, housework, feminine conditioning, and female perceptions…women are stuck with…whether we like it or not’ (1975 11) in 1975 was warmly even ecstatically received by readers in and associated with the women’s movement.

Also published in 1975 to the great interest of those in the women’s movement and many outside of it was Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia. A pioneering work of history and sociology, Damned Whores is rarely historicised as part of the literary history of the women’s movement, yet its opening chapter on the history of women’s writers in Australia surely belongs to it. It expanded her earlier intervention into this field in the pages of Refractory Girl. Summers was a recent arrival to Sydney from Adelaide when she joined the collective in 1972. One of her first contributions was a survey of the ‘image of women’ in the novels of Australian women writers, including Elizabeth Harrower, Henry Handel Richardson, Barbara Baynton and Christina Stead. Miles Franklin and Dymphna Cusack were described as ‘frankly feminist’, but in general it was ‘difficult to delineate a clear tradition of critical examination of women by Australian women writers’. Nor had Australian women ‘escaped the petrifying effects of the woman writer stereotype’, as less serious than male writers, and more inclined to ‘romantic novels or domestic dramas of the kind deemed appropriate from the pen of a woman’. Summers, in her condemnation of the prevailing understanding in a patriarchal society of ‘women writers’ as a ‘different species’ and ‘women’s writing’ as superficial, also damned previous generations of Australian women writers on similar grounds. The task of the writers of Women’s Liberation was to follow the example of Sylvia Plath, ‘brutal probing of the forbidden territory of intimate experiences of the female: defloration, menstruation and childbirth’. Much of the initial writing, predicted Summers (two years before the publication of Mother I’m Rooted), ‘will necessarily be a ritual breaking of taboos’, creating the conditions for a ‘more epicene culture’ (1973 4-11).

In Damned Whores, the writing by women that Summers championed was ‘honest’ – like Mary Gilmore’s poem ‘Mother’ – though ‘too much of this was condemned as self-indulgent’. Further, the use of male pseudonyms, while comprehensible as a form of ‘self-protection’ for women writers eager to be taken seriously, was a ‘masquerade’ that may have given women the ‘freedom to write as they wished’, but also left them vulnerable to ‘psychic schizophrenia or even loss of fixed identity’. Thus Henry Handel Richardson’s major work The Fortunes of Richard Maloney was interpreted as a work of displacement and inauthenticity: writing as a man meant Richardson was obliged to represent the wife in the book in the customary fashion, as an ‘impediment to male self-realization’. (1975 40-41). For Summers, the best women’s writing rejected well-worn stereotypes about women and instead developed complex female characters, in the mode of Christina Stead, who for all the praise heaped on her was seldom acknowledged for ‘one of her major contributions to Australian literature: her characterisation of women’ (48).

While wanting to reject the dominant culture’s dismissal of women’s writing as inferior, Summers hardly sought to abandon the category altogether for, she argued, male and female artists do have ‘differing aspirations … that are connected with their differing experiences of the world’ (35). If Summers’ approach to literature owed more to sociology and history than it did to traditional literary criticism this was the point: her message, shared by others in Women’s Liberation (though not all or uniformly), was that writing was hardly untainted by sexual difference, the field of literature reflected women’s role in society, and women’s writing that honestly reflected the specificity of female experience and embodiment was necessary for contemporary women to recognise themselves and to counter prevailing stereotypes. Past women writers and writing were also subject to feminist scrutiny (authenticity and complexity were prized, while ‘stereotypes’ and ‘propaganda’ were not), a reading strategy that was also detectable in reviews of new fiction in feminist journals.

Damned Whores has since been remembered as one the key works of early women’s history, characterised by the combination of ‘visions, nightmares and dreams’ they so vividly evoked (Curthoys 1996). Yet its opening chapter is also indicative of what Women’s Liberationist and feminist literary critic Carole Ferrier would describe in 1976 as the dominant tendencies in early feminist literary criticism in Australia: a preoccupation with the ‘image of women in literature’ and the consequent ‘stereotypes of women…their work evinces’; attention to the works of women writers ‘previously devalued’; and an interest and stake in the ‘role women’s writing can play in the current dialectic of liberation.’ This last ambition typically manifested in a desire to read women’s writing for an ‘accurate reflection of women’s lives’ and for ‘positive role models’, a difficult combination to pull off (1976 93).

As Ferrier noted, these approaches to women’s writing informed the development of women’s studies in Australia and elsewhere, a project intimately linked with Women’s Liberation, if sometimes estranged from it (Sheridan 1993 42) and were also evident in the publications of early Women’s Liberation, including an ongoing interest in the historical and social conditions under which women wrote. For Womanspeak, Betty Lockwood, a ‘novel reader’ who had spent all her ‘working life in the book trade’, embarked on an ambitious reading of the novels of past women writers in Australia of which only a minority were still in publication. In references libraries, she spent ‘fascinating, enthralling hours’ reading the works of Catherine Helen Spence, Ada Cambridge and Rosa Praed, among the many others she documented in her serialised feature ‘and then there were women’ that ran over several issues. Barbara Baynton, she discerned, lacked Henry Lawson’s ‘lightness of manner’, but ‘then how light could most bush women of the nineteenth century be? They couldn’t resort to the grog to relieve their tension and exhaustion’ (22-23).

Another landmark work published in 1975 was the novel All That False Instruction by ‘Elizabeth Riley’, the pseudonym of Kerryn Higgs. Released by Angus and Robertson, Higgs’ novel competes with Garner’s Monkey Grip, published two years later, for the title of the ‘first feminist novel published in Australia’ (Bird 1998 422). While Garner’s book demanded to be read in the wake of Women’s Liberation, as her protagonist Nora struggled to reconcile her love for the ‘bludger’ Javo with the allegedly progressive sexual politics of her inner-city counterculture milieu, All That False Instruction, subtitled in its debut edition as ‘A Novel of Lesbian Love’, was set a decade earlier in the pre-feminist conformist 1960s. In the skilfully executed form of a lesbian Bildungsroman, Higgs’ protagonist Maureen Craig escapes her working-class roots for higher education and a series of relationships with women, each of which fail, necessitating another escape, this time outside of Australia altogether, the well-trodden route of sexual and/ or intellectual outsiders of the 1950s and 1960s.

Higgs’ book enjoyed positive reviews and its significance for the women’s movement – at a time when lesbianism was moving to the fore as both a divisive issue within feminism, and as a crucial source of feminist identity – was immediately noted, particularly for lesbian feminists, as a lesbian literary tradition and criticism began to develop. Sue Bellamy, reviewing the novel favourably in Refractory Girl, reflected on what she called ‘the problem of identification’: ‘The task of reviewing this book is difficult because Maureen Craig is my contemporary’. Part of this identification was with how prior to ‘the new women’s movement and lesbian feminist consciousness… many women, myself included, were … looking for similar solutions’ to those chased by Maureen (33). Deirdre O’Sullivan in Scarlet Woman praised the novel’s ‘vision’ for its endorsement of lesbianism ‘in a society which rejects it’ and found some ‘ground for hope’ in the glimpses of ‘feminism depicted in the last chapter’ (27).

Higgs was part of the women’s movement in Australia, and indeed reviewed Summers’ Damned Whores in the same issue of Scarlet Woman in which her own novel was reviewed. In her essay on lesbian novels published in the same journal in July 1976, Jenny Pausacker comfortably assigned All That False Instruction triple status as lesbian, feminist and good, affirming that ‘the novel remains the best place to look at the lasting contradiction between the way we live and the way we want to live’ (19). There are substantial claims to be made for the novel’s status as the ‘first feminist novel’ in Australia, but the circumstances of its initial publication support Shane Rowland’s 1992 observation that lesbian cultural production had only recently become visible and that its emergence continues to be restricted, rendering any calls for a post-identity politics notion of ‘good’ writing, untainted by prefixes such as ‘woman’ or ‘lesbian’, premature (131). All That False Instruction was published under a pseudonym, albeit a female one, on the recommendation of her publishers after its content was deemed libellous. When first approached about a possible re-issue in 1989, Higgs declined because her parents were still alive and she was worried the content and publicity might upset them. The novel was finally re-released under her name in 2001 by feminist publishers Spinifex, partly due to the advocacy of American scholar, Harriet Malinowitz, who had become ‘enchanted’ with it after finding it remaindered in a New York City bookstore in 1989. (Malinowitz vx). Spinifex Press was set up in 1990 by Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein; after four years as a fiction editor at Penguin, Hawthorne left Penguin to start a feminist press in order to ‘maintain control over all aspects of publishing’. ‘It is no accident’, wrote Hawthorne with Diane Brown of Sybylla Press in 1991 in Refractory Girl, ‘that lesbians have been at the vanguard in just about every feminist venture, and publishing is no exception’ (Brown and Hawthorne 24-25).

II: ‘around 1981’

By the end of the 1970s, Hecate the most literary-oriented of the Australian feminist journals was devoting increasing attention to developments in both American and French feminist literary criticism and theory. A period of ‘theorisation, and reflection on methodology, after ten years of building a practice’ had begun (1979 63). Here, Meaghan Morris, in a 1979 article on ‘Aspects of Current French Literary Criticism’ was referring to the contemporary state of American criticism, but her statement was also applicable to the Australian context. That Morris would identify both exciting and limiting ‘aspects’ of the ‘new’ feminist literary criticism was also perhaps typical of Australian feminism, which as Susan Sheridan has argued has tended to merge transplanted international feminism with ‘certain indigenous features, notable among them being the capacity to graft those others on its own growth and at times produce new species’ (1988 1). In the pages of Hecate, receptiveness to French theory was not wholesale or at the expense of class analysis. And nor was ‘French feminist theory’ presented in an undifferentiated fashion. Morris was impatient with the kind that left femininity tethered to a basic model of exclusion (femininity as the perennial ‘Other’); more promising was the feminist philosophy of Michelle Le Doueff who distinguished the ‘relative exclusion of real women’ from the ‘absolute exclusion of the feminine from the philosophical field’ (66). To apply this thinking to the literary field would involve paying attention to the ‘problematisation’ of women in literary discourses, past and present. What is at stake when writing is gendered ‘female’ or ‘feminine’ or texts are gendered or even whole genres, like the novel? What is ‘feminine’ about the any given text – ‘Is it the structure of the sentences? Is it in the personal experience of the author?’ (67-8) For Morris, to continue to uphold the ‘Big Dichotomies’ or ‘binary paroxisms’ of women’s writing as life transposed onto text (leaving ‘Art’ to men) now that the life-text relation had been sufficiently challenged ‘almost amounts to a belief in feminine sorcery’ (70).

As Delys Bird has noted, in Australia – and unlike the United States – feminist literary theory’s institutional presence was comparatively small and slow. While its proponents may have taught in university literature or women’s studies departments, feminist criticism in the 1970s and 1980s primarily circulated in non ‘literary’ or interdisciplinary environments, including Women and Labour conferences, the first women’s and cultural studies conferences and in multidisciplinary publications and feminist journals (1998b 452). Prior to the foundation of Australian Feminist Studies in 1986, Hecate was the ‘only journal that allowed space for the publication of extended theoretical argument’ (Ferrier 1998 441). Throughout the 1980s, Hecate promoted a rigorous feminist literary criticism, both socialist and feminist, attentive to race, ethnicity and class, open to new theories but not captive to them, and receptive to an expanding range of women’s writing, including popular fiction, Indigenous life-writing, science fiction, erotica, experimental writing and what Sneja Gunew defined as ‘non-Anglo-Celtic rather than Migrant writing’ (1986 136). It also continued to publish new fiction and poetry from emerging and established writers, including Gillian Mears, Kate Llewellyn, Lily Brett, Joanne Burn, Ania Walwicz, Wanda Coleman, Rosa Cappiello and Colleen Burke. Hecate’s primary feminist literary theorists, editors Carole Ferrier and Bronwen Levy and regular contributor Gunew, routinely called into question any normalised or essentialist understanding of ‘women’s writing’ and the feminisms that underpinned them. Part of this work included a critical assessment of the work captured by marketplace or revised canonical definitions of ‘women’s writing’ and advocacy for the writers and writing practices that did not. Their related projects included Ferrier’s edited collection of feminist literary criticism and history Gender, Politics and Fiction: Twentieth Century Australian Women’s Novels, first released in 1985 with a second edition in 1992 and Telling Ways: Australian Women’s Experimental Writing, edited by Gunew and writer Anna Couani (1988).

In broad terms, Hecate’s feminism criticism was part of what Ferrier heralded as the ‘third development’ in the field, though the initial preoccupations with ‘images of women’ in literature, lost works by women writers and ‘women-centred’ methodologies still endured, now increasingly characterised by political retreat and weak epistemology (1992 2-4) Hecate’s interventions into the ‘third’ phase of feminist literary criticism proceeded on a number of not always compatible fronts. Ferrier staked a claim for a historically-grounded, politically useful, outward-looking feminist criticism that if committed to women’s liberation (as she was) was obliged to explore new reading methods (which could include French theory and psychoanalysis though not necessarily) and a possible synthesis of ‘Marxist, feminist, black or migrant perspectives’, which may or may not be possible (4-5). While careful not to overstate the ‘political importance’ of ‘literary critical strategies’ (2), Ferrier nonetheless sought to defend socialist and/ or feminist standpoints against a discernible shift to the right in politics and education, and within the women’s movement as many women previously committed to ‘women’s liberation’ now seemed to occupy a middle-class feminist middle-ground. She was concerned about institutional threats to women’s studies and suspicious of the middle-class orientation of French theory and psychoanalysis. Gunew, on the other hand, as she indicated in a joint article with Louise Adler titled ‘Method and Madness in Female Writing’ published by Hecate in 1981, saw great promise in the capacity (or the ‘madness’ and utopianism) of French feminist theorists like Cixous, Irigaray, Clement and Kristeva to move feminist criticism beyond the ‘method’ and empiricism of the Anglo-American tradition. The challenge as they saw it was to identify the ‘theoretical site’ from which a speaking subject (a ‘woman writer’, a ‘migrant writer’) is created through language, that is ‘the ‘production of the subject’ rather than a focus on subject matter or ‘the images of women’ approach. Nor, they argued, was women’s studies necessarily the best place to do this kind of theoretical work, for its initial radical claiming of a gendered space called ‘woman’ had made them an institutional and ‘theoretical ghetto’ ill-placed to embrace the challenge posed by French feminist theory’s notion of ‘difference’. (1981 20-32).

That Gunew and Adler’s paper was first presented at the 1981 Women’s Studies Conference at the University of Wollongong indicated a growing debate over where feminist literary theory was best-located and practised, while also prefiguring the ‘gender studies’ turn of the 1990s (which was never absolute). The Women’s Studies Conference also extended the at times bitter feminist debate that erupted in response to American radical feminist philosopher Mary Daly’s visit to Sydney in August to discuss her 1978 book Gyn/ecology: the meta-ethics of radical feminism, a contentious text that depending on one’s feminist politics was either a bold reclamation of female power and language through separation from patriarchy and its systems, or symptomatic of a disturbing new tendency in radical feminism towards dubious metaphysics, essentialism and man-hating. As Genovese has argued, Daly’s visit provided the stage for lesbian separatist feminists and the ‘sisterhood’ of liberal/ socialist/ libertarian feminisms to thrash out the personal and political utility of the metaphors with which they chose to describe themselves linguistically, that is as either ‘women or wimmin’ (1996 141) More specifically, for feminist literary critics such as Gunew, Adler and Susan Sheridan who attended the Wollongong Women’s Studies Conference, the divide that made the Daly visit such a seismic event for Australian feminism manifested itself in feminist literary criticism as a division between the ‘sisterhood’ and the ‘theorists’, Australia’s own version of Gallop’s ‘around 1981’ moment (Sheridan 1993).

While some feminist writers and readers continued to be estranged from the ‘theoretical’ turn in Australian feminist thought – including Kate Jennings, who from the United States in the early 1990s, complained that feminist theory had become so ‘exaggeratedly prolix and self-referential that only acolytes understand it’ (2010 27) – for others, as some of the essays published in Hecate remind us, the arrival of French feminist theory in translation in the early 1980s signalled the beginning, not the end, of an exciting new phase in Australian feminist literature, marked by experimentation, play and spirited debate. Alison Ravenscroft would later recall the thrill of reading Kathleen Mary Fallon’s genre-defying work Working hot when it first appeared in manuscript form at Sybylla Press in 1986, right at the moment when the ‘certainties of older feminisms were being undone’ in the wake of challenges made by French feminism: ‘Working hot both described and contributed to this remaking of feminism’ (76). When it was eventually published in 1989, it was the ‘feminist communal context’ – of feminist writer; feminist publishers, reviewers and scholars; of ‘feminists and their fellow travellers who judged Working hot to be the winner of the 1989 Victorian Premier’s Award for New Writing’; of ‘feminist readers who brought the book for themselves and friends’ – that created ‘some of the erotics of the book’ as it was ‘passed from hand to hand among a community of readers for whom this book was part of an ongoing exchange of ideas’ (81). In 2001 Working hot was republished by Random House as a sexy ‘cult classic’; repackaged to ‘confirm more closely to the conventional novel and the reading practices associated with it’ (80), its feminist origins largely obscured.

III: 1980s as ‘the woman’s decade’

Helen Garner’s 1978 National Book Council Award for Monkey Grip and Kathleen Mary Fallon’s 1989 Victorian Premier’s Award for Working hot can be read as bookends to a decade described by Elizabeth Jolley as a ‘moment of glory’ for women writers in Australia (Whitlock xi). Jolley, after years of rejections, published three books of short stories and nine novels between 1976 and 1989. Olga Masters, born in 1919 and a long-time journalist, bloomed as a short story writer in the 1980s, with two award-winning short story collections and a novel published before her death in 1986. Kate Grenville’s career as a novelist began with the publication of her Vogel-award winning Lillian’s Story in 1985, while her 1988 novel Joan Makes History had the peculiar honour of being funded by the Bicentennial Authority. Beverly Farmer’s first novel Alone was published in 1980, followed in 1983 by Milk, her short story collection that won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in 1984. Jean Bedford, Sara Dowse, Gabrielle Lord, Blanche D’Alpuget, Marion Campbell, Janette Turner Hospital, Janine Burke and Amanda Lohrey all published their first (and in some cases second, third and fourth) novels to critical and often popular acclaim. Jessica Anderson and Barbara Hanrahan each enjoyed a richly creative and productive decade. Such was the visibility and marketability of this phenomenon – of Australian women writers in the foreground of Australian literature – that a parallel market of books about Australian women writers briefly emerged, including Rooms of Their Own, a series of interviews with twelve writers, by Jennifer Ellison (1986), Pam Gilbert’s Coming out from under: contemporary Australian women writers (1988) and Whitlock’s aforementioned Eight Voices of the Eighties (1989), each framing the ‘woman’s decade’ in Australian literature in terms of feminism and its aftermath. Feminism, surmised Whitlock, helped create a market for, and an ‘interpretative community’ receptive to women’s writing, particularly the experiential kind that resonated with a white middle-class educated readership (xix). Ellison resisted any sweeping conclusions about the relationship between the ‘feminist movement’ and the new prominence of some women writers in Australian literature, but she did note that ‘more women than ever before have money to spend on books of their choice’ (2).

Garner, not surprisingly, appeared in all three studies of Australian women writers. For obvious reasons – including its content, its publishers McPhee and Gribble, the author’s own feminist identity, and the timing of its publication – the success of Monkey Grip ensured it was read in relation to feminism. Monkey Grip presented a view of alternative ways of living and loving played out against a backdrop of inner-Melbourne communal living and subcultures, including the women’s movement. Yet though Monkey Grip was marketed as life-changing in the mode of The Women’s Room (Bird 1997 115), it shared little in common with French’s didactic tome. Garner’s subject matter, noted the judges of the National Book Council Award, ‘has been criticised and even regarded as distasteful by some reviewers, and did arouse some resistance’ among the judges themselves – two of whom were feminists: Anne Summers, then literary editor of the National Times, and Joyce Nicholson, soon to form Sisters Publishing with Garner’s publishers Hilary McPhee and Diana Gribble among others. Garner is not suffering from any illusions, the judges continued, but is ‘utterly honest in facing the dilemmas of freedom, and particularly of social and sexual freedom, for women trying to create for themselves a role which will recognise their full humanity’ (“Judges Report” 31). ‘One thing that surprised me’, Garner told Ellison in the mid-1980s, ‘was how shocked some people were by it’ (137). Thea Astley, a novelist who began publishing in the late 1950s but was nonetheless swept up in the ‘women’s decade’ cohort, described her first reaction to Monkey Grip to the same interviewer:

I thought, oh God, isn’t it marvellous the way Helen Garner can deal with female situations of getting meals (I’ve always avoided meals, you know) and deal with the mundanities of a woman’s day, and make it alive and intelligent and believable, without its looking twee. (Ellison 57)

For Astley, Garner’s ability to make ‘women’s problems and the woman’s voice’ ‘intelligent and interesting’ marked her as a feminist writer (57).

Garner wrote Monkey Grip over four years, and while living on the Supporting Parent’s Benefit, first introduced in Australia in 1973. Feminism ‘directly influenced’ her writing she told Ellison ‘in the sense that I felt it was alright for me to be writing in the first place’ (143). Having McPhee and Gribble as publishers was also crucial: ‘If I’d had to take Monkey Grip to a male publishing company, either I would have been thrown out immediately as being too emotional’ or she would have to ‘change it in lots of ways’ (144). After the success of her debut novel its impact so significant on the Australian literary landscape some critics suggested the marker ‘After Monkey Grip’ (Whitlock xv) – Garner released Honour and Other People’s Children: Two Stories (1980) and in 1984 her novella The Children’s Bach. While the nuclear family focus of The Children’s Bach was interpreted by some as ‘Helen Garner recanting’ (Ellison 140), it was also reviewed as her masterwork, and extended her general focus on intimacies, between people and in domestic spaces. Gina Mercer, in a 1986 article titled ‘Small Women’ in the Australian Book Review located Garner as one of the biggest ‘stars’ in the new ‘star’ system for women writers in Australia, deemed acceptable for their focus on the domestic, with Garner’s ‘small’, ‘modest’ and ‘housewifely’ presentation embodying these qualities (Whitlock xviii).

In the same year, writer and reviewer Gerard Windsor sparked a minor controversy in the relatively small Australian literary community with his contentious address at Writers’ Week at the Adelaide Festival ‘Writers and Reviewers’, later published in the literary journal Island alongside a series of responses from some of Australia’s better-known reviewers. Within a general critique of the ‘factionalism’ of Australia’s reviewing culture, Windsor singled out the ‘transparently enthusiastic encouragement’ women writers seemed to be receiving as symptomatic (15). Stopping short of the ‘feminist conspiracy theory’, and in the absence of ‘more facts’, Windsor offered a ‘sociological’ explanation for the ascendency of women writers: ‘The intelligent, book-buying female reading public have grown up with the women’s movement’, wrote Windsor. ‘They want to see their own experiences reflected, they want literary role models’. What Windsor called ‘Garner/Farmer territory – domestic pain’ appealed to this demographic ‘immensely’ (16.) Reviewers had their own more experimental women writers that they especially championed - ‘names like Ania Walwicz, Anna Couani, Jan McKemmish’ - but there was no ‘publicity machine working for their male equivalents’ (17). Further, the packaging of women’s writing by publishers such as Virago was condemned as ‘sexist and alienating’, especially to male book buyers who do not buy books on the basis of the sex of an author, ‘at least not consciously’ (16).

Windsor’s respondents included reviewer and academic Kerryn Goldsworthy, then still freshly chastened from the fall-out from her 1985 Meanjin article ‘Feminist Writings, Feminist Readings’ in which she surveyed recent women’s writing in Australia through a ‘women’s writing’/ ‘feminist writing’ distinction. Beverly Farmer, in a letter to Meanjin editor Judith Brett had taken particular issue with what she took to be Goldsworthy’s dismissal of her stories as ‘reactionary’ to the women’s movement. ‘[F]eminism may be a “powerful political force”’, wrote Farmer, ‘but it’s not a dictatorship. Writers of fiction…can still keep ideology – any ideology at bay if it so happens that they see human experience in other terms’ (Whitlock 131-132). In her response to Windsor, Goldsworthy clarified that her intention had been to review Australian women’s fiction analytically, in relation to feminist theory, rather than evaluating and ranking them on some spurious scale of ‘ideological soundness’. She questioned Windsor’s own evaluation criteria and his ‘implicit assumption…that there exists some fixed set of standards for literary merit’ that hover above readers and their contexts, and are superior, for instance, to ‘the pleasure of the shock of recognition’ commonly identified as a crucial factor in the popularity of women’s writing (26).

Windsor was refuted too in the pages of feminist journals, as part of an ongoing examination in the mid-to-late 1980s of the ‘woman writer’ phenomenon and its consequences, in Australia and elsewhere (in this attention to the international scene feminist journals were less parochial than literary ones). In Hecate, Bronwen Levy questioned the very terms of the ‘debate’, premised as it was on a conservative gender binary ‘male/ female’ that left other aspects of writing, reading and publishing untouched, including class, ethnicity and sexuality, while also reproducing the cultural nationalism of the Bicentennial decade. Windsor’s reduction of successful women’s fiction to the theme of ‘domestic pain’ was also at least doubly dismissive; of women’s writing focussed on domestic politics and intimacies; and of Australian women’s writing outside of this mould. There were missed opportunities too in earlier responses to Windsor to properly examine the politics of Australian publishing and reviewing culture in light of his ‘hunches’(Levy 1987).

In 1989 the Australian Women’s Book Review was launched, partially to provide a corrective to an ongoing gender-disparity in mainstream book reviewing. In this forum, feminist contributors questioned the ‘pervasive blandness’ of the first Australian Feminist Book Fortnight in 1989, including its title ‘Women’s Writing Comes of Age’ (Ferrier 1989), the acceptable ‘feminism’ of some contemporary women writers (Couani 1990) and the ‘evidence’ behind Windsor’s claims. Leslie Cannold-McDonald using data from Penguin demonstrated that there was a ten per cent increase in writing by women in the 1980s, and a fourteen per cent drop in the male publication rate, but what this reflected was not women’s market dominance but ‘the fact that men were losing part of their market position at the same time that women were gaining position’ (15).


This history has hopefully highlighted what Margaret Henderson has described as the ‘avant-gardism’ of Women’s Liberation as a political and cultural force, a phenomenon that has been largely excised or estranged from general surveys of Australian cultural history (2012). It also offers rich examples of the substantial and enduring influence of feminism on literary cultures or what Rita Felski has charted as Literature After Feminism (2003). More specifically I have traced how across the 1970s and 1980s, ‘women’s writing’ and ‘feminism’ were commonly described as striking contemporary developments, clearly successful and causally linked, though how successful and how intimately linked were debatable. The journals of Women’s Liberation charted and analysed developments in both fields as they were happening, occasionally (and understandably) in celebratory tones, but rarely uncritically. The development of feminist literary theory in Australia was presented here as an intervention into what began as a feminist championing of ‘women’s writing’ as synonymous with women’s intimate experience before migrating to mainstream literary culture which further promoted and dismissed ‘women’s writing’ on similar terms. Throughout, feminist discussions of ‘women’s writing’ were also often conversations about and contests over the state and direction of feminism, or Women’s Liberation, and the capacity of the women’s movement to challenge or influence wider culture, or alternatively to advance a ‘woman-centred’ culture. 


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