The following is an extract from a Big Ideas keynote speech delivered Sunday night at the Melbourne Writers Festival

After the announcement of the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist, Alison Croggon wrote on The Drum: “A world loaded in favour of one s-x accounts for the pyramidal structure of gender. At the wide bottom of the writing world — the world of amateur writers on the internet, for instance — women, if anything, dominate. The closer you get to the top, the fewer women there are. And at the very top, as in this year’s Miles Franklin, the presence of women is an exception.”

What to do about it? 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.

I agree with Croggon that the issues surrounding the economic and cultural rights of women are not being resolved by the free market. So, what are these different tools to be?

Well some of the new tools are old tools. There is more talk and there has been a real flourishing of more grassroots action going on in my town of Melbourne, for example.  There are feminist salons being held in pubs in Collingwood and a regular event called Women of Letters held at town halls around the place. Recently, there was Slutwalk.  A group of us have set up a committee to establish a prize to award women writers.  These sound like small things but  the number of “small” gestures are increasing at a rate that suggests a real momentum again is developing in the woman’s movement.

The prize that we’re striving to establish — we’re calling ourselves The Stellas — have received much support but  there is no doubt that some people find the idea of affirmative action — though we think of it more as celebration — as patronising.  I do understand this resistance. Being angry about the inequality that exists is distracting and demoralising.  We all spend much of our lives trying not to dwell on such things. Also, we in the arts community like to think we’re above all that.  But putting our head in the sand isn’t going to change things.  Anne Summers again . “A lot of people are worried about quotas.  Especially women.  I hear many women say they want to ‘get there on merit’. The trouble is, we do not have a merit-based system in this country.  People are promoted for all sorts of reasons — networks, connections (old school tie, golf buddies), competence, luck, nepotism and so on.”

I find it interesting that people who would argue (correctly) that you can’t deny climate change because we have a few cool days in a row, or it’s been raining in Victoria this year — that is, who argue you have to look at long-term trends — are more than happy to say that it’s just been a bad year for women’s writing or women’s theatre. You can argue the toss about any given year; you can’t argue with decades of systematic exclusion.

We need to find new ways to advocate for women’s voices, in the face of their ongoing marginalisation, both cultural and economic. We need to ignore the inevitable suggestions that to advocate in this way is tokenism, “s-xist”, “unfair” or unnecessary. I want to return to Greer’s quote “The sight of women talking together has always made men uneasy”.

It’s worth noting that in the corporate world the pressure is being put on companies to lift their game. All ASX (Australian Security Exchange) companies now have to report annually on the gender breakdown of their workforces, and specifically on senior management and board composition.  They are not having to do so to answer to any particular quota — but they do need to make their decisions visible and even that seems to have a very positive affect on behaviours.  We at the Stella hope that simply by having raised some of the issues we have regarding women and writing that literary editors, and publishers, and judges are pausing for thought.

But obviously simply talking isn’t enough. I think that factors such as gender need to be consciously taken into account in judging, awarding grants, or interviewing for jobs. When I’ve worked as a peer of the literature board of the Australia Council, or been on judging panels, I do think about gender, ethnicity — whether Tasmania is there, whether there are enough poets — all these things. We have to. It’s part of the job. And I don’t mean by that you automatically give prizes or money to work you don’t think is worthy — but you do adjust for your blind spots. To be honest, my blind spot when it came to fiction I chose to publish at Meanjin, the literary journal I edited for three years, was men. I had to autocorrect to make sure that men were getting a fair go, given I tended to gravitate towards the work of women.  And I didn’t have a problem with doing that.

However, change is not as simple as introducing quotas and passing laws. You can make it illegal for women to be beaten. You can make it illegal for them to be r-ped. But legislation can’t force men — or indeed women — to find the style in which women write, or paint, or sing more gripping or important. It can’t insist that women become more confident and assertive. You could also argue, to quote Alison Croggon again, that quotas “provide a simple answer that evades the real work.” … [which is] changing the complex of ideologies that situates the white, abled, middle-class male subject as the normative consciousness, and that constitutes anyone else as other.   She identifies that work as consciousness raising and ongoing conversation.  Again, I would agree with her.

An incident last week involving 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones heckling Sydney Morning Herald journalist Jacqueline Maley at the Convoy of No Confidence rally is just the latest example of a culture in which women are bullied into invisibility.

Leaders in this country are actively cultivating a climate in which women are bullied into disappearing — even further — from our culture’s public spaces. We need to become more visible and indeed women are beginning, again, to react in more public ways to their ongoing disconnection from culture, and from economic power.  A new wave, a fourth wave, if you will, of feminism is needed and soon to arrive.

*Sophie Cunningham is an author, editor and co-founder of the Stella Awards

Peter Fray

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