This is the text of a speech I gave on International Women's Day 8 March 2016 in Yankalilla, South Australia.
Good afternoon everyone. I hope you will find this talk about women in the arts inspirational. On this occasion of International Women’s Day and although I have confined myself to speaking about Australian women who have contributed to our vibrant cultural life, I would like to dedicate this speech to Sophie Scholl (1921-1943) - a German activist from the White Rose group in the University of Munich, who campaigned against the Nazis, and who dedicated her last words before her execution to awakening others. I invite you to consider how the arts shapes society, and how many women in the arts continue to break through the social and political constraints of their time, to create not just art but awareness and the promotion of social change.
Some of the women I will be speaking about have come from my generation, and began to make their mark as long ago as the 1970s; others are in the early stages of their creative career paths. PAUSE. I want to acknowledge here that by speaking of people who have chosen to make a career out of the arts, I also don’t discount the efforts of those who choose to engage in the arts as a hobby or leisure activity, but those who have chosen the hard road of trying to make a living from their creativity and making creativity central to their lives, certainly deserve our attention and praise – especially in a country that historically has strongly masculine traditions and more males in the top arts administrative jobs (Mendelssohn, 2013).
Several years ago, I visited the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes. It was at a time when my friend the artist Louise Feneley (who is represented in SA by Sam Hill-Smith), had entered her triptych of designer Jenny Kee into the Archibald prize. Feneley’s astounding painting, as it turned out, was rejected – and I mused at the time and more recently, about how difficult it was for painters who had not come from the eastern states, to ever get much traction at the event… though this was not the major theme occupying my thoughts at the end of my visit to the gallery. What seemed glaringly obvious to me was the lack of female painters, and female subjects. Indeed, I had been curious enough to count the number of entries by women and paintings of women – and each amounted to about one third of the overall number of paintings. These were the days when Edmund Capon still ran the Art Gallery of NSW, and before I left, I asked the gallery staff at the front counter if I could write some hand-written comments that could be given to him. I was angry. I did ask him for some explanation as to what I saw as a fundamental inequity – but perhaps, unsurprisingly, despite leaving my contact details, no answer ever came.
By contrast to my anger at the lack of inclusion of women painters, I have discovered a much more hopeful attitude to the opportunities available to women, from the next generation - women in their twenties & thirties. Whilst still acknowledging the inherent difficulties of trying to make a living in any creative field, nevertheless, younger women with whom I have recently spoken seem to carry less of the anger, and more sheer determination to succeed on their own terms. About a week ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a musician Heather Frahn. We had a brief conversation about the topic: women in the arts and she was quick to suggest her list of inspirational Australian women. From memory, the list went something like this: The all female band Fruit, and other music artists Debra Conway, The Sapphires, Tiddas, Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Joan Sutherland; children's author May Gibbs; contemporary dancer Simi Roche; women's focussed theatre company Vital Statistix, fashion designer Collette Dinnigan and so on…
I added my own inspirational women, including the contemporary artist I revere above all: Fiona Hall – a South Australian. My painter friend Louise Feneley who lives at Marino was on the list, as well as artists who were born in the late nineteenth century: Margaret Preston (born in Port Adelaide 1875), Dorrit Black and Grace Cossington Smith. Jane Campion – best remembered for the feature film The Piano which she directed in 1993 – was there, and in thinking of The Piano, I also listed a girl with whom I went to high school, the costume designer Janet Patterson, who was nominated for an Academy Award, and won a BAFTA Award for her work on the film. I also noted indigenous women such as painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and textile artist Bronwyn Bancroft – who used to have a shop around the corner from where once I lived in Rozelle, NSW.
At the top of my list was writer Helen Garner – author of Monkey Grip, Cosmo Cosmolino, Last Days of Chez Nous, The First Stone, True Stories, The Feel of Steel, The Spare Room, This House of Grief etc. I cherished the fact that she had signed various books of mine and that I was fortunate enough to have an occasional dialogue with her via snail mail, or even in person. On the occasion of a book that my husband and I produced and launched about 9/11, I invited Garner to the Melbourne City Library and though she was busy on the day of the launch, she arrived the next day (or so), and we met for coffee. Like some starry-eyed teen with a pop hero, I wanted to pinch myself during our meeting, and felt privileged to be discussing writing with her.
Her influence dated all the way back to my days living in inner city Sydney – in an area that was a hub for creative types, especially writers and people from the film industry. In those days, my friend Lee Whitmore was a production designer on some of the big feature films and her husband Mark Stiles was a screen writer. As I was an aspiring writer, Mark suggested that I read Monkey Grip, alerting me to its autobiographical elements. He also encouraged me to make writing a habit, whilst Lee found me some work in the art department on Winter of Our Dreams (1980) – John Duigan’s film starring a young Judy Davis and Bryan Brown.
Recently, I have introduced Garner’s writing to some of the actors in Sealand Theatre – a small troupe I initiated in the area about 7 months ago. We’ve been reflecting on what makes a good monologue, and aside from referring to traditional play-scripts, we have also been examining the opening paragraphs of particular literary works. We started with Monkey Grip. I read the opening:
In the old house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for all of us to sit up at the meal table; one or two of us sat on the floor or on the kitchen step, plate on knee. It never occurred to us to teach the children to eat with a knife and fork. It was hunger and all sheer function; the noise and clashing of plates, and people chewing with their mouths open, and talking and laughing. Oh, I was happy then. At night our back yard smelt like the country.
It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change. (Garner, 1977: 1)
The words catapulted me back to my 1970s. The actors responded warmly. To my surprise, none had previously heard of Monkey Grip or Garner. Later in a local bookshop, I picked up a copy of Oxford University Press’s Australian Feminism – a companion. On page 121, I read:
The success of Monkey Grip, a controversial winner of the National Book Club’s annual award for fiction, marked the beginning of a further strong period of fiction writing by Australian women. Initially, as in Garner’s novel, the emphasis was on the realistic depiction of previously unrepresented aspects of women’s lives – from the seeming mundanities of domestic detail to the highs and lows of sexual desire and passionate love. Some, like Kate Grenville… later turned from present to past… restoring women to their rightful place at significant events in Australian history. (Caine, 1998)
This brings me to the issue of the historical invisibility of women, or lesser visibility, as culture makers and shapers. Whilst things may have changed very much for the better since the early days of the colonial settler and the ‘wild colonial boy’ where white men were central to cultural identity-making, nevertheless, there is still room for young women to take up the baton for further change. For instance, in recent research, Sarah Miller (2014) from the University of Wollongong points out that women are still largely under-represented as playwrights in the Major Performing Arts companies, despite their proliferation in smaller creative enterprises, such as community theatre, or emerging, experimental forms of theatre (2014).
At the same time, Miller also acknowledges those extraordinary women who have driven/continue to drive change in the arts, with respect to opportunities for women, and Miller’s list includes: Dame Doris Fitton who established the Independent Theatre in Sydney in 1930; Wendy Blacklock (formerly an actress in Number 96 TV show), an influential theatre advocate; Robyn Nevin actress and former artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company (1999-2007); Cate Blanchett (actress & co-artistic director STC) and Rosalbe Clemente who was head of the State Theatre Company of South Australia from 1999 – 2004 (Miller 2014).
So you have had three lists of women by three different women, and I would encourage you later to make your own. Think of all the creative women who have influenced you: be they famous or little known.
As lists go, I just want to add one more woman to my list, of whom none of you will have heard: my friend Diana’s daughter, Lâle Teoman – actress, writer, costume designer. I worked with Lâle’s mum Diana Jeffrey in a small theatre group, Met Theatre in Katoomba in the mid-1990s. Lâle is a second generation creative woman who has been inspired by her mother’s creativity. She recently made it to film festivals in New York, California and Edinburgh with her short film The Palace That I Live In. ‘No mean feat’, I thought when I found out via Facebook – for a girl who grew up with a single mum in the obscurity of a small town in NSW.
Finally, I just want to leave you with this piece of memoir that comes from Garner’s 1996 book True Stories. For those of you keen for me to return to a familiar place, here is Garner speaking about Adelaide:
The first writers’ festival I ever went to was Adelaide Writers’ Week in 1978. My first novel, Monkey Grip, had been published the previous spring, but in my ordinary life I didn’t hang out with other writers. I was thirty-five, bringing up a child in a big communal household in Fitzroy, and the people I spent my time with were musicians and performers and photographers. I didn’t even know there were such things as writers’ festivals, until I received the invitation to Adelaide. I was flattered and rather awe-struck.
I owned a car but no suitcase, and carried my clothes to Adelaide in a cardboard box. In a tent under the plane trees I gave my first reading… (Garner, 1996: 109)
So, I have come full circle with this talk. There’s no real end here because the story is ongoing. I just want to leave you with one thought: Feminism is not a dirty word. It may be a word that has gone out of fashion, and if you don’t like it, then make up your own word… but remember gains are hard won… and those women in the arts who have made a difference, have done so not because they sat on the sidelines and criticised others, but because they took action to give of their very best creative selves.
Good afternoon and thanks for listening.
Caine B (Gen. Ed.) (1998) Australian Feminism – a companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Oxford, Auckland, New York
Garner H (1978) Monkey Grip, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria
_______ (1996) True Stories, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia
Mendelssohn J (2013) ‘Why are so many arts organisations run by blokes?’ in The Conversation, http://www.theconversation.com/why-are-so-many-arts-organisations-run-by-blokes-13217
Miller S (2014) ‘Women and Leadership: Theatre’ in The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia, eScholarship Research Centre, University of Melbourne: Australian Women’s Archives Project 2014, 2014, 1-10
 Originally published by McPhee Gribble in 1977.