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Interview with Susan Hawthorne
I see young women, old women and women everywhere in between doing fabulous things.
Growing up on a farm I had a lot of freedom. I wasn’t a ‘girlie’ girl. My older sister was interested in sewing, interior decorating and all that kind of stuff. I was much more interested in the outdoors – getting up on the roof, outdoing my younger brother. There was physical competition between us and up to a certain point I won. Then he grew bigger than me.
My mother was quite an unusual woman for her time and the one thing she constantly said to us, the thing I heard over and over was, “a woman must have an independent income”. When she married she bought her own block of land nearby so she would have her own income.
Of course there were also mixed messages, such as: that you should sit there and cross you legs and be a lady. But she gave me important messages about strength, about independence. Most of the communication in our family went on through her. I also had through her family an ancestry of single women. There were always independent women there during my childhood.
My first feminist activism was exciting. I joined a student Women’s Liberation group at La Trobe University in 1973. It was the first meeting I had been to and there were two women down to speak. I said “who are these chicks?” and the entire room said “WOMEN”. They yelled it at me. I never said it again!
I suggested we make some posters. After I suggested this someone said “well, whoever suggests things has to do them”. I had no idea what this was and what it was about but another woman in the group said “Look, come over to my place on Saturday afternoon and we will do some posters”. So I did that and we had great fun.
A couple of weeks later there was the Bradfield campaign. This was an advertisement on billboards for a cigarette called Bradfield. It was sexist. It was an Australian version of the Marlborough Man. It had a ditty “from Adam’s rib to Women’s Lib. … Bradfield, not mild”. All around the city there were orange posters saying “Bradfield, not mild”. So, the first activist thing I did was go out and write “but sexist” underneath. We were a small group from Latrobe, but we could only find one poster that hadn’t already been defaced. That meant that there were women all across Melbourne doing the same thing.
The cigarette was removed from the market. It was a really successful campaign.
Then, in 1974, four of us stood for the Student Representative Council (SRC) on a feminist platform “The Future is Feminist”. We were all elected. Out of that we set up a women’s affairs committee and used that as a way of doing things – conferences, events. We got all sorts of things happening. We did a special issue of the student newspaper Rabelais, we lobbied for Women’s Studies courses, we invited speakers, attended conferences and marches and almost all of us were involved in consciousness raising groups. That’s where the real politicisation happened, linking our personal lives to political change.
In 1975, When the Rape Crisis Centre started, I got involved. That was in Johnstone Street, Collingwood, upstairs from the Women’s Health Centre.
I did a TV interview at some stage. I was green, but there we were, we were pushed into doing things we had never done before. I was volunteering at the Women’s Liberation Centre in the city. There were all sorts of things going on at that time. In the first three or four years I was involved in Rape Crisis, Halfway House, the Non-sexist Children’s Book Group. We had endless discussions about politics and alternative health, about astrology and women’s music, about lesbian theatre and activism. I was involved in different things at different times.
I think I have to say that feminism saved my life in some ways. Without feminism I would have been a very unhappy woman. Once I joined the women’s movement and went to dances and events I thought “Ah, I feel really at home” instead of feeling always under tension with the social environment I was in. I was just not feeling comfortable but not knowing why. Becoming a feminist was like coming home.
The next series of things I became involved in was community radio, 3ZZZ, the 3CR Women’s Liberation program, writing, reviewing.
I did some reviewing for Julie Copeland on First Edition and started to get a few things published. In 1984 the idea for a women’s festival came up, to be done in conjunction with the 150th state of Victoria celebrations. I finished up getting a job there as the writing, theatre and music co-ordinator. It was great. I had been unemployed for eighteen months or so, so I was eligible to go on the Commonwealth Employment Program (CEP).
The first event was in March when we had a community week and we invited Doris Lessing to come. She gave a talk in the Great Hall at the National Gallery. We sold all 500 seats, and 300 more as standing room.
All of us in that job felt uncomfortable with the celebration and did what we could to subvert it. One of the things I did was, after seeing a production of Eva Johnson’s play Tjindarella in Adelaide, I asked her if she would come to Victoria and put it on here, which she did. It was about the stolen generation. That was in 1985 so this talk about knowledge of the stolen generation not being available to the public until the 1990s is just garbage.
There was an exhibition of photographs of indigenous women at the State Library done as part of that. We worked with Aboriginal women in the community here in Victoria to put on Jettah Namarra, an Aboriginal Women’s Photographic Exhibition. We also organized a concert of women’s compositions and we had the very first occasion of a woman conducting women playing women’s work at Melbourne Town Hall. That was fantastic. Helen Quach was the conductor and it included works of Australian composers, Moya Costello, Lisa Lim, and Ann Carr-Boyd as well as a choral concert featuring works by Hildegard von Bingen, Pauline Oliveros, Louise Reichardt, and Helen Gifford.
I organised a women writers’ festival that was held at the Abbotsford Convent. I hear now that the writers at Como are about to go to the convent and think “We have been there and done that”. We had a nine day festival, three days at the beginning of talks and events, three days of writing workshops and then another three days of talks and events. The title was The Language of Difference.
We had sessions on women and class, sessions in which Aboriginal women were asked to come and talk, sessions on multicultural writing and lesbian writing. We looked at a whole range of issues. Audre Lorde was the international guest. She covered all sorts of amazing things: it was an incredible event.
There were about five hundred women there on a regular basis. But if you were counting it the way the Melbourne Writer’s Festival does with entrances to sessions counted, it would amount to thousands of attendances.
I think that was what got me thinking about publishing, because I had discovered publishers only had one head and were human beings, after all. The next year a position in publishing came up at Penguin. Although I didn’t get it, they rang me three months later and said another position had come up, so I did an interview in McCoppins Bar and I got the job. I started working on the Penguin Australian Women’s Library with Dale Spender.
Over four years I went from being a baby editor to a commissioning editor, learnt a lot about publishing and had a good time working with so many fabulous writers. There was a lot of energy and intellectual discussion, but it eased off over the years. Then it became quite pedestrian, so I eventually left after four years and set up Spinifex Press.
Another thing we did while I was at Penguin, Renate Klein, Jocelynne Scutt, Silvana Scannapiego, Gilli Gough and myself, was the Australian Feminist Book Fortnight. It was an idea which had come out of England, based on a catalogue of feminist books started by Carol Spedding (another Australian in the English publishing scene).
A selection was taken from the catalogue and publishers paid to have their books there and because I was at Penguin at the time I had the opportunity to convince them the benefit to them of doing free distribution.
There were events all around the country – two hundred readings and other events, from Broome to Burnley (as we said in our publicity material) in two weeks. We had events in Broome that brought in two hundred people. It was extraordinary.
The first one was in 1989, and the second in 1991. I went to Random House in 1991 and suggested that, as Penguin has done the distribution last time, they should this time – which they did. That was terrific. We were going to continue with them but Australia just doesn’t have the necessary population and the smallness to do these events in the way you could in England. The Books Alive program running now looks extraordinarily like our Feminist Book Fortnight.
Then there was the International Feminist Book Fair. It was in 1994 but we started thinking about doing it in 1990. I had been to the one in Montreal and another in Barcelona, and the next one was coming up in Amsterdam where we would have to do out pitch and see if they would run with the idea. We got in touch with Melbourne Major Events and had assistance from them in putting together in a bid. Not as big as the Olympic bid but pretty good!
They agreed. The problem was, as the Dutch co-ordinator said to us, “But it is a long way”. We said “Yes, we know, we come here every year”Although we did get a lot of international visitors, several dozen publishers and fifty or so of the three hundred writers, a lot of publishers who had attended previous book fairs didn’t come because they couldn’t imagine being on a plane that long. I think in many instances it wasn’t the cost, it was lack of imagination.
All the same it went ahead. It was a very successful event. We had thousands and thousands and thousands of people coming through. We suspect that something happened with the selling of the day tickets, though. Some people thought if they paid for sessions, then they didn’t have to pay for the day ticket and there was a budget shortfall in the end which those of us on the committee had to pick up.
In terms of the books, the publishing, the writers, the readings, the conversations, it was a huge success.
I remember women starting to talk about Borders, Barnes and Noble and what was being called the superstores. What was happening was that the superstores were coming in and setting up shops around the corner, over the road and even next door, to the very best independent – many of which were feminist – bookshops.
What happened was: just at the time when bookshops needed to computerize their inventory to survive, right at that moment, the superstores came in. The superstores knew their way around and ordered every title the feminist bookshops had in. They had coffee shops, they brought in writers to do events. Big name writers and small name writers – there would be events at their stores constantly.
People stopped going to the feminist bookshops and so those stores collapsed. Just like that. That had a roll on effect on the feminist publishers. Although the feminist publishers did well for a while, what happened was that once the feminist bookshop went out the superstores no longer stocked the same inventory. As well as that, the superstores over-ordered so publishers thought they had a success on their hands, reprinted, and just as the reprint came in, they would get a big return from the superstore. In the publishing industry returns cost more than what is received for the original sales.
Suddenly the feminist publishers were also really, really struggling and not knowing what to do. This discussion went on for a number of years in America and I could see that the same thing would probably happen here. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when Borders set up their shop immediately opposite Readings bookshop in Carlton.
The book industry has gone through a revolution in the last ten years. First there was the computerizing of the inventory, and then there was the shift to digitised production processes – typesetting, cover design and later the internet, and now e-books – the whole lot. As well as that, there was the increasing power of the booksellers, particularly the really big chains. I think they have crippled the publishing industry all around the English language Western world. It is also having an impact in places like Germany – the number of German feminist presses attending the Frankfurt Book Fair has really taken a dive.
I think that as feminist publishers we are the canary in the mine.
On the plus side, there are a number of very small presses coming into existence and publishing a few things then going out of existence or doing things online. There are some good things happening but it very small.
At Spinifex we noticed a big dive in our books going into bookshops about three years ago. So we, too, decided we would reduce our publishing program. We are treading water, I guess, publishing only about four books a year, down from ten to fifteen titles five years ago. The word feminist creates such fear.
So we are now going into e-books, busily converting print texts into electronic texts. We have forty five books available as electronic books and you can go online and have a look at the first ten to fifteen pages. People can order print books or e-books. This is great, because if you can’t go into a bookshop and leaf through the entire book it makes it really hard to know what is there. Blurbs and reviews are no substitute for being able to open a book and have a quick read.
The more work we do in this area the more I think it is really important to do it. It creates a chance for people to buy or not buy wherever they are, Melbourne, Los Angeles or New Delhi. At least they know what is there.
I have two extreme views on this. As I said, the word itself creates fear. Sometimes I think it is just a matter of time, we just have to sit back, wait, maintain things without exhausting ourselves. At the depressing end, I have great concerns about the impact of globalization and global forms on feminism itself. I think the pattern of that is like the pattern of the superstores
Everything is for profit. It comes in under the rubric of choice but it is no choice at all. I see a lot of things go into the public arena that are called feminist that I think are just a con. In the same way I think carbon trading is a con; GM foods are a con; the idea that nuclear energy is the saviour of the earth is a con. So ‘feminism’ is distorted and then sold back as if, well, “We have solved the problems of the women of the world”.
I worry enormously about that because I think it is distorting feminism. Who would want to have anything to do with that? I wouldn’t. If I had been my twenty-two-year-old self coming into the feminist movement and I saw that as what was on offer, I wouldn’t want to be involved.
On the other hand, at one end, with my other hat on – that of poet, writer, and aerialist – I am really keen to have fun and be creative about the way I live. If you can’t make jokes about yourself, if you can’t laugh at yourself you also can’t take yourself seriously. It is that balance between seriousness and optimism and a good sense of humour that matters.
On the taking seriously end of things, that is another area that is a problem. Feminists are not taken seriously. Ideas and concepts we put forward are seen as a joke in the worst sense of the word. As well as that, it is as though to call ourselves feminist means the only thing we have a view on is women. I have views on everything. I have a view on trade deals. I have a view on what is happening in Iraq. I have a view on what is going on in the Northern Territory with the Federal Government right now, marketed as great thing but absolutely disgusting and horrible.
So, I have these two contradictory views. On the one hand, I am very concerned about the way in which feminism is distorted, re-marketed, relabelled, profited from and sold back but has nothing to do with us as feminists. On the other hand, I have this wild optimism about the future. Every now and then I see something that really gives me hope. I see young women, old women and women everywhere in between doing fabulous things. I see a lot of women outside the Western world doing terrific things – the women I know in Bangladesh and India - Wow!
So, on balance, I think there is a future though is a bit uncertain in the near term.