Being heard: Writing while female

Monday, April 24, 2017
Claire Capel Stanley

Does gender still matter?

Women authors have long struggled for prominence in the cultural canon, and stories about women’s lives – across genres, and in all their diversity and complexity – are often played down in mainstream media. But writing by women about their experiences of the world is a vital part of our literary landscape. And demand is increasing. We know that women make up the majority of arts audiences and the bulk of enrolments in tertiary writing courses. Initiatives like the Stella Prize have sought to put gender equality on the table, and readers are seeking out more women’s writing than ever before.

That’s why Writers Victoria has partnered with the National Trust’s Australian Heritage Festival in April. Following on from Women’s History Month, the festival will use the theme of ‘Having a Voice’ to present a series of workshops all about writing women. From historical fiction and non-fiction, to women’s history and feminist writing, women’s writing will be explored from every angle.


Images (l to r): Kate Mildenhall, Iola Matthews, Karen Pickering and Dr Liz Conor

“Women, like all readers, need the opportunity to see their own experiences reflected back to them, as well as being able to step into the lives of other women – women from the past, the future, who have led different lives in different contexts,” said critically-acclaimed author Kate Mildenhall.

Following on from her successful 2016 debut novel, ‘Skylarking’, Mildenhall will teach a workshop on writing women’s historical fiction. ”Women’s stories have so often been ignored or crowded out of the literary world, more so if those women are further marginalized because of their colour or cultural background, sexuality, disability, age,” she said. “Writing is a way to retrieve and breathe life into these experiences.”

Biographer and memoirist Iola Mathews, who will teach a workshop on Writing Women’s History, said that writing has a role to play in redressing gender inequality. “Women have always been writers, but writing by men has always dominated. Fortunately, we can now redress the balance.”

“We can record women’s history and bring a woman’s perspective to all aspects of life. But is it only women who read stories by and about women?”, Mathews asked. “Check out the book advertisements on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. There’s still a long way to go.”

For feminist writer Karen Pickering, women’s stories remain important “because we exist! We keep writing because we deserve to be heard and to see ourselves as legitimate and interesting subjects.”

Pickering’s workshop on Feminist Writing will explore ways writers can approach the fight.

“Women have always written themselves into their culture and history, whether by stealth or through the courage of going up against the idea they can't,” Pickering said, “Virginia Woolf wrote about the need for space to write but it was about much more than a physical room - a room of one's own for women can mean the right to speak, to be heard and to exist in their own right. It might sound dramatic but women writers throughout history have fought very hard for these rights.”

In honour of this year’s International Women’s Day, Maxine Beneba Clarke shared her feminist manifesto with the Victorian Women’s Trust. “My feminism is intersectional, or my feminism is a lie,” Clarke wrote, highlighting the importance of understanding the complexities of women’s writing and creative expression.

“How can we write without reinscribing positions of privilege and disadvantage?”, asked Dr Liz Conor and Dr Julie Andrews in the lead-up to their workshop on writing historical non-fiction within an Australian post-colonial context. “Is it ethical, healing or productive for white women to write about racism when they’ve never experienced it themselves?”

“Stories by and about women are vitally important because they are stories that have so often been ignored or crowded out of the literary world,” said Mathews “Even more so, if those women are further marginalized because of their colour or cultural background, sexuality, disability, age.” 

There is such a rich history of women writers, here in Australia and around the world. As Victorian writer Emily Bitto recently wrote in The Age, it’s  important that we continue to read, and in some cases, discover for ourselves the women writers who came before us. 

Having a Voice is an opportunity for writers to ask what it means to write while female across fiction, non-fiction and commentary, and explore the factors which play into writing truthfully, ethically and vibrantly about women’s stories and herstories.


This article was originally published by Artshub.




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