The Stella, pub feminism and Greek goddesses

Last Friday night in Melbourne a new prize for women’s writing was officially launched. Called the Stella Prize, it’s named after Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. The name is a nod at the fiction prize Franklin established in her will, the Miles Franklin Award, which in 2009 and 2011 presented male-only shortlists despite the fact that excellent fiction had been published by Australian women in those years.

These and other similar events – detailed by writer and editor Sophie Cunningham in her speech on why we still need feminism at the 2011 Melbourne Writers’ Festival – have led a group of women to take action to support women’s writing.

Cunningham is one of the founders of the Stella Prize and a member of its committee, along with bookish and feminist luminaries Jo Case, Monica Dux, Christine Gordon, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Susan Johnson, Jenny Niven, Rebecca Starford, Louise Swinn, Kirsten Tranter and Aviva Tuffield. The prize is part of their broader intention to, as Cunningham says, ‘work as a lobby group for women in publishing, to set up mentorship schemes, and to undertake rigorous and current research on women in publishing.’

Most fittingly, the iconic Australian feminist Anne Summers launched the Stella Prize. In her speech on why we need feminism, Cunningham quoted figures from Summers which highlighted the fact that in many areas women have started to go backwards since the 1970s and 80s, when great advances were made for women by feminists such as Summers.

MoranThe British feminist and writer Caitlan Moran thinks she knows when this backwards movement began: with the Spice Girls. Moran’s feisty, funny, autobiographical feminist call to arms – or to the pub – How to Be a Woman, was published earlier this year. She wrote it because she wanted feminism to be relevant in everyday life again. Or, as she puts it, she wanted to take feminism out of the academy and into the pub:

I have no qualifications, I know none of those words, and I haven’t read those books. I come from pop culture, and I wanted it to be like rock’n’roll. I wanted someone to shout “I’m a feminist! It’s really fun! Let’s all go and be feminists in the pub!”

Moran writes of a possible fifth wave of feminism: ‘I don’t know if we can talk about “waves” of feminism any more – but by my reckoning, the next wave would be the fifth, and I reckon it’s around the fifth wave that you stop referring to individual waves, and start to refer, simply, to an incoming tide.’

In her approach to feminism Moran draws on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy against crime, which led to a significant drop in crime in New York in the 1990s. ‘Personally, I feel the time has come for women to introduce their own Zero Tolerance policy … I want a Zero Tolerance policy on “All The Patriarchal Bullshit”.’ And Moran’s weapon of choice for fighting patriarchy? ‘We just need to look it in the eye, squarely, for a minute, and then start laughing at it.’

The women behind the Stella Prize have chosen affirmative action over laughter to redress the cultural bias against women’s writing. In the context of the Stella, this bias was first expounded at length by Cunningham in her essay ‘A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, cock-forests and dreams of a common language’ (in Kill Your Darlings, July 2011). Cunningham concludes her essay with a quote from poet Adrienne Rich:

No one lives in this room / without confronting the whiteness of the wall / behind the poems, planks of books, / photographs of dead heroines. / Without contemplating last and late / the true nature of poetry. The drive / to connect. The dream of a common language.

All this recent talk of women and feminism also took me back to Adrienne Rich, to her book Of Women Born: Motherhood as experience and institution, first published in 1977. I’ve only just started rereading it, but I was gripped from its opening words:

All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body … Yet there has been a strange lack of material to help us understand and use it. We know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel, than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.

And talk of motherhood always takes me back to the 19th century Swiss jurist Jacob Bachofen, who developed a theory of matriarchy through his study of ancient symbol and myth via a most unlikely route: his interest in Roman law. But it was the very unlikeliness of his route to mother right through the law that made Bachofen fascinating to me – as well as his belief that myth is the starting point of all history. In the myths of the ancient world (including those of Athens and Rome, those ‘two most resolute advocates of paternity’) Bachofen found evidence of earlier matriarchal cultures. For Bachofen, the very strictness of the ancient Athenian and Roman patriarchal systems ‘points to an earlier [matriarchal] system that had to be combated and suppressed’.

One of my favourite Bachofen stories comes from his major work Mother Right: An investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the ancient world (1861). It concerns a turning point in the fortunes of women in the ancient world – and, as Bachofen argues, in the western world thereafter.

The story is found in the Oresteia (458 BC) by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, drawn from Homer’s Odyssey. It’s about Athena, the ruling goddess of Athens and quintessential father’s daughter: she was born from the head of her father, Zeus. In Aeschylus’s telling, Athena must cast the deciding vote in the trial of the mortal Orestes for his murder of his mother Clytemnestra (wife of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek armies in the Trojan war).

Orestes has killed his mother to avenge her murder of his father. Bachofen writes: ‘Which of the two weighs heavier in the balance, father or mother? Which of the two stands closer to the child?’ The decision Athena must make is between mother right and father right: if mother right prevails, then Orestes is guilty as charged. But if father right prevails, then Orestes’ murder of his mother was no crime, but rightful vengeance for her murder of his father.

Athena decides: ‘There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth, / and, but for marriage, I am always for the male / with all my heart, and strongly on my father’s side. / So, in a case where the wife has killed her husband, lord / of the house, her death shall not mean most to me.’

In the first ever trial for murder held among the mortals of ancient Greece, Orestes is acquitted. The father prevails over the mother. And, as Bachofen argues: ‘The child’s predominant connection with its mother is relinquished. Man is raised above woman. The material principle is subordinated to the spiritual principle.’

Western women have been struggling against this and other patriarchal cultural legacies (notably Christianity) ever since. We’ve been burnt at the stake in our thousands for our wisdom and our political activism, and only last century did we really begin to make significant advances. So, in the context of the current debates about the status of women, I’d say: we’ve come a long way in the last 200 years – and ALL POWER to the women of the Stella Prize and feminists like Anne Summers and Caitlin Moran for keeping the feminist conversation going and the action happening. (And thank goodness the Stella Prize didn’t take up Damon Young’s suggestion to name it the ‘Athena’!)

Cross-posted from bookish girl.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

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  1. Cracker post, thanks Jane.

    “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.”
    – Woolf

  2. Thanks Clare.

    And thanks for your point of light Karen – if only I was in Melbourne I’d be there in a flash. Is Melbourne centre of universe these days?

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