Carmen Callil was in her 20s when she moved from Australia to London to work in publishing. One day she was sitting on the floor in the flat of her friend Rosie Boycott, co-founder of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, reading a book about goddesses. There on the page was the virago, a heroic warrior woman.
It was just the name Callil needed for her groundbreaking project: a publishing house to put out books by new and neglected women writers, when it was mostly men who were telling the stories. One bookseller refused to stock her books because he said there were no feminists in his town.
More than 40 years later, Virago Press is a byword for stories by women, from Vera Brittain to Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Maya Angelou. The BBC recently screened a documentary about the history of the press, and in a London Telegraph article, Virago publisher Lennie Goodings remembers the early days, when she asked Callil why she started the company. “To change the world, darling,” came the reply.
They’ve been changing the world in Australia, too. Two groups of women are celebrating 25 years of getting women’s books out to readers.
One is Spinifex Press, which started when publishers Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein were on holiday in Kakadu, lamenting that the bookstores were stocking obscure postmodern texts instead of the feisty feminist books with an activist edge they wanted to see. So they did some calculations on a scrap of paper and thought they might run Spinifex for a year or so.
Their baby has just put out an anniversary catalogue of 205 titles, covering fiction and non-fiction, personal and political writing. And they have gone international, with books selling in the US, Canada, Britain, and New Zealand; about a third of Spinifex titles have editions in translation or available through other English language publishers.
Spinifex prides itself on being ahead of the curve, and now the curve is catching up. It was publishing books on subjects such as domestic violence long before anybody else was interested. Its fiction is trailblazing too, with books by Merlinda Bobis winning Australian and international awards.
The other hugely influential women’s group is not a publisher but a community of writers and readers who love crime. It began on a dark and stormy night in 1991, when five women crime readers met in Carmel Shute’s Melbourne home.
Shute had just interviewed writers in a US group called Sisters in Crime for a radio documentary, and offered to send listeners a feminist crime bibliography. It didn’t exist, but 176 listeners wanted it, so Shute and her mates had to come up with one fast – and thought they might as well start their own Sisters in Crime branch while they were at it.
US crime writer Sara Paretsky has since hailed the Australian Sisters as the most dynamic in the world at promoting, encouraging and advocating for women’s crime fiction and true crime writing. Their Scarlet Stiletto awards for crime short stories have launched the careers of 17 authors, including Cate Kennedy, Angela Savage, Kylie Fox and Tara Moss. On Saturday, November 19, the sisters are celebrating in Melbourne with a crime spree, the SheKilda3 convention at St Kilda Town Hall.
Sometimes you hear that the time of feminist writing and publishing is past. Don’t believe it. “To those who have claimed we were dead or irrelevant, please look at our record in these pages,” says the Spinifex team in their 25th anniversary catalogue. Virago, Spinifex and the Sisters are still changing the world.