I was honoured when Gillian invited me to write another piece for her blog, but when I saw the topic, ‘personal stories of major obstacles overcome, especially for women in the arts’, I had a quiet little panic, for I have never suffered at the hands of this particular brand of sexism.
I’ve been lucky, it seems, for sexism, the biggest obstacle facing women in all fields, is certainly alive and well in the arts. Come to think of it, this has been true throughout my lifelong experience, even though I have never encountered it at a personal level.
Take dance, for example, the field with which I have the longest familiarity. It was well-recognised when I was young that the occasional boy entering an eisteddfod would usually win his sections, even if there were better candidates who were female. The excuse was ‘There are so few boys taking up dance, we have to favour them a bit to encourage them’. These days, a lot more boys take up dance, but as I am not involved in teaching the relevant age group, I can’t say whether this is still the received wisdom.
Certainly boys are still winning competitions hand over fist, but I think these days, especially in viewer-judged TV contests, it might be because they offer more exciting routines with feats of strength and elevation that girls can’t usually match.
In writing, sexism is rife. I attended a panel at the recent Perth Writers Festival that discussed this very topic. The ladies of the panel (Aviva Tuffold, Maxine Benedra Clarke, Ceridwen Dovey and Alice Pung) pointed out that while the Miles Franklin award is over 50 years old, only 16 women have won the annual prize. There is, of course, the Stella Prize, limited to female entrants, but surely writing and publishing awards should be fought out on a level playing field? Not so, it seems. Women, while no longer expected to spend most of their time hovering around the kitchen sink, are expected to write ‘women’s fiction’, and should never include rough male characters or vulgar language.
One might even suspect that it easier for men to get published, since their books generally sell better. Sadly, many readers, if not most, whether they be male or female, tend to prefer books with a male name on the cover, and many men will not give a second glance to books written by women. Some female writers have got around this by using masculine-looking pseudonyms, (KJ Rowling, Robin Hobb, Lian Hearn – to say nothing of Miles Franklin herself) and as one panel member recounted, male readers are often surprised to find a book by a woman that ‘could have been written by a man’, which tribute they trot forth as a supposed commendation!
No one on the panel at Perth Writers Festival was able to think of ways in which this particular ‘glass ceiling’ might be broken. One consoling factor, perhaps, is that men writing romance usually use a female pseudonym, since romance is the one publishing field in which women dominate, both as readers and writers. This is, however, a gross exception to the norm. The truth is that women read widely across all genres, while men, generally speaking, avoid romance and women’s biographies as if they were poison unto their souls.
Perhaps we’re on a forlorn hope here. Perhaps women authors of horror, crime and mystery will have to go on hiding behind noms-de-plume until the angel Gabrielle blows her trumpet and calls, ‘God has finished considering your submissions. Come and hear her judgement.’
Satima Flavell is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer. Her first novel, The Dagger of Dresnia, is published by Satalyte Press, and she also written short stories and poems. As an editor, she specialises in High Fantasy, her favourite genre, and she enjoys mentoring first-time writers. Her website is at www.satimaflavell.com.au.