Theme Literature

Written by Susan Sheridan, Flinders University

What counts as leadership in literature? While poets and novelists like Judith Wright, Henry Handel Richardson and Christina Stead are well known for the memorable stories and images conveyed by their writing, they offer models of individual achievement rather than leadership. One kind of literary leadership, where public opinion is influenced and the material results affect significant numbers of people, is advocacy-furthering the cause of Australian literature, as Miles Franklin did throughout her life, or drawing attention to the previously neglected traditions of women's writing and nurturing contemporary writers, as feminist publishers, booksellers and academics did in the 1980s and 1990s. Another kind of literary leadership, where an individual influences the literary taste and knowledge of a wide readership, is the work of an editor, whether a publisher like Beatrice Davis at Angus & Robertson in the mid-20th century, or a journal editor like Elizabeth Webby of Southerly or Kerry Goldsworthy of Australian Book Review or Judith Brett, the first of several women editors of Meanjin- a phenomenon of the 1980s and since.

If literature is considered as a profession, then writers' associations, which work to ensure the 'political, literary and economic independence of writers' (Buckridge, 181) are crucial to the status and working conditions of that profession. They are both social and practical organisations. While an important result of their formation is to build a community, bringing writers out of their individual isolation and into contact with one another, the major work they undertake involves lobbying government and other bodies to further their aims of protecting the rights and enhancing the opportunities and income of writers. Women have been prominent in the formation and leadership of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW, formed in 1928), PEN Australia (formed in 1931) and the Australian Society of Authors (ASA, formed in 1963), all of which continue to exist today. In all three organisations, relatively democratic structures, distance from major public institutions and an emphasis on practical outcomes, rather than power and prestige, ensured that women could and did occupy the seats of power.

PEN Australia was founded in 1931, ten years after its beginning in London. It was instigated by three women writers-poets Mary Gilmore and Dorothea Mackellar, and novelist Ethel Turner. A Melbourne PEN Club was also established, to which Vance and Nettie Palmer belonged. PEN's aims are to promote friendship and cooperation among writers of the world and to defend writers against being harassed and imprisoned for their views.

In 1928, Mary Gilmore had also been one of the founding patrons of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, along with Roderick Quinn. The FAW aimed to promote the development of literature and theatre, and the study of Australian literature, and to 'render aid and assistance to Australian authors, artists and dramatists'. It had some success in lobbying for government support for literature through the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF). Members included women as different from one another as bohemian Dulcie Deamer and feminist Miles Franklin. During the 1930s, when many members saw its role as defending democracy against encroaching fascism, the FAW was dominated by Flora Eldershaw and Marjorie Barnard and their friend, Frank Dalby Davidson; Eldershaw was president in 1935 and again in 1943, and was the longest-serving member of the CLF advisory board.

The Australian Society of Authors, founded in 1963, was the first real business organisation of writers. This difference was an important one, and the founders of ASA were anxious to convince the older members of the FAW that it was a parallel organisation, not intended to supersede the Fellowship. Major changes in the post-war publishing industry required a greater professionalisation of literary production in Australia, and this was reflected in the ASA's focus on contracts and copyright. Its concern was with writing of all kinds, not just 'literature'; 'writers on astrology or astronomy, or on Baudelaire or Badminton, are equally eligible' for membership, as their early publicity flyer put it. Its principal business was with publication, payment and distribution. It offered legal and business advice to writers, and acted on behalf of the profession by negotiating fair minimum terms and conditions with those who buy the author's work. It met regularly with the Australian Publishers Association on such matters. It was also concerned with law reform, especially in relation to copyright law and the law of obscenity. More generally, it was concerned with raising the status of the writer in society.

The ASA's first campaign was to abolish the 'colonial royalty', by which British publishers paid Australian authors the full 10 per cent royalty on copies of their books sold in the UK but only half that rate for sales in Australia, which were considered 'export sales'. Some of its other early successes included negotiating with the ABC for better rates of pay for scripts, with newspapers and periodicals for payment on acceptance, and with publishers for repeat fees for anthologies. In tandem with the Publishers Association, the ASA waged a long and ultimately successful campaign for the Public Lending Right (PLR), which was established to compensate writers for royalty income they lose through the availability of their books in public libraries. The ASA was also instrumental in setting up the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL).

Women were well represented and very active in the early years of the ASA. Its first secretary, the poet, Jill Hellyer, had spent the whole year before the Society's foundation, in her role as secretary of the FAW, in delicate negotiations with inter-state groups and individuals. This 'resulted in my first ulcer', she later wrote. Many people anticipated endless wrangling, and she wrote to reassure them that this would not happen. She was secretary of the ASA for its first seven years for £10 a week, operating out of her own home at Mount Colah north of Sydney: 'I worked from home, sitting on a fruit box, and my children spent their weekends folding circulars. The phone rang seven days a week'. She added, 'The ASA gave me a job when I needed one, and several of the many writers I was to meet became my friends' (Hellyer).

Quarterly general meetings were at first held in the Feminist Club, 77 King Street, Sydney-a link with earlier women-only literary societies. Among the list of new members to be approved for admission at the first annual general meeting in July 1964 were Henrietta Drake Brockman, Ernestine Hill, Mavis Thorpe Clark, Hesba Brinsmead, Thelma Forshaw, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Kath Walker (later known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal) and Dorothy Hewett. This is indicative of the spread of writers, both popular and more literary; and the inclusion of Prichard and Hewett indicates that the ASA was supported by members of the Communist Party, no longer suspicious, as they had been, that it was out to supplant the FAW.

The Society's council (which attempted to represent all the states) included from the outset Judith Wright (Queensland) and Nancy Cato (South Australia), later joined by Katharine Prichard (WA). The management committee-which did most of the legwork, its members taking on particular portfolios such as copyright or contracts-included more women. Betty Roland, Joan Clarke and Grace Perry were members of the first committee, soon joined by Barbara Jefferis. She took on the portfolio for contracts and wrote the book about them, with founding president Dal Stivens: A Guide to Book Contracts (1967).

Australian Author, the Society's magazine, which started up in 1968, was first edited by a woman, Barrie Ovenden. She, like Jill Hellyer, worked from home. Later Nancy Keesing edited it for several years. She also assembled an anthology of literary work, Transition, donated by members, which the Society published and sold to raise funds, as well as to raise its public profile. Keesing left the editorship in 1974 when she was appointed to the Literature Board of the Australia Council, where she would become its first woman chair. In 1971, she and Barbara Jefferis appeared as 'star defence witnesses' in the test case obscenity trial of Portnoy's Complaint. 'I sometimes wonder if one reason for our selection was that we are respectable, sensible housewives', she wrote later (Keesing, 207).

Housewife or not, in 1973, Barbara Jefferis became the ASA's first woman president. She was a Sydney writer who, by the early 60s when she helped form the ASA, had published several well-reviewed novels. She contributed a regular column to the Australian Women's Weekly called 'At Home with Margaret Sydney', as well as writing radio plays and reviews for the newspapers, and, she also dramatised documentaries for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). Married to the film critic John Hinde, she was very familiar with the conditions for writers in the media industries. She had started out as a journalist at the Sydney Daily News, having left her native Adelaide in 1939, at the age of 22, for the city where she married Hinde, whom she had known from childhood. After working on various papers and magazines, when her only child was born in 1944 she decided that she could 'make writing a full-time job, one that would not interfere with bringing up her child and looking after her husband' (Anon). This situation was no doubt a strong motivation for her to pursue rights for writers, having no salary as a journalist or academic to fall back on.

During her time as ASA president, Jefferis was able not only to welcome the establishment of the PLR but also to preside over two 'victory dinners' to celebrate, with Prime Minister Whitlam as guest of honour-one held at the Sydney Opera House, the other at the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne. Here is what she wrote to ASA members on learning that the Whitlam Labor government intended to accept the Literature Board's advice and set up the Public Lending Right:

'This is a triumph for the Australian Society of Authors. It is a government decision of a different quality from the decision to make generous grants available to writers. Grants are, in the best sense of the word, an act of patronage. The PLR decision is a recognition of the author's absolute right to some recompense for the public's use of his work ....' (Hill: 69)
She was an eloquent advocate. She was also good at straight talking; her 1989 survey of ASA members' experiences with Australian publishers is called The Good, the Bad and the Greedy. Naming and shaming. Publishers were not going to like being named, she wrote, 'any more, perhaps, than writers like being framed' (Jefferis 1987). She recalled that 'Australian contracts were appalling when the ASA began ... Not many books were being published and it was hard for writers to be anything but passionately grateful to publishers who wanted to publish their work. Naturally that made it hard for them to niggle over terms and that's why the ASA was needed' (Spender). There were, of course, still writers who resisted such union-style activities; inaugural president Dal Stivens recalled his 'membership drives', when he would write to anyone who had a book published, but not all would join: 'I suspect some were literary snobs or free-loaders', he wrote. A pamphlet issued during Jefferis's presidency, 'How the ASA Helps Writers', ends with a rousing note: 'We need more members to provide the sinews of war'- her answer to the 'snobs and free-loaders'.

'I'm in it for the long haul', she told writer Nadia Wheatley when they first met at the ASA, and indeed she was. She remained an active member of the ASA management committee for almost 40 years, until she suffered a stroke in 2001, at which time she was rewriting the guide to book contracts. She had held the ASA's contract advisory service portfolio since its inception, and the PLR portfolio from 1981 to 1988; from 1979 to 1985, she represented writers on the government's PLR committee.

Barbara Jefferis, like many professional women of her generation, did not identify as a feminist in her youth, when the term was out of fashion. But, by the 1980s, she certainly did. She wrote a biography of three generations of talented women, Three of a Kind (1982) and published it with McPhee Gribble. It is entirely fitting that she should be remembered by an award named after her, drawn from a bequest by her husband, John Hinde, and administered by the ASA. The Barbara Jefferis Award is made each year for 'the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society'.

What was new about women's leadership in the three writers' organisations described here was that they were not organising on their own behalf as women, but as writers, for writers of both sexes. In many ways, the women activists in writers' organisations could be said to be working to achieve for all writers what Virginia Woolf had deemed the basic necessities for women to ensure their intellectual and material independence: 'a room of their own' and an adequate income.

Yet was this yet another case of women serving as the handmaidens of literature-this time, doing the profession's housework and organising its social life? Does this count as leadership? Yes, if successful leadership involves enabling worthwhile things to happen, and these writers' organisations have achieved immense gains. The ASA, in particular, has made great progress as a writers' union, and the importance of its achievements is not widely known. As writer Nadia Wheatley put it in her obituary for Barbara Jefferis:

'Copyright ... Public lending right ... Educational lending right ... Somehow the words ... Do not have the emotional ring of human rights or civil rights or women's rights. Yet if a society is to have those more universal rights, a precondition is the right of authors, not just to write and publish their opinions freely, but to gain a decent living from their writing.'
The ASA was different from its predecessors to the extent that it was a professional organisation, a 'craft union' (its preferred designation). But the prominent role of women in the ASA was also different from that of Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw in the FAW of the 1930s. Jefferis, Keesing and Hellyer were modern women of the post-war era, wives and mothers as well as professional writers. If this meant they had to be part-time workers and community leaders, so be it. Their attitudes and values, too, bore the stamp of post-war culture: they did not identify as feminists, and their attitudes against censorship bore no trace of maternal feminism; they advocated solidarity in pursuing the association's aims but, beyond that, they did not identify as socialists, either. They were pragmatic, stoical, hard-working, altruistic, modest-but very clear about their values, and the value they set upon their work.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Fox, Len, Dream at a Graveside: The History of the Fellowship of Australian Writers 1928 -1988, The Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW), Sydney, New South Wales, 1989. Details
  • Hill, Deirdre, A Writer's Rights: The Story of the Australian Society of Authors 1963 - 1983, Australia and New Zealand Book Company, Sydney, New South Wales, 1983. Details
  • Keesing, Nancy, Riding the Elephant, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1988. Details

Book Sections

  • Buckridge, Pat, 'Clearing a Space for Australian Literature', in Bennett, Bruce and Strauss, Jennifer (eds), The Oxford Literary History of Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998, pp. 169-192. Details
  • Dever, Maryanne, '"Conventional Women of Ability": M. Barnard Eldershaw and the Question of Cultural Authority', in Dever, Maryanne (ed.), Wallflowers and Witches: Women and Culture in Australian 1910 - 1945, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 1994, pp. 133 - 146. Details

Magazine Articles

  • Anon., ...A Best-seller, Australian Women’s Weekly, 1959, 29 pp. Details
  • Hellyer, Jill, My First Ulcer, Australian Author, 1993, 22 pp. Details
  • Jefferis, Barbara, Publishers Who Break their Code of Practice, Australian Author, July 1987, 8 pp. Details
  • Jefferis, Barbara, PLR: Our Precious Child is Legitimate, Australian Author, July 1988, 11 - 12 pp. Details
  • Spender, Dale, Passionate Gratitude, Australian Author, 1993, 36 pp. Details

Newspaper Articles

  • Wheatley, Nadia, 'The Long Haul of a Devotion to Writers and their Rights', The Sydney Morning Herald, 2004, p. 50. Details

Online Resources