This time next week, I’ll be at The Wheeler Centre in conversation with feminist writer, publisher and activist Susan Hawthorne, about Fair Trade and Fair Speech: Feminist Publishing in the 21st Century. Researching in preparation for this event, I’ve been equally disturbed and amazed to discover that the Sixth International Feminist Book Fair (IFBF), which was hosted in Melbourne in July 1994, was the last. Beginning in London in 1984, the IFBF took place every two years; the sixth was the first in the southern hemisphere. With no small ambition it was held at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, and took the theme of ‘Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Writing and Publishing’. At the time it was described as ‘a rare event’. Nowadays such a committed, high-profile celebration of feminist thinking and women’s writing, publishing and reading seems fantastic—in the older-fashioned sense of ‘odd and remarkable’, and having been ‘conceived by an unrestrained imagination’. Almost certainly these days the use of the word ‘feminist’ in the title of a major publishing industry initiative would be considered ill-advised. In Hawthorne’s words, ‘what we see in public fora in Australia is feminism sexed-up, feminism cat-fights, feminism lite’.
Meanwhile, it’s no news in 2014 that the drastic lack of support for women writers and women’s voices remains a systemic issue within the publishing and media industries worldwide, not least in leading literary publications such as the London Review of Books. (In connection with book reviewing in Australia read here about the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.)
Was there some collective prescience at work in the fact that the Sixth IFBF was self-consciously well documented? Catherine Marciniak wrote and directed a film of interviews and readings called Life on the Rim. In the archives of the Baillieu Library at The University of Melbourne, there’s a dedicated collection of 2.2 metres, in which ‘most correspondence consists of faxes’. Remember the rise of the office fax machine? Like the IFBF, I guess it’s been history for a while.