Fruits of exile: post-war publication of Australian female poets

  • Maggie Shapley

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The exclusion of women from full participation in many aspects of Australian society in the past is well-known and documented. However, to date, there has been no systematic study of the exclusion of female poets from participation in the poetry community in the post-war period, a time of significant social change for women and of second-wave feminism. This thesis examines the extent to which women’s poetry in Australia from the 1940s to the 1980s was judged on its merits or rejected on the grounds of its authorship or subject matter. The discussion is informed by the perspectives of writers and feminists such as Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Anne Summers and Drusilla Modjeska. A central claim is that female poets experienced a type of ‘literary exile’ in their interactions with the predominantly male poetry establishment, especially with regard to the publication and reception of their work. The majority of editors of literary journals, anthologists and advisers to publishers were male, as were many poetry reviewers. Several male poets had multiple roles, often concurrently, and were also members of the Commonwealth Literary Fund advisory board and later, the Literature Board which advised on subsidies to publishers. Statistical analysis of poets published in nine major literary journals over forty-five years shows the extent to which female poets were disadvantaged and how this changed when more female editors were appointed from the 1970s. While it is sometimes argued that female poets submitted work at about the same rate as their rate of publication, archival evidence indicates that female poets were published at a rate 14 to 20 percentage points less than their rate of submission when male editors were selecting poems. Analysis of forty-eight general anthologies published in the period 1946–2016 shows the influence of the publication of women-only anthologies. Prior to 1975 when the first womenonly anthology was published, female poets were usually included in general anthologies at a rate below 20%, but by the 1990s their rate of inclusion is generally 30–40%. Collection of data about single-author poetry collections published in the period 1955–80 by eleven major publishers reveals that only 21% were by female poets and that three of the publishers only published one female poet during that time. Up until the mid-1970s, reviews by male reviewers of poetry collections by women were often disparaging, and were also relatively few in number. The general statistical analysis is supported by archival research about the experiences of poets Gwen Harwood and Margaret Scott whose poetic careers developed in the post-war period in Tasmania. Both experienced physical and intellectual exile in addition to ‘literary exile’ and wrote poems on these themes. The creative component of my thesis, ‘Fruits of Exile: Poems’ is set in the context of a contemporary book club discussion responding to the poetry of Harwood and Scott, and in particular to their poems about physical and intellectual exile. It addresses the topic of the thesis by elucidating various effects of different types of exile on seven female characters.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorPaul Hetherington (Supervisor) & Jen Webb (Supervisor)

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