Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2018

Sisters Publishing 1979-1984

My recent discovery of Barbara Jefferis’s biographical Three of a Kind (1982), which I reviewed here, led to another discovery, which deserves its own post.

I had stumbled on something very special with my second-hand purchase of the book.  It was produced by Sisters Publishing, a 20th century feminist women’s publishing house and subscription book club, based in Carlton, here in Melbourne. Sisters only lasted five years, but that was an amazing achievement in itself given its skeleton staff and shoestring budget, the small size of the Australian market, the competition from other publishing houses and their choice to produce mainly poetry books (which don’t sell well as we know).  But it was still a great initiative that launched the careers of Beverley Farmer and Jean Bedford (reviewed on this blog here and here).

The editorial board listed at the back of the book is a who’s who of that exciting and productive time in Australian feminism, and their names are worthy of an honour roll here (links are mostly to entries at Wikipedia or Trove, the asterisked names are reviewed here on this blog):

Franca Arena; Faith Bandler; Sue Bellamy; Carmen Callil; Anne Chisholm; Eva Cox; Kay Daniels; Nancy Dexter; Rosemary Dobson; Sara Dowse; Tricia Edgar; Carole Ferrier; Helen Garner*; Joan Grant; Irene Greenwood; Dorothy Hewett; Kate Jennings*; Michele Kosky; Gay Mason; Winsome McCaughey; Deborah McCulloch; Judy McLean; Drusilla Modjeska*; Mary Murnane; Carmel Niland; Susie Owen; Gail Radford; Elizabeth Riddell; Julie Rigg; Edna Ryan; Shirley Sampson; Carmel Shute; Margaret Smith; Anne Summers*; Dany Torsh; Biff Ward; Paula Weideger; Rosemary Wighton; Judith Wright and Fay Zwicky.

I found this entry at the University of Melbourne archive (where you can read more of the story):

Sisters Publishing began in 1979 as the ‘valiant idea’ of five Melbourne publishers: Hilary McPhee, Diana Gribble, Joyce Nicholson, Anne O’Donovan and Sally Milner. The seed of the enterprise took root after the first Women and Labour Conference, held in Sydney in 1978, where the five women, who all ran their own successful publishing houses, felt strongly that serious women writers were largely overlooked by mainstream publishers. They would publish quality works ‘for women, by women and about women’.
Sisters had a unique solution to the obstacles posed by distribution, that enduring bane of all small publishers. They would run their own mail order business, a book club where, for a small once-only subscription, members would receive a quarterly newsletter offering Sisters’ own publications and ‘the best feminist books from publishers here and overseas’, all at discount rates.

The UniMelb article says they produced 13 books but the AustLit database lists only ten:

  • The Legend of Pope Joan, Emily Hope (text and illustrations), 1983 (novel)
  • Mrs Noah and the Minoan Queen, Poems, Judith Rodriguez (editor), 1983 (anthology)
  • Witch Heart, Judith Rodriguez , 1982 (poetry)
  • Journeys, Poems, Fay Zwicky (editor), 1982 (anthology)
  • Three of a Kind, Barbara Jefferis, 1982 (biography)
  • Song of the Humpback Whales, Jill Hellyer, 1981 (poetry)
  • Winter Driving, Jennifer Strauss , 1981 (poetry)
  • Alone, A Novel, Beverley Farmer , 1980 (novel)
  • Country Girl Again, Stories Jean Bedford , 1979 (short stories)
  • Sisters Poets, 1 Rosemary Dobson (editor), Anne Lloyd , Kate Llewellyn, 1979 anthology

As you can see from the covers I have harvested from around the web (but could not find an image of The Legend of Pope Joan), Sisters Publishing had a distinctive house cover design, departing from it only with Three of a Kind and with the addition of an image to Witch Heart. My guess is that the simplicity of the design and its colour palette was a way of keeping costs down.  Whatever the reason, it apparently won a design award.

If anyone knows what the other three books might be, please let me know and I’ll amend this list.

So my copy of Three of a Kind is a bit of a treasure, even if it’s falling apart now!

Author: Barbara Jefferis
Title: Three of a Kind
Publisher: Sisters Publishing, 1982, 189 pages
ISBN: 0908207565 (9780908207565)

Source: Personal copy, purchased from AbeBooks


Responses

  1. […] Sisters Publishing, 1982, 189 pages (Read my tribute to this amazing feminist publishing house here) ISBN: 0908207565 […]

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  2. GREAT REVIEW, LISA, CHINA

    china.alexandria@livingthedream.blog

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  3. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.

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  4. Great post Lisa. When I get home I’ll check my bookshelves. I supported Sisters. Just think if POD and social media has been around then it may have been a different story. As an aside I attended the second Women and Labour Conference and have the very thick published conference notes. It was held in Melbourne and I was working for the Miscos then. The main topic of conversation was the introduction of technology and the effect on women’s health e.g.. RSI.

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    • I knew you’d love this, Mairi, and I should have known you would have been on their subscribers list.
      Do you know anything about the women in the honour roll whose names don’t have a presence on the web? I searched Wikipedia, Trove, and the Women’s Register but couldn’t find them.

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  5. Although obviously I haven’t heard of this press, I do understand the excitement surrounding a discovery like this, as I’ve had that experience with collections of Canadian women writers’ works from that era. Such a rich and responsive time: In some ways, it seemed a more open and daring era (with some limitations of course).

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    • It was a wonderful time to be young. I can’t speak for any other country, but here it was a politically effective time to be a feminist. There was an Office for the Status of Women in the federal government; and there was an organisation called WEL which surveyed candidates for political office on women’s issues which guided our votes. The Education Department produced a formal strategy on gender equity that we were expected to implement, and there were initiatives like that all over the place.
      And what do we have now? Hashtags…
      *sigh*

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