by Heather McPherson
My mum trained to be a shorthand typist and secretary, at Seddon Tech (Seddon Memorial Technical College). But it was the Depression; she took work as a shopkeeper. Eventually she became shop manager. One of her stories was how she’d hoist 25lb cheeses from their top shelf storage “just like the men” and then, without weighing the rounds, cut off exact pound or half-pound slices. My mother mightn’t have called herself a feminist but equal pay for equal work reverberated with her, prompted by her recollection of how, when she was earning 30 shillings a week as manager, non-managerial men were earning 42 shillings a week, because they were married. I grew up with a small internal smoulder that alerted me to gender injustice.
Though initially puzzled by bra-burners, once I mixed with outspoken feminists I gladly discarded the ‘foundation garments’ that figured so largely in my grandmother’s life (less so for my mother). Women, meetings, marches and consciousness-raising groups did the rest. But occasionally the most profound influence on my feminist consciousness was a book. The first was The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis; a little later came How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ. The latter I read and reread alongside mainstream (or ‘male’) reviews; it’s still applicable.
Early seventies: I’d had poems published in Landfall and other small magazines. I approached Caxton Press and Landfall editor, Leo Bensemann, with a collection. During our conversation I said I’d become a feminist. He said that (painter) Rita Cook – Rita Angus – had been a feminist “but it didn’t do her any good either”. He said yes, my poems were publishable but to go away and get a grant. I didn’t know how to do this. The book languished unpublished. At the 1973 Christchurch Arts Festival I was invited to participate with three others in a women poets’ reading. This was followed by a Young Poets reading. Twenty or so young men got up on stage; not one woman among them. Their voices seemed indistinguishable; I remember only one as being outstanding, and as I’ve said elsewhere, he was a bit mad as well as outstanding.
Where were the women?
Local women’s liberation initiatives already existed e.g. The Christchurch Women’s Centre which initially doubled as The Christchurch Women’s Refuge and began as a community venture jointly by women from Gay Liberation, by Sisters for Homophile Equality (SHE), the lesbian feminist group in Christchurch, and Radical Feminists (a Christchurch feminist group based at Chippenham urban commune). As Women’s Liberationists we saw women’s rights as not being just about controlling our own minds and bodies legally and politically, but to be validated in all areas, including as artists/writers/craftspeople, for women’s work to be equally valued and visible with men’s, for male gatekeepers’ power to be challenged. In Christchurch an established and diverse community of talented articulate women sharing Women’s Lib goals worked willingly towards them.
Spiral bloomed directly from the Women’s Liberation Movement. Women Artists’ Movement theory came initially from overseas, particularly the United Kingdom and North America/Canada. Overseas literature and polemics flew into our hands as women travelled overseas making contact with international groups, including those living on women’s land, camping grounds with access for travelling women who, like the intrepid Morrigan Severs, brought back magazines, books, posters, broadsheets, reports, photographs, poems. The seventies saw a vital international exchange of arts and theory magazines e.g. Hecate from Australia and Heresies from the United States.
With growing confidence, women’s and artists’ groups modified theory to New Zealand conditions. The vision was of arts and artists communicating, equally valued, democratising the process of art-making, so that it would not be under male dominance. All women are artists, we said. We wanted to publish New Zealand women, to build connections between artists working in different media, to get New Zealand women’s art and voices heard, to make overseas connections.
Circle. A collective of Christchurch women took turns with Wellington & Auckland collectives to put together the national lesbian magazine Circle. Of course, earlier, also nationally and more visibly, Broadsheet feminist magazine in Auckland had begun its run. Some lesbians felt this had a heterosexual slant. A little later Herstory Press started in Wellington, originally by Robin Sivewright and Jill Hannah, continuing with Robin Sivewright and Jill Livestre.
A short time (and a child and a discarded heterosexuality) later, I took part in S.H.E. meetings when members were working on a Homosexual Law Reform submission. It was a large capable group; my input seemed negligible. But the experience spurred me to think what I’d prefer to be doing. With the excitement of Women’s and Gay Liberation in the air, with a number of talented artists in the law reform group, with their stories of being turned down for publication by editors or being selected for hanging by art gallery owners because of being too different, or more enragingly, not up to standard, I thought I’d like to be working with/for women artists (in the inclusive sense of visual, written and multi-media arts). In early 1974, I advertised the formation of a Women Artists Group which became a small group that met regularly (see ‘In The Beginning There Was Heather’).
I talked with other feminist women, particularly those involved with Circle. Painter Allie Eagle was committed elsewhere especially with her work at the McDougall Art Gallery. I advertised again, got keen replies including at least one member of the South Island Women Writers’ Association; we began meetings towards producing a journal.
I was familiar with the story of Walt Whitman’s self-publication; also, increasingly, of various small magazines and their founders: notable was Margaret Anderson’s Little Review which with Anderson as editor and Jane Heap as illustrator and designer first published Joyce’s Ulysses. (As Alison Bechdel says in Fun Home I’d had primary school experience of making/collating a magazine; surely it couldn’t be too hard?) I made contact with poets Alan Loney and Don Long who published with small press associations in the United States; both, with Robert Brett, were helpful and supportive. I printed off flyers on one of their elderly printing presses. The physical work was tiring and time-consuming; I realised my priority was not beautiful and/or old-style printing, but getting the printed work out.
In 1975, Joanna Paul, as a member of the Women Artists Group, suggested creating a total environment designed by women. Later, Allie Eagle, who had also learned of Judy Chicago’s Womanshouse, linked her network of women artists to our Women Artists group, to work on the initiative which ultimately became the successful 1977 United Women’s Convention Art exhibit, gathering-place, and performance space, sited in the Christchurch Society of Arts.
A spirit of defiance strode abroad.
Some of our ideas, in the Women Artists Group and Spiral were:
Art is not made in a vacuum but out of our lives.
Women’s and men’s lives are different because of our different experiences of socialisation, and because of child-birth, child-rearing, work, shibboleths of niceness and cultural expectations.
Thus women and men artists have and express different values as well as content.
Sexism both causes and effects women’s marginalisation in the arts by overt and covert censorship of women’s experiences as un/acceptable art content.
In the same way, homophobia censors the expression of lesbian and gay experiences in the arts, especially sexuality.
Women artists – some great – have been overlooked, under-rated and/or dismissed by male gatekeepers of the literary and artistic canon.
Publishing and art selection in New Zealand as elsewhere being male-dominated gave little support to women writers and artists and passively or actively discouraged us.
Spiral advertised as a forum for women only (even so, a few men sent work). We advertised and printed only what we received. As I said in A Woman’s Picture Book (1988) re feminist content and/or work, the intent was more radical than the content. But there was and is a process in definitions, especially defining what is meant by ‘feminist’ & what is meant by ‘feminist artist’; our ideas changed over time. Sixties women artists had seen the ‘crazy writer’ and the ‘suicide syndrome’: the brilliant woman artist as depressive and/or self-destructive (e.g. Plath, Arbus). As feminists in the early seventies, we at first wanted positive portraits of strong women, we wanted celebrations of being woman/lesbian/gay, we wanted to erase the images of sex symbol and victim. I once did not publish some good work because it was too ‘depressing’; I now regret that decision. (The writer became very successful in mainstream publishing.)
In the first issue of Spiral we were rather role-bound, partly because I didn’t know how to work with a collective; later we managed more job and responsibility sharing.
Herstory Press was printing Womens’ Liberation material and posters, pamphlets, political papers, flyers, etc. We negotiated. The Christchurch group sent material, the Wellington group printed and returned the first Spirals. The Christchurch group put together the first issue’s pages ‘by hand’. Hard work…that putting together. But a glorious shared task done by over a dozen women in the livingroom of Saj Gurney’s and friends’ The Blue House, loose pages laid out to be stapled together by the collective and house occupants in the one free space we knew was big enough to cope. In this space, these women hosted weekly lesbian dance parties. Good spirits, good cooperation, fun, laughter, a few howls of frustration, a huge satisfaction. (See ‘stein songs for the blue house’ in A Figurehead, A Face, Spiral, 1980, pp 9–10 and here.)
Later – the magazine typeset and laid-out to printing quality – we used local printers. Distribution was always a problem. The women’s/lesbian communities in Christchurch helped; women’s bookstores and – in Auckland – Broadsheet were helpful. Individual members of each collective did wonderful continuous work to get Spiral through the country. The first four Spirals, apart from sales, subscriptions and donations, were mostly funded by the Christchurch women’s/lesbian community, particularly women’s dances in a community which might or might not share feminist beliefs. I remember, for example, the disagreement over whether or not to use men’s music at dances (e.g. the Rolling Stones, the sexist content); this for a while was a feminist-nonfeminist community split.
But lesbian feminist, gay non-feminist and heterosexual feminist women supported Spiral; came to shows, readings and exhibitions, bought books, paintings, photos, etc and not least, came to the dances which paid our printers’ bills. A cash box disappeared at the Waikato Women’s Studies conference, the Spiral collective held a special dance to replace the money. Distributing and fundraising were communal; Spiral could not have existed without the wonderful emotional and financial support of friends, partners, community.
For the first issue we gave the authors a token payment ($2)(!) to ‘acknowledge’ their work; this was to be augmented but we never made enough money to recover expenses.
Costs included additional life-stresses: I was a solo mum doing a part-time job and paying a babysitter to do that; I rarely had spare cash for luxuries let alone to subsidise a magazine, except in time/labour and small incidental costs. It also meant less quality time for relationships or writing. In 1980 I relinquished involvement with the magazine so that I could move closer to my North Island family and write more and reluctantly took on co-ordinating Women & Violence at the Women’s Gallery in Wellington, as nobody else volunteered.
Rewards : first, to have been part of a heady exciting venture in a heady exciting time. Shared art shows, shared poetry readings, never in my life had I seen such excitement in swapping newly-published theory and arts books, to be gobbled, swallowed, discussed, disagreed with, tussled over for relevance. Swathes of information sprayed us.
A young feminist last year asked me had I consciously used Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970) as a model/framework for my poem ‘Have you heard of Artemisia?’ Well, not consciously; I had attributed echoes in the poem to two other sources: Elizabeth Gould Davis and Max Jacob. But I’d missed Firestone, perhaps because when I wrote the poem I’d forgotten her, and as a dangerous political theorist she rarely if ever appeared on feminist or university reading lists to nudge memory, not with a subtitle like ‘The Case for Feminist Revolution’.
Other rewards have included life-long friendships, meeting talented women: artists in all media, concepts, crafts – writers, painters, weavers, sculptors, photographers, printers — to have worked, played, argued with wonderful women, good at their jobs. Hugely rewarding has been to see the inspiration continue, and later women’s collectives publish under the name/imprint e.g. the bone people…
This is a good opportunity to thank the women who worked on and for early Spiral. Always supportive were Paulette Barr and Anna Keir who did lots of child-caring for my son Rick who was two when I moved to Browning Street in Sydenham and got swept into the Women’s Movement. Both did heaps of general and specific chores and Paulette generously, stoically answered heaps of letters, Anna designed wonderful covers. On the first Spiral Patsy Keene at Chippenham did great typesetting work, Kath Algie with design and layout, Jane Zusters with visuals and photos; in later issues so did Lynne Ciochetto and the women named in the magazine’s collectives. Phil McLean did the first cover. Striking. The Women’s Centre and Women’s Refuge women contributed. Saj Gurney provided hospitable space and fun stages for parties and dances, also helped with child care and the tedious details and organising to make a magazine. All helped fundraise. How did we do it? Enthusiastically, messily, eagerly.
We were changing our worlds.
Spiral 4 was by now a ‘proper’ collective – not role-bound – and the last produced in Christchurch. A Wellington collective produced Spiral 5, a Coromandel group Spiral 6 and a cross-New Zealand collective Spiral 7.
Issue 1 (1976)
Editor Heather McPherson
Design & Layout Kath Algie
Typesetting Patsy Keene
Cover Design Phil McLean
Illustrations Kath Algie
Issue 2 (1977)
Spiral Collective: Kath Algie, Paulette Barr, Heather McPherson, Alison Mitchell
Typing Patsy Keene
Issue 3 (1978)
Spiral Collective: Patsy Keene, Anna Keir, Ruth Lawley, Heather McPherson, Wendy Prestney, Tiffany Thornley
Layout Lynne Ciochetto
Cover Allie Eagle & Lynne Ciochetto
Fundraising Gladys Gurney, Leslie Carr
Issue 4 (1979)
Spiral Collective: Ruth Lawley, Heather McPherson, Wendy Prestney, Tiffany Thornily, Chris Smith, Gladys Gurney
Layout: Lynne Ciochetto
Typing: Joan Hazlehurst
Cover: Lynne and Tiffany
Spiral 4 was the last produced in Christchurch. A Wellington collective produced Spiral 5, a Coromandel group Spiral 6 and a cross-New Zealand collective Spiral 7.
(Written November 2015, mildly re-edited by Heather in March and October 2016)