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 company ran as a collective between the five women, acting as company directors, and a salaried coordinator. They compiled a list of 25,000 women to whom they sent out their first newsletter advertising subscriptions. The newsletter bore the imprimatur of an impressive range of prominent women, a veritable roll call of Australian feminists, such as Eva Cox, Anne Summers, Dorothy Hewett, Faith Bandler, Eve Mahlab, Drusilla Modjeska, Carmen Callil and twenty more, who had responded to the Sisters' request to serve on an Editorial Board. Dorothy Hewett responded to the request by writing, "Maybe if you'd existed I wouldn't still be struggling so hard at fifty-six to get it all down before it's too late." The company ran on a shoe-string with the coordinator and the directors often working late into the night on the whole gamut of duties, from reading and editing manuscripts to processing and packing book orders.
The invitation to join the book club was enthusiastically received from women all over the country. Subscribers ranged well beyond inner-city coteries of book-loving feminists to women from remote outback farms and remote outer suburbs. That the Sisters endeavour matched the spirit of the times is born out by the letters that often accompanied subscription notices. "I was delighted to receive your circular and thought 'at last!'" wrote one. "This venture certainly fills a hole in many of our lives," wrote another. These letters can be read as a fascinating record of the impact that 1970s feminism had on the lives of so many Australian women.
Following a policy of publishing quality feminist works that no-one else in Australia would publish, Sisters brought out thirteen works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. They were all in uniformly plain but elegant editions and won a design award. As well as launching several notable careers, for instance those of Beverley Farmer and Jean Bedford, Sisters had established authors, such as Judith Rodriguez and Barbara Jefferis, offering them their works. Sisters Book Club also provided their subscribers with discounted editions of books from overseas feminist publishers like the Women's Press and Virago. Thus were many Australian readers introduced to the work of both new writers and resurrected writers of previous generations in the Virago Modern Classics series, as well as such influential 70s texts as Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology, Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue and Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born.
Although Sisters' publishing program was of necessity small, manuscripts poured in from all over the country. Joyce Nicholson wrote: "It seemed as though every women who had ever written anything got it out of her bottom drawer and sent it to us". The directors, feeling a responsibility to women's writing, attempted to respond constructively to each manuscript.
Finally the juggling act became unsustainable. The combination of the sheer workload involved in running the book club and the policy of offering discounted books meant that the company had little chance of long-term viability and in 1984 Sisters was wound up. It had been an heroic undertaking and the company could leave the stage in the knowledge that due to efforts like theirs their agenda had largely succeeded: many more books by and about women were now being taken up by mainstream publishers.
The Sisters' archive is the complete record of the company and documents all of its activities: from the minutes of the first, and subsequent, directors' meetings and the appointment of the editorial board; the compilation of the initial list of potential subscribers; their publishing program and distribution; correspondence with subscribers and authors; the service they attempted to provide to fledgling writers, down to the dry legal and accountants' documents that signal its end.
The Sisters Publishing archive enhances the University of Melbourne Archive's holdings of other feminist publishers' records, like McPhee Gribble Pty Ltd and the Sugar and Snails Press, as well as the records of the International Feminist Book Fair, and our growing number of collections that document a wide spectrum of feminist activities.
Jane Ellen, Archivist
(from the UMA Bulletin No. 11, November 2002)