Anthologies and the Amazonian Phalanx: Publication of Australian Female Poets from the 1940s


This article discusses the extent to which female poets in Australia were disadvantaged by the predominance of male anthologists from the 1940s until recently. Through their actions many male anthologists, whether they were conscious of their bias or not, discriminated against female poets, often believing firmly in their own judgements about ‘quality’. Virginia Woolf’s personification of the patriarchy as Professor von X is still found in this period in the pronouncements of male anthologists who confuse their judgement of quality with an absolute truth, rather than understanding it as a matter of personal preference. However, ground-breaking female anthologists such as Kate Jennings, Susan Hampton, Kate Llewellyn, Jennifer Strauss and Susan Lever were able to identify strong work by many female poets, suggesting that many male anthologists were unconsciously discounting the work of female poets or favouring the work of male poets because they were men. From 1975, the publication of a number of women-only anthologies, particularly those by mainstream publishers, brought attention to the many female poets and the different voices and subjects they brought to their poetry, and compelled future anthologists to at least consider the female poets published in them. There has been a demonstrable upswing in the percentage of female poets included in mainstream anthologies since the appearance of the early women-only anthologies.

The exclusion of women from full participation in many aspects of Australian society in the past is well-known and documented: government legislation was needed in the 1880s and 90s to allow married women to own property in their own right, for women to vote and stand as candidates in elections in 1902, and to allow married women to be permanently employed by the Commonwealth government as late as 1966, culminating in the more general equal employment and education provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The poetry community was not immune from such discrimination: in the post-war period until the 1990s most poetry editors of literary journals, anthologists, advisers to publishers and reviewers were male, and some male poets held several of these influential roles concurrently, including appointments to the Commonwealth Literary Fund advisory board and later, the Literature Board which allocated publication subsidies and individual grants. While the gender balance has improved in recent years, with more female poetry editors and anthologists in evidence, reviewing of poetry collections remains a predominantly male activity (Harvey and Lamond, ‘Taking the Measure’) with the latest Stella Count in 2020 finding that ‘68% of all poetry reviews were written by men’ (Harvey and Lamond, ‘Stella Count’ 16). Alexandra Dane’s recent analysis of book reviews, literary festivals and literary prizes reveals that gender is still a strong factor in the development of literary reputation (Dane). Similarly, Julieanne Lamond’s article on the establishment of the Stella Prize questions whether Australian literary values are essentially masculine – ‘blokes, the past, the bush’ – based on a recent shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award, identifying a bias ‘embedded in the structure of our thinking about literary value’ (Lamond 32–34).

Feminist theorist Elaine Showalter identified the interplay between class, race, nationality and history as ‘literary determinants as significant as gender’ (Showalter 260), predating critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s coining of the term ‘intersectionality’ (Crenshaw 140) to describe how social identities such as gender, class and race overlap to create different modes of privilege and discrimination. Australian studies which have examined these intersections include Susan Sheridan’s Along the Faultlines: Sex, Race and Nation in Australian Women’s Writing 1880s–1930s focusing on romantic fiction and journalism, Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 19251945 concentrating on novelists, and Ann Vickery’s study, Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry, examining the careers of a generation of female poets, writing in the first half of the twentieth century, and providing an alternative interpretation of the emergence of literary modernism in Australia. Vickery challenges both the ‘selective [male] tradition that normalises a particular gendered set of practices as the only modernism’ and the devaluation of women’s poetry of the time as ‘marginal and positioned in a second-rate and separate sphere of cultural production’ (Stressing the Modern 1–2).

Examination of all the layered identities of gender, class, race, nationality, religion, ethnicity and sexuality, and how they operate in the Australian poetry community is beyond the scope of this investigation, which focuses specifically on gender. In post-war Australian society, writing and publishing poetry was an activity often assumed to be situated in middle-class white settler society, among those with the privilege of both education and leisure to pursue it. Susan Sheridan identifies a ‘lost generation’, Australian women writers born from 1915 to 1930, ‘eclipsed from sight by the planetary movement of men’s literary and artistic entrepreneurship’ (Sheridan, ‘Generations Lost and Found’ 43), including poets Dorothy Auchterlonie, Rosemary Dobson, Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett and Judith Wright. She adopts Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital to discuss individual poets and their literary milieu, highlighting the ‘inverse relationship between material and symbolic success in the literary field’ and identifying poetry as a sub-field where ‘its distance from the possibility of generating profits … does not prevent it occupying a high position in the symbolic hierarchy of literary forms’ (Sheridan, Nine Lives 8). The accumulation of Bourdieu’s cultural capital comes from access to cultural goods, such as books, formal and informal education and opportunities to develop and nurture supportive networks which are:

the product of investment strategies, individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term. (Bourdieu 22)

Female poets who became successful were those who accumulated this capital through education and their networks: for instance, Judith Wright came from a wealthy pastoralist family, studied at the University of Sydney, and worked at the University of Queensland and as an unpaid editorial assistant for Meanjin in the 1940s. Gwen Harwood benefited from her marriage to an academic, through him becoming friends with poet-academics Vivian Smith and James McAuley, and maintaining regular correspondence with many influential poets, such as A. D. Hope, Vincent Buckley, Rodney Hall and Thomas Shapcott. Dorothy Auchterlonie graduated with a Master of Arts from the University of Sydney, where she met poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart, married literary historian and anthologist H.M. Green, and in the 1960s began an academic career as the first female lecturer at Monash University. Other successful female poets of the 1940s, Rosemary Dobson and Nan McDonald, worked as editors at Angus & Robertson (A&R) and Nancy Keesing worked with Douglas Stewart at The Bulletin in the 1950s and co-edited several A&R anthologies with him. Female poets, however, were for the most part disqualified from positions of power and decision-making in the poetry community due to their lack of cultural capital through educational qualifications and ‘insider’ connections.

When undertaking a selection process for publication of poems in literary journals, male editors tended, by unconscious bias or deliberately, to favour male poets. In an earlier article I investigate the rate of publication of female poets in nine long-standing literary journals in the period 1945 to 1990 and find a strong correlation between the gender of the poetry editor and the percentage of female poets selected for publication (Shapley, ‘Literary Journals’ 4–6). I also challenge the suggestion that fewer poems by female poets are published because they submit poems to journals at a correspondingly lower rate than male poets. For instance, poet Geoff Page refers to this possibility, suggesting that the ‘disproportion … may have been due to there being proportionately fewer women than men writing poetry and seeking to publish it’ (Page, ‘Loaded Canons’ 23). Overall, there is very little information available about the rate of submission to journals by female poets as the process of rejecting poems usually involves either returning submissions to their authors or discarding them. However, newly-analysed archival sources, poetry rejection files relating to The Bulletin from the 1960s (Simpson) and Meanjin from the 1970s to early 1980s (Brett, ‘Reader’s Reports – Poetry’; Davidson), and poetry entries to a national competition in 1987 resulting in an anthology (ABC Bicentennial Literary Awards), provide evidence that the rate of publication of female poets by male editors was between 14 and 20 percentage points lower than their rate of submission. The rate of publication of female poets comes closest to their rate of submission during Judith Rodriguez’s tenure as poetry editor of Meanjin from 1979 (Shapley 9).

The publication of female poets in literary journals fell to a discernible low point in 1970, with all journals analysed publishing less than 20% female poets; Meanjin just above 10% and Overland below 10%. At this point, only Poetry Australia had a female editor. These figures provide evidence supporting Kate Jennings’s complaint in her 1975 anthology Mother I’m Rooted that ‘prejudice exists, overtly and covertly’ (Jennings np) and also reveal the context for the independent establishment of two women’s poetry journals, Luna in Melbourne and Hecate in Brisbane in the same year.

The low representation of female poets in the 1970s in literary journals has a corollary in their inclusion in poetry anthologies at that time. Anthologies have an important role in the development of the canon: the gradual, perhaps glacial, movement towards general agreement on what constitutes literature worthy of study (Carruthers 1). Whenever anthologies are published, reviewers are often keen to note who is in and who is out, who has stood the test of time or fallen out of favour, and they are often the ‘site of competing ideologies’ (McCooey 41). A common stated or unstated precondition for inclusion in anthologies is to have had poems published in poetry journals or in other anthologies accessible to the anthologist. As a result, the gradual increase in the inclusion of female poets in general anthologies in the second half of the twentieth century has much to do with their earlier publication in various anthologies specifically devoted to female poets. Despite this increase there is evidence in the available data that, even after these anthologies were published, some male anthologists continued to exclude female poets based on their own preconceptions.

The introductions to general anthologies provide an insight into how their male editors viewed female poets in this period. Guy Howarth wrote the introduction to the 1958 Penguin anthology where several male poets are discussed but the only mention of female poets is a passing remark: ‘The main concern is still, as it has been for a hundred years, the expression of Australian life; now, partly, as this is interpretable by women’ (Thompson et al. 19). It is common in the twentieth century for male anthologists to only discuss male poets and provide quotations from male poets’ poems, while confining female poets to just a name in a list. This is the case whether the discussion is about the ‘accepted hierarchy’ versus the self-styled generation of ’68 (Hall and Shapcott 1) or the influence of American poetry, drug culture or the academy (the ‘critical strictures of university English departments’) on Australian poetry (Tranter, The New Australian Poetry xvi–xvii).

In his introduction to the 1976 anthology Australian Verse from 1805 Geoffrey Dutton elucidates three main streams in Australian poetry: the lyric, the elegy and commentary on everyday life. He provides many examples of each, but all are poems written by male poets; female poets only appear in lists of poets. Thomas Shapcott discusses the work of male poets A. D. Hope, Francis Webb, Vincent Buckley, Bruce Beaver, Bruce Dawe and Peter Porter in the introduction to his 1976 Contemporary American and Australian Poetry, with female poets Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Vicki Viidikas, Rhyll McMaster and Jennifer Maiden only mentioned by name. Harry Heseltine in the introduction to the 1981 The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Verse mentions female poets Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson and Gwen Harwood in one sentence and then writes about the work of six male poets at length, summing up with:

Beaver, Hall, Shapcott; Dawe, Murray, Lehmann – in the patterns and connections among these six writers are to be found many if not all of the imaginative pressures by which, during the 1960s, Australian poetry was prised loose from the habits and practices which held sway in the middle years of the century. (Heseltine xxiii)

Although he includes twelve female poets in the anthology, he does not explore what ‘patterns and connections’ might be found in their work. It is taken for granted that it is the male poets who are setting the agenda, and by concentrating exclusively on male poets Heseltine is confirming the predominance of those male poets. As Judith Brett notes in relation to women’s writing and black writing:

Because of [middle-class white Anglo-Celtic men’s] prior occupancy of the domain their maleness and class position has been relatively invisible and so they have been able to claim that their literary activities embody universal values … The particularity of such men’s writing has thus remained unnamed, unlike the writing of those challenging the claims of those who hold cultural power. (‘Literature and Politics’ 321)

Brett’s identification of male literary activities claiming to represent ‘universal values’ recalls Simone de Beauvoir’s reference to the male viewpoint which men ‘confound with the absolute truth’ (de Beauvoir 166).

The poet Kate Jennings in her ground-breaking anthology of Australian women poets, Mother I’m Rooted, published in the United Nations International Women’s Year of 1975, refers to the Australian literary world as ‘for the most part controlled by a small backslapping, backbiting group of men’ and calls out their prejudice against female poets and also ‘against women’s subject matter – childbirth, babies, menstruation, housework, feminine conditioning and female perceptions’ (Jennings np). The anthology was a deliberate ‘highly provocative, political statement’ through its title, cover art and content, with Jennings selecting poems ‘that articulated an “authentic” female experience … which had hitherto been deemed unpoetic’ (Vickery, ‘The Rise of Women’s Poetry’ 274) rather than curating a collection of ‘the best poems’ by female poets.

Subsequent women’s poetry anthologies by the act of publication demonstrated that they saw the need to promote women’s poetic voices. These were, like Jennings’s, produced by small publishers, such as the No Regrets anthologies produced by the Sydney Women Writers Workshop from 1979 and Carole Ferrier’s 1978 anthology of women’s poetry and prose, Hecate’s Daughters which included this call to arms:

We must continue to fight against women’s historical invisibility and silence that has helped to maintain their oppression in literary as well as other areas … women writers need all the space they can get, in order to help break down the cultural hegemony of certain groups that rarely include them. (Ferrier 1)

Sisters Publishing produced three anthologies of female poets from 1979 to 1982: for the first, Rosemary Dobson selected four poets who had not previously published a collection (Dobson), while Fay Zwicky selected four established poets for the second, as if to confirm the canon (Zwicky). Judith Rodriguez selected six ‘early career’ poets for the third volume. She defends the publication of women’s anthologies, suggesting that the inclusion of women in general anthologies is around 10–20%:

The reason generally given for grouping women poets together without men … is the sparse representation given to them in the company of men, especially by … anthologists who are men. Twenty per cent – of poets or poems – and you know the anthologer [sic] is holding a torch for women, though this does not properly represent either the achievement or the interest of women’s poetry today … Throw the academic compiler and course-setter back on his responsibility, his nose for ‘excellence’, and see the proportion shrink below ten per cent. (Rodriguez ix)

The publication of The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (Hampton and Llewellyn), the first Australian women-only anthology by a mainstream publisher, was a watershed moment in that it provided the evidence that ‘significant women poets in earlier periods have been overlooked in the rather erratic male attempt to construct a canon’ (Page, ‘Loaded Canons’ 23). Poet Andrew Taylor refers to this anthology as:

An attempt to rescue the voices of women from the obscurity to which a patriarchal critical apparatus would condemn them. It challenges the assumptions of value-formation which have served to privilege male poets over female, or to favour that poetry by women which best consorts with male-defined conceptions of female gender. (17)

In their introduction, poets Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn include a limited analysis of fifteen anthologies published between 1970 and 1984 to present two statistics: the average number of female poets included as 17% and the average number of pages accorded them as 13%. This analysis is accurate in general terms but problematic in its detail, because it includes four very selective ‘anthologies’: two anthologies which only included poets who had had collections published by University of Queensland Press (UQP), an anthology of entries in the 1984 Newcastle Poetry Prize and a non-anthology: the Gargoyle Poets series of publications by Makar Press. They attempt to rationalise their findings:

This may not be a problem of deliberate critical neglect, but a problem of consciousness – until recently most anthology editors, literary historians and critics have been male, and their gaze was unconsciously focussed on other men. (Hampton and Llewellyn 2)

Whether the neglect is deliberate or unconscious, it has a practical effect, as they outline:

What is represented, why certain discourses are approved, is always in question. Which books get published and reviewed, and why? ... Women’s poems have been criticised at times for being too subjective, too personal, too ‘domestic’ … Women have a marginal status in the literary world, otherwise this book would not be necessary. (Hampton and Llewellyn 2–3)

While Jennings, Ferrier, Rodriguez, Hampton and Llewellyn make assertions about the exclusion of female poets, to some extent these are based on anecdotal or incomplete evidence. A more systematic and rigorous assessment of the publication of female poets reveals the extent of that exclusion and also shows how the reception of female poets has changed over time.


Data about the publication of female poets in anthologies has been gathered to provide empirical evidence which can be subjected to basic statistical analysis. This quantitative approach, relying in some measure on the AustLit database, is similar to that taken by Katherine Bode in her study of Australian book publishing and the novel form in particular (Bode) and by Alexandra Dane in her analysis of literary reputation through book reviews, literary festivals and prizes (Dane). Without the presentation and analysis of data which quantifies the extent of exclusion of women, doubt can be cast on the phenomenon, such as the reference to ‘the supposed prejudice of male critics and publishers’ in the entry on ‘Feminist Criticism’ in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Drabble 349). The Stella Count first undertaken in 2012, reporting on books reviewed and the gender of authors and reviewers, and the United States equivalent VIDA Count have both had a positive effect in drawing attention to inequity by quantifying it and providing a catalyst for change (Stella Count; VIDA).

The AustLit database was used to identify over three thousand anthologies including poetry published in Australia from 1945. From these, only those that could be described as ‘general’ rather than ‘specialised’ have been examined and analysed in hard copy. Those excluded from the analysis are anthologies which have a mixture of poetry and prose, include less than twelve poets, are limited by form (such as bush ballads, sonnets or haiku), by type (such as comic verse, religious verse or translated verse), by geography (state, region or city based) or by age, ethnicity or sexual orientation of poets. Anthologies which are intended for children, are in coffee-table style, result from competitions and festivals, or are drawn from one journal, newspaper or publisher are also excluded.

The forty-eight general anthologies analysed include three main types: ‘two centuries’ of Australian poetry, twentieth-century or ‘modern’ Australian poetry (some include poets born in the late nineteenth century, others make the cut-off 1901 – the year of Kenneth Slessor’s birth – or an even later date of publication), and contemporary or ‘new’ poetry usually including only living or recently-deceased poets. To enable a more direct comparison of ‘two centuries’ anthologies with modern and contemporary anthologies, only data on poets born in the twentieth century has been collected. An additional calculation is made for any subsequent revised editions where the number of poets changes. A list of the general anthologies analysed is appended to this essay.

The series of annual anthologies analysed are the A&R anthology Australian Poetry which was published from 1941 to 1973 and revived in the 1980s, Verse in Australia published 1958–61, Poet’s Choice 1970–79 and two recent series, The Best Australian Poetry published by UQP 2003–09 and The Best Australian Poems published by Black Inc. 2003–17.

Data collection involves tallying the number of male and female poets in each volume and then calculating a percentage of female poets of the total number of poets. The identification of gender is based on the poets’ own use of pronouns. Where there are anonymous authors (for instance, the authors of Indigenous song cycles) or the gender of the poet cannot be identified (after research in the AustLit database as a minimum), these are not included.

Annual Anthologies

The annual A&R anthology Australian Poetry was published between 1941 and 1973, with a different editor each year, and then briefly revived in the 1980s. Douglas Stewart who suggested the annual compilation to Beatrice Davis, the A&R editor, edited the first volume. Male editors for later volumes were drawn from mainstream literary journals: Guy Howarth and Gerry Wilkes from Southerly, James McAuley from Quadrant, A. A. Phillips from Meanjin, Geoffrey Dutton and Max Harris from Australian Letters and J. M. Couper from Poetry Magazine. Editors of major anthologies were also recruited, such as H.M. Green, John Thompson, David Campbell and Rodney Hall, and poet-academics Tom Inglis Moore, Vincent Buckley, A. D. Hope, Vivian Smith, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Robert Brissenden. Other editors were regular Bulletin poets, such as Robert FitzGerald, Kenneth Slessor, Frederick Macartney, Kenneth Mackenzie, Ronald McCuaig, Hal Porter and Randolph Stow.

Out of thirty-three volumes, six were edited by women. Judith Wright and Rosemary Dobson were the first women invited to edit the anthology in 1948 and 1950. Wright’s selection of twenty poems by women (out of forty-eight poems) was criticised by Douglas Stewart on the Red Page of The Bulletin in these terms: ‘Nor, being male, does one expect to be knocked flat on opening the anthology by an Amazonian phalanx of nine successive poems by women’ (2). While the first nine poems are by women and fill fourteen pages, the next nine are by men filling over twenty pages. The complaint only stands up to scrutiny if Stewart believed that male poets should always take precedence over female poets.

Poems by women make up 42% of the anthology, a percentage that Dobson maintains in the 1950 volume, which included fourteen poems by women out of thirty-three poems. Of the later women editors, Nan McDonald (41%) maintains a similarly high percentage of poems by women, but later female editors Nancy Keesing (27%), Leonie Kramer (29%) and Dorothy Auchterlonie (29%) maintain percentages similar to male editors. Most male editors achieve a percentage of between 18% and 33% of poems by women but some distinguish themselves: H.M. Green (husband of Auchterlonie) manages 38%. At the other end of the scale, Guy Howarth includes just three poems written by women (11%), Vincent Buckley selects six (12%) and Max Harris selects four (11%).

Figure 1 charts the percentage of female poets, rather than poems, included in each volume. In the period 1961 to 1965, the figures are affected by the inclusion of poems by Walter Lehmann and Francis Geyer (two of Gwen Harwood’s pseudonyms). These are counted as male poets as the compilers were not aware that they were selecting poems written by Harwood. The three highest percentages are achieved by editors who are female poets: Judith Wright in 1948, Rosemary Dobson in 1950 and Nan McDonald in 1953. The three lowest percentages are again for Guy Howarth (then editor of Southerly), Vincent Buckley (in 1961 poetry editor at The Bulletin) and Max Harris (then co-editor of Australian Book Review and Australian Letters).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Only 20% of the poets selected by Howarth as editor of Southerly from 1939 to 1955 were female (Shapley, ‘Fruits of Exile’ 67), so his selection of 12.5% female poets in Australian Poetry 1944 is not surprising and is in line with the 13% female poets in the anthology The Penguin Book of Australian Verse he co-edited with John Thompson and Kenneth Slessor. Buckley’s selection of 12% female poets in his Australian Poetry 1958 is also as expected, given his published views on female poets. Commenting on Judith Wright’s poetry in 1957, he suggests that being a woman and being a poet are irreconcilable states of being:

When she is content to be a woman, enduring the profound incidents of a woman’s life, she is able, paradoxically enough, to transcend her womanliness and be a very fine poet. When she attempts to be not a woman, but a bard, commentator or prophet, she becomes a bit of a shrew – which is the worst and most unwomanly of all things a woman may become. (Buckley, Essays in Poetry 174–175)

In the introduction to his 1991 anthology, The Faber Book of Modern Australian Verse, Buckley writes:

I am not in a position to consider the influence of the women’s movement on our poetry, although I think it must be large. What is clear is that poetry by women became much stronger in the 1940s and 1950s than it had been before, and that it has continued to strengthen phase by phase up till the present, in a way that may have something to do with the fine late development in the work of Wright, Harwood and Elizabeth Riddell, and the dramatic changes in the style of Dorothy Hewett. (Buckley, Modern Australian Verse xxxxii)

It appears that Buckley is supporting an ‘exceptionalist’ line, that the growing strength of women’s poetry over the decades can be attributed to just a few names. Buckley’s 1958 A&R volume was praised by Rodney Hall and Thomas Shapcott in their introduction to New Impulses in Australian Poetry:

This collection still reads as one of the strongest in the series. Buckley’s central position owed much to the fact that Melbourne had, at that time, the greatest concentration of emergent poets. One could hardly call it a group; rather, it was a loose association of friends. (Hall and Shapcott 7)

What Hall and Shapcott see as a strength (Buckley publishing a coterie of male poets living in Melbourne) is also, in practice, a way of excluding female poets.

Only one female poet, Dorothy Auchterlonie, was invited to edit the anthology during Douglas Stewart’s tenure as poetry editor at A&R from late 1961. The percentage of female poets included in the anthology falls to an average of 20% during his more than ten years in the position – despite a general upward trend in the selection of female poets for general anthologies, noted in the following section. These figures suggest that Stewart had a negative influence on the inclusion of female poets in the A&R annual anthology. Apart from only selecting one female anthologist, it is clear from his correspondence with David Campbell who edited the 1966 volume that Stewart had an active role in the formation of the anthology, suggesting which poets could be excluded or have their poems cut (Persse 170).

The series was briefly revived with issues in 1986 and 1988 edited by Vivian Smith. The fact that the representation of female poets in Smith’s 1986 and 1988 anthologies was just 21.5% and 23% respectively is out of step with the progress J. M. Couper made in 1973, with 28% female poets represented. Vincent Buckley remarks in a review of the 1988 volume in The Age: ‘There is one oddity, however: fewer than a quarter of the entries are by women’ (‘Rhythms from Different Drums’ 16). Heather Cam’s review in The Sydney Morning Herald identifies a broader problem, a ‘distorted view of poetry here and now’:

That view is essentially male, white and ‘mainstream’. Consequently, vast tracts of the Australian poetry scene have been overlooked, passed over, left out. The poets that don’t appear … are predominantly experimental, ‘alternative’, stridently or overtly female, ‘ethnic’, or Aboriginal. (Cam 87)

While the average percentage of female poets included in the A&R anthologies decreases over time, two other series show different trends. The short-lived rival annual publication, Verse in Australia, produced in Adelaide and edited by Robert Clark, Geoffrey Dutton, Max Harris and Ian Mudie, maintains an average percentage of female poets of 23%, though one of the male poets included in the 1961 volume is Francis Geyer (Gwen Harwood). The Sydney poet Philip Roberts printed an annual anthology Poet’s Choice from 1970, initially inviting twenty-two poets to submit. By 1979 it had grown to include seventy-seven poets and the percentage of female poets had risen from an initial 13.5% to 32.5%.

Two recent annual anthology series both show a higher percentage of female poets represented. The UQP series, The Best Australian Poetry, published 2003 to 2009, has an average of 37% female poets. The highest percentage of 44% is for the 2006 edition edited by Judith Beveridge, the only female anthologist, and the lowest 25% for the 2009 edition edited by Alan Wearne. The Best Australian Poems, published by Black Inc. from 2003 to 2017 had nine editors, six male and three female poets, most producing two annual volumes. This series has an average of over 42% for female poets, ranging from Peter Craven’s 2003 edition at just over 26% to Sarah Holland-Batt’s 2017 edition at 54%. Robert Adamson appears to have surprised himself by selecting almost 54% female poets in the 2009 edition:

It wasn’t until I compiled the index that I noticed there were more women poets than men in this year’s anthology. It is the first time there has been a gender balance where the scales have tipped in favour of women in this series: it has turned out to be the year of the women poets. ( xiv)

Notwithstanding Adamson’s result, there is a familiar pattern in both the early annual anthologies from the 1940s–1980s and those published this century: there is a strong correlation between the gender of the anthologist and the gender balance of the poets selected for inclusion in the anthologies. Because male poets have been more often commissioned to produce annual anthologies, female poets are less likely to be successful in being selected.

General Anthologies

General anthologies of Australian poetry published between 1946 and 2016 show a gradual increase in the percentage of female poets selected, but it is clear that some anthologists were slower than others to recognise the quality of women’s poetry when making their selections. The only female anthologist in the early period is Judith Wright, with every other anthology up until Felicity Plunkett’s 2011 Thirty Australian Poets edited by male anthologists. Poets Judith Beveridge and Judy Johnson are co-editors with Martin Langford and David Musgrave of Puncher & Wattmann’s 2016 anthology Contemporary Australian Poetry. Some male anthologists have produced and/or revised multiple volumes: Douglas Stewart, Thomas Shapcott, Robert Gray, Geoffrey Lehmann, Les Murray and John Kinsella with three volumes each, and John Leonard with four, providing them with the opportunity to directly influence the development of what becomes considered the canon of best poetry.

Figure 2 shows the percentage of female poets published in general anthologies and also indicates when four major women-only anthologies were published. The horizontal axis places the anthologies in an approximate position based on year of publication.

Figure 2
Figure 2

The percentage of female poets in general anthologies mirrors the publication of female poets in literary journals, with a distinct low point in the 1970s (Shapley, ‘Literary Journals’ 4–5). This coincides with the so-called ‘poetry wars’ when a number of ‘new poetry’ anthologies were published which sought to publish the very latest work – the ‘most important’ and the ‘most exciting’ – and were overly selective (Page, ‘Loaded Canons’ 21). Geoff Page points out in a review of John Tranter’s 1979 The New Australian Poetry that ‘an equally exciting (if not more exciting) anthology could be compiled from his omissions’ (Page, ‘The Split in Australian Poetry’ 39). It is instructive that this is where discrimination against women is most clearly seen; it illustrates the power imbalance with male poets deciding what the ‘new poetry’ will be. Their selections appear to be based on locality and personal connections as there was no imperative to be comprehensive over a longer period. The male editors not only selected a much higher percentage of male poets but also included more poems on average by male poets than by female poets.

Rodney Hall and Thomas Shapcott’s 1968 New Impulses in Australian Poetry has only three female poets out of twenty-two (13.6%) and only 10% of poems included are by women. There are ten poems by Gwen Harwood and one each by Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Judith Green (Rodriguez), while the average for male poets is over 5.5 poems. Shapcott’s 1970 Australian Poetry Now has ten female poets out of a total of sixty-four (15.6%), though the inclusion of Timothy Kline, one of Gwen Harwood’s pseudonyms, means that the actual percentage is slightly higher than 17% – Shapcott was aware before publication of Kline’s true identity (Kratzmann 237). Shapcott also edited the 1976 anthology Contemporary American and Australian Poetry which includes thirty-five Australian poets, six of whom are female (17.1%).

Alexander Craig’s Twelve Poets 1950–1970 includes only one female poet, Gwen Harwood (8.3%); Robert Kenny and Colin Talbot’s 1974 Applestealers, ‘a collection of the New Poetry in Australia’, is very Melbourne-centric and includes three women out of seventeen (17.6%); and John Tranter’s 1979 The New Australian Poetry includes only two female poets out of twenty-four (8.3%). In an interview with Barbara Williams, Tranter acknowledges but defends the inclusion of only two women in these terms:

But both I and Martin Duwell, who commissioned and published the work, wanted to avoid bringing out another mish-mash ‘representative’ collection where everybody is included, but with only a couple of poems each. We wanted fewer writers, but with a strong body of work from each. (Williams 220–221)

In most cases the male poets do have ‘a strong body of work’ included, but three male poets have ‘a couple of poems each’ which Tranter says he wanted to avoid and two male poets have only one poem. On five occasions Tranter was comfortable in making an exception for a male poet, but not for a female poet. He appears defensive and patronising in excusing his exclusion of women, blaming ‘society’ and suggesting alternative career paths for female poets:

It’s important to understand that the young women writing in those days were products of the Australian school and social system of the Fifties and Sixties, a powerful and conservative set of forces which put pressure on boys to strive to be individualistic and competitive, and pressure on girls to be self-effacing, supportive and cooperative. To get to be a skilled innovative poet you need to be individualistic and competitive … If you’re a supportive and cooperative kind of person, you might try for a while, then give up, and go and do something more sensible and rewarding like writing novels or short stories, or working in radio or publishing. Many women poets did that, and I’m sure they ended up with more balanced, more productive and generally happier lives because of it. (Williams 221)

In an earlier interview he had attributed female poets’ lack of success to their ‘internalized doubt’ and had defended his selection of only two women on the basis that ‘they had their own huge anthology [Jennings] … there were no men in that’ (Tranter, ‘Australian Poets in Profile’ 246). In Tranter’s introduction there is no discussion of the two female poets who are included, Jennifer Maiden and Vicki Viidikas, and the poems of some male poets reveal a self-referential coterie: poems by Nigel Roberts, Ken Taylor and Laurie Duggan refer to poets Kris Hemensley and John Forbes who are also included in the anthology. The critical reception of the anthology focused on its omissions: Geoff Page names six male poets (Page, ‘The Split in Australian Poetry’ 39) and Mark Roberts names six female poets (Roberts 61) ‘missing’ – and, indeed, many other female poets who might have been included were missing as well.

In The Younger Australian Poets, the editors Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann have built in a gender imbalance by imposing a criterion of youth, given that many female poets are late-starters with domestic responsibilities delaying their creative work, as Sheridan points out (Nine Lives 15). For instance, Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett and Oodgeroo Noonuccal were in their forties when their first collections were published and Judith Rodriguez identifies several important contemporary female poets who were in their fifties and sixties when first published (Rodriguez xi). The percentage of female poets in the anthology is 20.7%, but the percentage of poems by women is only 14%; the average number of poems for each male poet is 4.2 and for female poets 2.6. The editors in their introduction make the point that ‘two previous anthologies on this subject [presumably two of those cited above] were entirely partisan’ but do not recognise their own prejudice against women in their selections. They refer to their selection process in these terms:

We have looked for, along with literary values, whatever impressed us as human ones … we have not attempted to be sociologically representative. Our sole criterion has been the quality of individual poems. (Gray and Lehmann, The Younger Australian Poets 15)

The assessment of ‘quality’ is however being undertaken by two male ‘humans’ who bring their own life experience to the process of selection. As noted by Brenda Walker, ‘the disputatious reader will question this notion of abstract quality and argue that poetic standards are formed by specific cultural influences’ (Brooks and Walker 4). Pertinent to this assertion that choices have been solely guided by ‘quality’ is Robert Gray’s hostile reaction to The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, where he refers to ‘anyone who is so crass as to make mere quantity a consideration, before concern about quality’ (Gray 63). He also appears to accuse the editors, Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn, of publishing sub-standard work:

we mustn’t lie and fudge our standards and pretend to ourselves there are more women poets than we really find. That is simply to sabotage all respect, and the whole art of writing. (Gray 61)

This strategy has been referred to as ‘conservative male writers pull[ing] out their old rusty quality/excellence shield and attempt[ing] to take shelter behind it’ (Roberts 61), and certainly several male anthologists comment defensively on their selection process. John Tranter and Philip Mead excuse the low rate of female poets in their 1991 The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry by blaming ‘cultural and educational practices of the 1940s and the 1950s’ (Tranter and Mead xxxi). In a review Don Anderson outlines the ‘Tranter/Mead First XI’ based on the number of pages they allocate to particular poets: a cricket team that includes only one female poet, Judith Wright, and the fictional Ern Malley (Anderson 49). Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann in their 1991 Australian Poetry in the Twentieth Century again make a curious statement which appears to be in defence of their gender bias (23.4% female poets):

We have not tried to include poets on the basis of regional or any other prescriptive demands. It cannot be productive to pretend things are other than we have found them to be. (Gray and Lehmann Australian Poetry xi)

One review comments ironically on the contents of the anthology as ‘reveal[ing] that most of the poetic talent of Australia in the twentieth century resides in the white Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-Irish male of the species’ (Woodhouse 56). Conversely and writing a year earlier than Gray and Lehmann, John Leonard comments directly on women’s poetry and finds much more to include in his 1990 anthology (40% female poets):

A notable feature of the period [1964–90] has been the impact of poetry by women. It may not always be important to tie poetry to gender; however, much of the most interesting recent poetry by women bears an acute awareness of female identity. (Leonard, Contemporary Australian Poetry xvi)

Two later anthologies of ‘new poetry’, Michael Brennan and Peter Minter’s Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets, published in 2000, and Felicity Plunkett’s 2011 Thirty Australian Poets, show a conscious and marked shift in the inclusion of female poets with 50% and 60% female poets respectively. Another recent example is the 2020 Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry (Atherton and Hetherington), covering the 1970s to the present, which published 55% female poets in its selections.

As with the annual anthologies, a familiar pattern is seen with general anthologies: female poets are generally disadvantaged by male anthologists. Apart from Judith Wright’s anthologies in 1956 (revised 1968) and 1957, all general anthologies published from 1946 were compiled by male anthologists until 2011 and this has had a significant impact on the selection of female poets in these anthologies.

The Effect of Women’s Poetry Anthologies

In the introduction to the 1975 anthology Mother I’m Rooted Kate Jennings laments the need to publish a ‘segregated book on the grounds of sex’ saying it is necessary ‘because women are still not getting published’ (np). Writing over a decade later, Jennings articulates the benefits and downsides of women’s anthologies:

[they] have been crucial in drawing attention to the work of women, nurturing their creativity, and promoting a sense of community among them while at the same time giving pleasure to and raising the consciousness of readers. But such anthologies do have their pitfalls, the most obvious one being to ‘ghettoize’ women writers. We are playing, but in a different sandbox from the men, a smaller one, over to the side. And men are let off the hook yet again, their power unchallenged. ( ‘Bad Manners’ 29)

Despite her reservations, it is clear that the publication of anthologies of women’s poetry improved the chances of female poets being included in other, more general, anthologies. Many anthologists start their editorial work by surveying what has been included in previous anthologies. A number of female poets who were first published in Jennings’s 1975 anthology (or had only a handful of poems published previously) went on to be included in general anthologies, including Pamela Brown, joanne burns, Lee Cataldi, Christine Churches, Silvana Gardner, Barbara Giles, Gillian Hanscombe and Jennifer Rankin.

Susan Lever in her introduction to the second mainstream anthology of female poets, The Oxford Book of Australian Women’s Verse, published in 1995, reflects on the improving situation for female poets in Australia: ‘So many Australian women poets have been publishing and receiving critical attention in the past ten years that they can no longer be considered marginalised’ (xv). She also contends that:

Contrary to widespread belief, at every stage in Australia’s history women poets have been published and respected by their contemporaries. Research for this collection revealed that almost every impressive poem published in magazines and journals during the late 19th century and early 20th century eventually found its way into a book. (xv–xvi)

What is unknown is how many ‘impressive’ poems were rejected by male editors and never published, and how many female poets did not receive the encouragement that their male counterparts received with the result that they produced few further poems. Similarly, John Kinsella in a discussion of anthologies of women’s poetry refers to what he calls the ‘patently untrue’ notion that:

the mainstream of Australian poetry has been male, and only belatedly was there a rise in a conscious female collective poetics … A large number of poems to be found in newspapers during the 19th century, as well as individual collections, were by women. (Kinsella 490)

In line with this important observation, there may have been no need for anthologies of women’s poetry if women’s poetry had consistently been selected by male anthologists from those newspapers and collections he refers to.

Figure 2 demonstrates how the publication of major anthologies of women’s poetry affected the overall percentage of female poets included in subsequent general anthologies. There is a definite increase in the percentage of female poets selected in general anthologies following the publication of women-only anthologies. In the twenty years before Jennings’s 1975 anthology, the percentage of female poets is almost always below 20% and as low as 8%. Between 1976 and 1986 the percentage hovers between 17% and 23% (with the exception of Tranter’s 1979 volume – 8.3% – discussed above). Since Hampton and Llewellyn’s 1986 anthology and Lever’s 1995 anthology, most general anthologies include at least 30% female poets. However, there are exceptions: Vincent Buckley’s 1991 anthology includes 21% female poets, Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann’s 1991 anthology is below 24% and Les Murray’s 1991 and 1996 revised versions still leave him below 27%. The anthology 100 Australian Poems You Need to Know includes only 23.6% female poets: editor Jamie Grant admits he has made ‘no attempt to be fair or comprehensive or respectable or historically representative’ (Grant 1). Since the 2009 publication of Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986–2008 (Harrison and Waterhouse), most general anthologies have achieved a percentage of 40% female poets.

One anthologist in particular has consistently been above the average: John Leonard’s anthologies for various publishers have consistently included 40% female poets, with New Music including 48% female poets. In its introduction he reflects on his 1998 Oxford anthology which includes Australian poetry from the earliest days of white colonisation:

One discovery of that book … is how thoroughly the field is transformed when a significant number of sidelined women poets … are given their due. (Part of this effect involved the absence of some men who might have been preferred in the past.) (Leonard, New Music xvi)

Jennifer Strauss also has a strong record with her 1993 Oxford Book of Love Poems and 1998 Family Ties: Australian Poems of the Family including 43% and 44% female poets respectively. This higher percentage perhaps reflects the traditionally female themes of love and family but it also demonstrates how women were becoming increasingly visible in anthologies in the 1990s.


The survey of annual and general poetry anthologies shows the degree to which female poets were disadvantaged by mostly male anthologists up until the last decade. When female poets were asked to edit the annual A&R anthologies they had no trouble identifying many suitable poems by female poets but male poets and editors found far fewer suitable poems by women. Douglas Stewart’s selection of only one female anthology editor in his role as general poetry editor at A&R from 1961 to 1973 also contributed to a decline in the number of female poets who were included against the general trend of increasing inclusion of female poets. Two other annual anthologies, Verse in Australia and Poet’s Choice, maintained higher percentages of female poets in the same period.

Discrimination against female poets was most pronounced in the publication of ‘new poetry’ anthologies in the late 1960s and 1970s when male poets were jockeying to claim the territory of the ‘new’. There were notable omissions from these anthologies of both male and female poets. The percentage of female poets included in general anthologies improves after the publication of women’s poetry anthologies with a marked increase after the two published by mainstream publishers in 1986 and 1995.

In more recent years, the standard percentage of female poets sits at around 40% (which is a distinct improvement on the 10–20% range in the 1970s) and recent anthologists have deliberately sought gender parity, or gender blindness, in their selections. Two recent annual anthology series, published by UQP and Black Inc., maintain averages of 37% and 42% female poets, with three anthologies in the latter series selecting over 50% female poets. Despite the increasing visibility of poems by female poets in anthologies, Douglas Stewart’s fears about an ‘Amazonian phalanx’ have yet to be realised.

Published 25 May 2024 in Volume 39 No. 1. Subjects: Australian Women Poets, Australian poetry, Feminist literature & writers, Gender - Literary portrayal, Literary canon, Poetry anthologies.

Cite as: Shapley, Maggie. ‘Anthologies and the Amazonian Phalanx: Publication of Australian Female Poets from the 1940s.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, 2024, doi: 10.20314/als.ba3b413ce2.

  • Maggie Shapley — Dr Maggie Shapley is a Canberra scholar and poet whose poems have been published in various literary journals and anthologies.