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Kim Toffoletti

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Volume 15, November 2006

Conference Report: Twenty-First Century Feminisms

Australian Women’s Studies Association conference

9-12 July 2006, Melbourne, Australia

I’ve got a guilty secret. Before now, I’d never been to an Australian Women’s Studies Association conference. Weird huh? Given I’d taken to calling myself a feminist quite some time ago, and have been mooching around the academy in various incarnations (the predictable trajectory of doctoral studies, sessional worker, casual staff) before landing an actual gig as a gender studies lecturer (it still happens? I hear you ask), I thought it high time I got with the program. By this I mean actually getting my name on the conference program and presenting my research, as well as finding out what goes on at one of these shindigs. As the conference only happens once every two years, I was imagining something along the lines of an extended family reunion — with all the nice bits and grisly bits, minus the hard liquor and including some academic superstars.

In light of the frightening accuracy of my prediction, a career change to tarot reading seems tempting, but the calibre of presentations at the conference reminded me of the importance of sustaining feminist scholarship. Given this year’s broad theme, Twenty-First Century Feminisms, it wasn’t surprising to find that the research on offer was varied and diverse. The 100 or so papers making up the program were artfully slotted under one of four main themes — ‘gender, sex and society’, ‘global feminisms’, ‘feminism culture and critique’ and ’theory law and policy’ — by convenors Maryanne Dever and Jamemaree Maher, from the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at Monash University. Having at one point been under their tutelage, I can say from first hand experience that those ladies run a tight ship and in keeping with this reputation put together a strong program to keep participants intellectually stimulated, au fait regarding the latest feminist research, and crucially, well fed over the three days. Kudos to the convenors for putting on a fine show.

The conference kicked off unofficially with a postgraduate forum put together by Kerreen Reiger from Latrobe and (ahem) myself. Without tooting my own horn too loudly, it was extremely well-attended, offering sessions on publishing, grant writing and careers for Women’s Studies graduates. It was truly encouraging to see so many higher degree and early career researchers from around the country and across the Tasman working in the areas of feminist and gender research — an auspicious sign for the discipline and future conferences. More importantly perhaps, to paraphrase guest speaker Melissa Gregg, postgraduates are so necessary at these kinds of events not only because they showcase cutting-edge research but because they bring their excellent fashion sense. No doubt one of the most insightful and accurate comments uttered throughout the conference.

Some of this postgraduate scholarship included Sarah Eaton’s take on the abortion debate via a discussion of ectogenesis (artificial wombs), Sally Newman’s reflections as a lesbian historian approaching archival collections of women’s writing, Riki Lane and Myfanwy Mc Donald’s engagements with transsexuality, Naarah’s Sawyer’s ‘psychosomatic’ feminist reading of the Janet Turner Hospital novel Oyster, Sanja Milivojevic and Marie Seagrave’s important work on sex trafficking (which elicited some of the most tense and contentious discussion of the conference), and Monica Campo and Sarah Donovan’s critiques of the notion of ‘choice’ when it comes to women’s choices about caesarean birth (Campo) and prenatal screening (Donovan). Indeed, a number of papers addressed issues around mothering, motherhood and pregnancy from a number of perspectives. Julia Watson provided a discussion of women’s experiences of miscarriage in the South African context. In another vein, Fiona Giles offered a highly enjoyable, critical reading of the older mother in recent Hollywood film, while Meredith Nash also drew on popular culture to argue for the subversive power of the pregnant bride. In her study of violence against pregnant women, Rebecca Stringer called for a recognition of the mother and foetus as connected entities under law, rather than separate subjects. By adopting this strategy, she argues that we can avoid the ‘pro life’ stance that a foetus’ rights are equal to or more important than those of the female subject.

As is typical of a conference this size, the panels were run in parallel sessions, meaning that despite my best efforts to dart from one room to another, or in those moments of laziness, transcendentally projecting myself simultaneously into other rooms, I only managed to see a fraction of the papers on offer. One of my favourites was Mary Heath’s contribution called ‘In the shadow of the volcano; strategies for teaching about sexual assault and student evaluation of their impact’. Accompanied by wonderful photos from her father’s flower garden, Mary discussed her approaches to teaching about sexual assault in law courses. As those academics who are committed to feminist principles but do not always teach in feminist subjects would know, the question of how to introduce students to ideas that they might be hostile toward, as well as negotiating the sensitive area of rape law and sexual assault, is no easy task. This paper served as a good reminder of the necessity to refine our pedagogical goals as feminist teachers. I also enjoyed Carol Healy’s powerful presentation, where she spoke of the consequences for breast cancer patients and survivors dealing with the medical establishment. Her intermixing of research and personal narrative prompted an emotional and positive response from the audience.

In her keynote address, Rachel Fensham interrogated the role of women directors in Australian theatre and made a compelling argument for the need to focus on both structural and cultural dimensions to gender equity. Clearly her examination of women’s participation in this sphere has resonances with other social institutions, reminding us that simply ‘adding women’ to existing structures does not always lead to gender reform or social change. Other plenary speakers at the conference included National Tertiary Education Union president Carolyn Allport, Annamarie Jagose, whose discussion of the orgasm was accompanied by video footage that was memorable for all the wrong reasons, and Maria Jaschok from Oxford University chronicling the dilemmas and rewards of undertaking feminist ethnography. The much-anticipated Lisa Adkins journeyed all the way from Manchester, only to be welcomed to Australia by a nasty tummy aliment that prevented her from speaking. While acknowledging that such events are out of anyone’s control, it was, admittedly, disappointing. Lowlights? None in my mind really, although some may have found that the construction work on the façade of the venue made getting in and out of the Hotel Y a bit tricky. That said I quite liked the industrial vibe that it lent to the event. Very Melbourne.

Over the three days, participants were not only kept entertained by dazzling papers but were treated to a smattering of social events including book launches, drinks and … wait for it … The Australian Women’s Studies Association annual general meeting! I mean, why not? It’s not every day that you get that number of members and potential recruits in the one place at the same time. Here it was democratically decided to change AWSA’s name to the even more awkward sounding acronym of AWGSA. No prizes for guessing what the G stands for. And going on the range of conference papers presented at the 2006 meet, the inclusion of gender in the title is an apt one. I say bring on the sunny skies of Western Australia in 2008 for the inaugural AWGSA conference.


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