Outskirts online journal

Alison Bartlett

Further information

About the author

Alison Bartlett teaches Gender Studies at the University of Western Australia, and is interested in new ways of historicizing Australian feminism. Her recent book is Things That Liberate: an Australian Feminist Wunderkammer (2013) edited with Margaret Henderson.

alison.bartlett@uwa.edu.au

Publication details

Volume 31, November 2014

 

‘Tell it Slant—’: Women’s Studies in Western Australia

This article asks how feminists can write histories of academic feminism, given recent interrogations that identify the overwhelming desire to settle back into already established stories and trajectories. Taking up Clare Hemmings’ suggestion that we need to pay attention to the ways we tell feminist stories through what she calls the amenability of feminist grammars (2011, 2), and Victoria Hesford’s call to resist the project of ‘recovering’ history (2013, 11), as though there were a definitive past to recover, this article will attend to these challenges of historiography and epistemology through proposing a provisional history of academic feminism in Perth, Western Australia, through its Women’s Studies programs. In order to address these theoretical and rhetorical challenges, the methodology and form draw attention to the force of established narratives while attending to the recent past as, what Hesford calls, ‘both possibility and legacy’ (14) which continue to shape our geographically located institutional formations.

Background

Since the 1990s urge to reflect on feminism’s past and anticipate its future in the new millenium, there has been a parallel trend to document and so historicise academic feminism through its Women’s Studies programs, suggesting that such programs may stand in metonymic relation to academic feminism, as a sort of barometer of its formal existence within tertiary education. While Anglo-American commentators tend to dominate this literature on a broad scale, in Australia such reflections tend to be undertaken on the level of individual institutional histories (Bulbeck 1987; Caine 1998; Curthoys 1998; Damousi 2006; Harris and Baker 2008; Matthews and Broom 1991; Rockel 1999; Sheridan and Dalley 2006; Papadelos, Michell & Eate 2014). There are also more generalized accounts (like Threadgold 1998; Ryan 1998; Magarey and Sheridan 2002,) but perhaps these are also a way ‘to try and make sense of our local experience in a transnational way’, as Ann Genovese claims in her editorial on Australian feminism in Feminist Review in 2010 (71). In these and the numerous reflective memoirs and histories of the second wave women’s movement in Australia, however, it is rare to find mention of Perth as a site of feminism. In the available literature and the national imaginary it seems that feminism took place elsewhere of Perth (for exceptions see Davidson 1998; Eveline and Hayden 1999; Brankovich 1999; Hopkins and Roarty 2010). Part of my interest in this topic is in finding the legacies of academic feminism that I became a part of it in 2005 when I moved to Perth, but also in finding ways in which such legacies can be traced and written.

Increasing attention is being paid to the historiography and representational practices of feminism itself.  Clare Hemmings (2011) argues that we should be paying attention to the stories we tell about feminism (see also Jones 1998, Henderson 2006), as they constitute ‘political grammars’ which are ‘highly mobile’ and amenable to unintended narrative consequences (2011, 2). For example, she notes how both the ‘success and failure of feminism are alternately cited as reasons for not needing such departments, courses, or academic appointments any more’ (2011, 10). Hemmings is particularly attentive to the ways in which feminist subjects are positioned through dominant stories of feminist theory as linear, developmental, and passed, identifying narratives of loss, progress, or prescriptions for a return (2011, 3). She demonstrates how temporal shorthand operates through attributing ideas to particular decades, and diverse theoretical landscapes are clustered around the names of particular theorists and selective citation. While Hemmings focuses on the way feminist theory is narrated, Victoria Hesford calls to account the ways in which the US feminist movement has been rhetorically produced through its intersection with the media sphere. She asks ‘how has the history of women’s liberation been produced; what stories have been constructed and disseminated as memories of women’s liberation, in the mass mediated public sphere as well as the subcultural worlds of feminist and queer studies?’ (2013, 6). Both writers insist there is no correct method or form of recovery which fails to do violence to the multiple truths and forces at play, but insist on an obligation to attend to ‘memory, desire, and uncertainty’ (Hemmings 2011, 27), to ‘lay bare some of the processes of elision, reduction, and displacement’ (Hesford 2013, 14), to find approaches which can ‘conjure up its complex eventfulness’ (Hesford 14). How might these challenges be applied to locating Perth in Australian feminism?

Method

The provisional narrative I offer here of academic feminism in Perth is sourced from conversations with six academics over the summer of 2011/2012, each of whom have held tenured positions and taught Women’s Studies in Western Australian universities and are now retired, senior, or mid-career.  The conversations were informal and reciprocal (Roulston 2010), encouraging reflection on significant moments and stories that generate tales of Women’s Studies in the present tense. Like myself, all of the participants are white, indicating the institutional privilege of this demographic in Australia. Tenured academics were chosen for their knowledge of institutional politics and also the longevity of their experience. It was not expected that their experience and knowledge went unmediated by language (Scott 1991) nor by the dominant tropes of telling feminist stories; rather, the retelling could be expected to re/produce particular understandings of the recent past which, as Annette Kuhn reminds us, is constituted anew through memory and emotion (Kuhn 2010).

The substance of these conversations is gathered together in this paper through collectively generated narrative tropes. I identified and selected these tropes, so ultimately they serve my purpose in trying to make sense of this legacy and write about it, however a final draft was circulated for feedback before being submitted for publication. The terms ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ appointments are routinely used to differentiate between chronological locations and yet avoid generalisations about ‘waves’ or generations more broadly. A form of Hemmings’ citational practice is adopted by not attributing quoted phrases to specific respondents, but to indicate them through italics. Hemmings argues that citation is inevitably bounded by institutional and industry protocols so that feminist theories and histories turn into sagas about individual theorists and careers (2011, 17); here then, individuals’ stories are subsumed into the collective story of Women’s Studies in Western Australia to construct a larger hybridised tale.

1. Aslant in Perth

The title reference to Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘‘Tell all the truth / but tell it slant —’ was quoted by one of the respondents, and seemed particularly apt for speaking about the west coast of Australia where, in contrast to the usual set of national hegemonies, the sun sets over the ocean, the western suburbs are the most affluent, and ‘over east’ is the hub of national power. The complex relation of Western Australians to the eastern states seems driven by both derision and envy on both sides, manifesting in the west as a particularly dogmatic resilience and generative culture alongside a sense of abandonment. Stratton has described this as an ‘ideology of isolation’ (2008: 621), but colleagues who moved to Perth from elsewhere in the seventies talked about the fecundity of isolation:

There is something special and unique about being stuck on the south-west corner of the continent. Isolation had its positives: the potential to act on things; to create your own social environment; if you want something to happen you do it yourself. Because we are so far away and a small community we actually had to talk to each other, and do the inter-university thing that is more cooperative than competitive, because who would we talk to otherwise?

There was a palpable sense of counter-culture and a strong sense of an active women’s liberation movement in the late seventies and eighties who were responsible for establishing the women’s refuges, women’s health centres, and the rape crisis centre. There were groups like Feminists Anti-Nuclear Group (FANG) and the Sybil magazine collective that published through UWA, as well as a one-woman feminist lesbian library called Lespar kept by Karin Hoffman, who provided journals and texts for loan. These groups sat alongside more conservative organisations like the Women’s Electoral Lobby (see Sawer 2008) and before that the Perth-based Women’s Services Guild. A founding member of the Guild as well as the first woman to be elected to Parliament in Australia in 1920 is Edith Cowan – after whom the University is named – and Dianne Davison begins her history of the Women’s Services Guild with the claim that Perth was hailed as ‘the Mecca of the Women’s Movement in Australia’ in 1928 (Davison 1998: xiii). Early feminist academics spoke of an active feminist movement, characterised by people like Pat Giles in the unions (see Hopkins and Roarty 2010), Carmen Jacobson, and overlapping ghettos of politicians, trade unions, bureaucrats, Equal Employment Opportunity practitioners, Non-Government Organisation activists working around law reform, abortion, harassment, rape, and then higher education academics. There was also an older generation: from the Women’s Services Guild, from the Moratorium movement, Elsie Gore who was a neighbour of Katherine Susannah Prichard the writer and communist, and other Communist Party alliances who were still active. This connection to other feminist precincts was dialectical: academics served on community committees, and feminists from the community sector were invited to give lectures at university.

 

Perth in the seventies still had the Women’s Services Guild — still had Irene Greenwood: a previous generation of women who would come out and talk to the second generation of feminists. They were a wonderful resource and reconnected the next wave with their stories. It was very dynamic and we loved to be with each other and were generous and kind and cared for each other.

Feminists moved between universities, often contract teaching at several universities before landing tenurable positions, and we would meet up at the same functions and public lectures.

While an earlier respondent described this relation between academics with more circumspect as not being buddies who spent weekends together but we knew who we could draw on for support, later appointments have a looser sense of feminist affiliation and support. For one, evidence of this otherwise invisible support network was made apparent during the early nineties when the Perth Sunday Times newspaper headlined ‘Lesbian Mafia at Uni’ (1993) when reporting on the renowned ‘Rindos Affair’; too junior to know what exactly was happening, she remembers the structures of feeling which made visible a feminist solidarity on campus that overrode any previous conflicts. Later appointments have a sense of feminism in Perth as markedly academic, drawn from going round the universities to mention Cora Baldock, Jan Currie, Bev Thiele, Joan Eveline, Trish Crawford, Margaret Seares, Sandra Bowdler, Philippa Maddern, Pen Hetherington, and also public identities like journalist Susan Maushart and politician Melissa Parke. There was some hesitancy however about the tangibility of such collections, accompanied by a feeling of isolation now, that there were women’s scholarly networks but having never been interpolated into them, or perhaps my generation didn’t value it as much. Additionally one respondent observed that growing up in Perth meant personal networks were already established so there is less likelihood of seeking out others in the community. The geopolitical location of Perth then, features markedly in the reflections of earlier appointments and then becomes more institutionally based for later academics.

2. Genealogies

The four public universities in Perth and the personnel appointed have their own particularised histories and intellectual lineages that impact their directions and predilections. This is spoken of as complementary: Murdoch University has always been theoretically weighted and attracted higher percentages of mature-aged students; Edith Cowan University also attracted mature-aged students in its focus on preparing for work in feminist community-based agencies like women’s refuges and health centres; and the University of Western Australia has been associated with English and History since its initial postgraduate coursework program appealing to teachers looking to do further study. Curtin University ran the earliest program as a Graduate Diploma in 1980 when it was the Western Australian Institute of Technology (Bird 1982), but has not had a named course since its withdrawal. This differentiation is characterised as contributing to the high degree of collaboration between academic feminists in Perth, which is seen as a defining feature of WA, set in contrast to internecine battles between the factions seen at feminist conferences ‘over east’ when passion turned to vitriol. It was always a relief to come home from those conferences, one respondent remembered, suggesting that the solidarity of feminist academics in the west was somewhat quarantined from factions and disagreements that happen ‘elsewhere’. This discursive construction of Perth academic feminism as harmonious and collaborative supports the ideology of the west as ‘other’ in its isolation which actually produces new alliances and initiatives.

And yet there are strong ties with ‘eastern’ feminists and institutions through appointments and cross-institutional links. As one of the new universities created in the early seventies, Murdoch’s appointment of Frances Rowland (sister of Robyn Rowland who was key to Women’s Studies at Deakin University) in 1976, and then Beverley Thiele (who was one of the first Women’s Studies graduates from Flinders University, taught by Jean Curthoys) in 1977, and Cora Baldock’s international expertise brought in at senior level in 1979, is indicative of its early positioning as part of an academic feminist milieu. From 1976 Murdoch taught a first year ‘Woman in Society’ unit and ‘Sex, Psyche and Class’ in second year as part of its commitment to a broad liberal education, deliberately integrating the material in the degree rather than constituting a separate course according to historian Geoffrey Bolton (nd 36). Their degree in Women’s Studies was established in 1985 through cross-institutional collaboration with two other external education providers: Deakin University and the University of Queensland, after Cora Baldock and Robyn Rowland got talking at one of those famous conferences (Schaffer & Thiele 1991). This model, in which each institution offered units toward the degree through distance education, flourished until the mid 1990s, when government regulation of external education providers meant UQ ceased its external provisions. The success of the degree at Murdoch is partially attributed to its demographic, attracting higher numbers of mature-aged students and much higher numbers of women than the national average (Bolton 27). The philosophy and sociology but especially Marxist training of Women’s Studies academics at Murdoch contributes to its characterisation as decidedly theoretical and political, creating a highly politicised and vibrant student group.

By contrast, the University of Western Australia is the oldest and also the most conservative and elite of tertiary institutions in the state (Crawford and Tonkinson 1988; Eveline 2004) where Women’s Studies is associated with English and History. Historian Trish Crawford initiated the development of a coursework MPhil, which literary scholar Delys Bird was appointed to design and administer from 1983 and then coordinate and teach from 1985. For Bird, Adelaide feminists operated as a kind of model where things happened and where Women’s Studies and feminist work did have a space to operate. The Adelaide women were important as a really strong group of feminist scholars in the eighties. The MPhil waned when coursework fees were required by the federal government in the late nineties, but by then Jane Long was appointed in Women’s Studies in 1995 and developed an undergraduate major, largely cross-listed with English and History. The benefits of starting a major at this time expanded Women’s Studies to a new kind of student by embedding new technologies for teaching and learning and injecting it with that cultural studies sexiness. The latter earned derision about mickey mouse courses, so that we were continually insisting on its intellectual credibility, of having a highly developed theoretical base. Both UWA and Murdoch respondents emphasize the importance of senior male support (notably Deans Geoffrey Bolton and Brian de Garis), corresponding to the literature on the importance of senior men championing gender equity issues (see Gale 1999).

As a third generation university established in 1991 through the federal initiative to amalgamate teachers’ colleges, Edith Cowan University has always maintained a vocational orientation, naming its programs Applied Women’s Studies. Beginning as a minor in 1986 at WACAE (the Western Australian College of Advanced Education) by a cluster of academics in women’s health, counselling, social sciences and community development, it developed a degree program after Lekkie Hopkins was appointed coordinator in 1990 and maintained a Graduate Diploma for a decade from 1986 until 1996. Its disciplinary affiliations have been in Social Science and Community Development, and the major has sat alongside other programs preparing graduates to work in the community sector: Human Services, youth Work, Children and Family Studies, Disability Studies, and Social Work. While the program at ECU has moved around institutionally, these allegiances have always been maintained as it was always considered too hybrid to be aligned with traditional disciplines.

The Centre for Research on Women (CROW) was often cited as an exemplary achievement of the kind of support and cooperative feminist work between Perth universities. It began with a meeting of eight inter-university academics and with Fay Gale when she was Vice Chancellor of UWA (and only the second woman Vice Chancellor in Australia in 1990). A memorandum of agreement between the four universities was eventually signed to provide the funds to run the Centre from between 1993 and 2007. As a physical entity it was rotated between sponsoring institutions while it sought research grants for women-centred projects and employed researchers in those positions (Reid Boyd 2002). It ran cross-institutional workshops and postgraduate research days across the campuses. CROW employed a Director: initially Annie Goldflam, then shared with Elizabeth Reid Boyd, then finally Susan Hall. One respondent remembers having a board meeting for CROW sitting in Edith Cowan’s House and I had an incredible feeling of timelessnesss, of all these women sitting around the long table in what was Edith Cowan’s dining room. CROW organised the 1996 Australian Women’s Studies Association (AWSA) conference at UWA. Working together through CROW as well as various Boards of Studies created a sense of community and collaboration, cooperation and even cohesion, otherwise it was difficult to keep in contact with colleagues at other universities. And yet this feeling was also generalised and diffuse; it did not include cross-campus teaching or research although there were some great parties, and the exigencies of attending to consultative and collective procedures like deciding if it was research on women or research for women were tiring. No matter how difficult, though, a defining feature of Perth academic feminism is warmly and nostalgically remembered as its attention to feminist practices of collectivity and collaboration, and yet this group identity also intersected with individual reputations both at home and away.

3. Celebrity

For some academics the isolation of Perth meant that access to high profile feminist thinkers meant going elsewhere, and even the opportunity to meet up with each others often happened elsewhere. Some spoke of meeting other Perth academics at conferences on the east coast, and the necessity of going to those conferences to encounter feminist thought and high profile scholars. One noted a highlight of her career was meeting French philosopher Luce Irigaray in the UK and being able to discuss with her how her work was being taught and applied in Australia. Another spoke of encountering the formidable intellect and reputation of Perth academic Bev Thiele while studying in the UK, and being thrilled to meet and then work with her as a postgraduate after arriving in Perth. These kinds of flows disrupt the ‘isolation’ model of Western Australia, positioning it instead as part of the global cultural flows of feminist politics.

Memories of an otherwise makeshift intellectual economy, where we had to make do with each other are nevertheless punctuated by stories of famous people being brought to Perth. One occasion was the 1996 Australian Women’s Studies Association conference which drew 200 participants, including Chilla Bulbeck who had recently been appointed to a Chair of Women’s Studies at the University of Adelaide, with keynote speakers Jan Jindy Pettman, Joan Eveline (who was local) and Moira Gatens (Bulbeck n.d.). Other visits by scholars included Catherine Stimpson in the early nineties who was visiting doing some work for Fay Gale on women’s leadership and delivered a public lecture at UWA; Eva Figes who was terribly English and is remembered as creating some dissent; and Canadian poets Daphne Marlett and Betsy Warland whose poetry reading at the Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre caused some consternation with local writers unfamiliar with the feminist politics of lesbian poetry. Additionally there was a sense of the ways in which some people brought the world back home to Perth, as when historian Trish Crawford returned from the Berkshire Women’s History conference enthused by women’s history being taught and researched internationally. She was instrumental in bringing Joan Scott to Perth, as well as Phyllis Marsh and Lyndal Roper. Another academic’s involvement in UNESCO Women’s Studies in the last decade meant that the grievances of Women’s Studies diminishing in her institution, which she saw repeated at conferences in the UK, was turned upside down by the strong Asian membership and development of gender issues which are accelerating the significance of the discipline.

Famous people were also acknowledged in our own midst, especially by later appointments who were mentored by important pioneers with international reputations located in WA. As well as Bev Thiele’s formidable reach just mentioned, Trish Crawford was cited as another example, whose ground-breaking article in the 1980s on menstruation for Tudor women changed medieval history and had a profound impact on the next generation of students of history. There were also important feminist academics who emigrated to the east and beyond, with Anna Gibbs, Catherine Waldby, Suellen Murray, Zoe Sofoulis, Robyn Ferrell, Gail Jones, Pen Hetherington, Fiona Giles all mentioned. This movement of feminist thought and bodies across the nation and the globe to and from Perth is inevitably incomplete and yet suggests a complex set of networks generated through particular reputations and institutional structures.

4. Activism

If Women’s Studies is a form of academic activism, then it emerges in different forms across institutions and time. Perhaps because they established undergraduate programs earlier, Murdoch and ECU stressed their activist core in comparable ways through radical politics and training of activists for work in community development, respectively. Feminist academics who began teaching during the seventies and eighties clearly understood themselves to be part of a community of feminist activism. When asked who constituted Perth’s feminist community they mention politicians, bureaucrats, communist party alignments, NGO organisers, state policy makers and health professionals. They speak of their involvement on the board of women’s refuges, in the environmental and peace movements, campaigning against Tasmanian dams, attending Cockburn Sound Women’s Peace Camp in 1984 (just for a day – I had to teach), and Women’s Electoral Lobby meetings. Later in the nineties and into this century they are still involved in peace and environmentalism, on boards for multicultural women’s health services and community midwifery. They note that many of the connections made in those early days have gone on to make political careers or serve in other senior public positions.

A later generation of appointments however talked about the fantasy of activism as a legacy of the women’s movement. Specifically, one conversation referred to Nigel Cole’s 2010 film Made in Dagenham, about women workers at a British motor factory in 1968, as conveying a specific kind of warm-hearted fantasy of feminist activism that is no longer available or perhaps in currency now. Entering Women’s Studies as an academic at the turn of the millennium was propelled for this academic by an attraction to the conceptual, intellectual and scholarly questions of feminism and was not underpinned by an activist sensibility or interest. This was accompanied by a sense of guilt about not being a proper feminist because I didn’t do activism, and was also proposed as perhaps a reason for not feeling part of a feminist community. Another of this later generation of appointments articulated a similar sense of not belonging, of not looking like a feminist because … I’m blonde, of throwing out my Wonderbra at some stage and thinking ‘Am I really a feminist’? Personal doubts of not being good enough, of being found out, were accompanied by an understanding of a changed political and institutional context: Women’s Studies and feminism in Perth used to be more closely related before my time; there’d been genuine traffic between the university context and broader political context of women’s issues. They knew each other. Activism for these women haunted their feminism, and also their family photo album for one who grew up a little marcher. Our family tent was always on the news at the Tent Embassy in front of Parliament House. There are photos of my mother marching on the streets in the sixties. When asked to name local Perth feminists important to them, this generation mentioned academic supervisors, mentors, politicians, or a Buddhist theologian who modelled a more holistic feminism. One respondent accounted for this shift in the meaning of ‘activism’ as partially reactive – a result of being brought up feminist, and looking askance at everything, including orthodox feminism.

It is teaching, however, that was considered to be the most significant form of activism for almost all respondents and generations. From the seventies when lively debates and discussions were understood to be the feminist movement in tertiary education to postmodern debates and cultural studies when yes we can talk about Madonna, it is teaching that stirred every respondent.

 

I was involved in the Learning Centre movement in the seventies, having conversations with housewives about whether marriage was really about love, alongside the macramé and knitting courses. We made such a difference to the lives of so many women just by giving them that space in which they could think it through, think for themselves, all of that separatist feminist consciousness raising.

One academic talked about developing a practice of passionate pedagogy, which is not so much about being enlivened but about working with the body, about embodied learning, the inseparability of rationality, the passions and the life force, and the uses of the imagination in coming to know. This approach combines her experiences of the alternative education movement, feminism and poststructuralism. Another spoke animatedly of aligning her feminism with communication studies around encounters with the other and how you engage in dialogue. This engages me intellectually on a daily basis and that’s how I live my feminism. That’s my activism. And when I talk about this to students I can see the lights going on so they then think about it and take it out into the world.

The late undergraduate major at UWA in the nineties still had an activist ethos but was not social policy or activist based, and took a different turn in integrating new technologies as innovative teaching practices. The use of the online platform CHLOE (Communication and Hypertext Links for Online Education) was cutting edge technology in the late nineties developed exclusively for Women’s Studies students to interact online, skilling them in credible online research, developing one of the first prototypes of online lecture recording, serving as a repository and a portal to link easily to things that mattered. The site became host to the first online feminist journal in Australia when Outskirts: feminisms along the edge went from print to digital in 1998. While technology forged new pedagogical possibilities, students’ creative group assessment is arrestingly remembered for its radical transformation of office space:

 

there was a life size nude sculpture, with each body part modelled on a participant of the group; a poster on the impact of pornography on society that was highly visual and very confronting; a clothes rack of fetish clothing and lingerie dipped in plaster and hung on the rack - corsets, g-strings, bras, undies - my office looked like a Victoria’s Secret clothing store!

These conversations indicate that the way that activism can be understood and feminism lived for feminist academics has clearly changed from the times when the women’s movement was a visible force in Australia, and when Women’s Studies was an emergent part of that movement. Teaching however remains a primary source of satisfaction and activism for many: teaching is a really powerful position and I just treasure it.

Feelings differed on students’ receptiveness to activism over time. While many noted the absolute delight of postgraduate students, others were troubled by how to keep undergraduates really engaged now. There was a suggestion that students attracted to gender and cultural studies are terribly apolitical, interested in conversations about whether pole dancing is feminist empowerment. For others the adoption of cultural studies was a way for feminist units to become popular and of interest to students. One noted her demographic of students are from comfortable backgrounds: this is pedagogy for young white privileged students, which also mitigated against the kind of politicisation that we associate with the women’s movement in the past. As a strategy for reinvigorating Women’s Studies though, others reflected that Gender and Cultural Studies didn’t work, because people read ‘gender’ as ‘feminist’, and that’s what they object to. Rebadging as Gender Studies was described as a turning point which was both political and practical and served the needs of women: As the second generation came through we had changed the world for them and they were sassy, they were not oppressed.

 

There was a crucial conversation I had with a young radical student who looked at me and said the issue is different for us than it was for you. We don’t have to talk to each other, we don’t need to convince each other that there is a problem; what my generation need to do is to talk to men. We need a space where we can talk to men about gender and get them thinking about it, and Women’s Studies is about women. Gender Studies would make it so much easier.

5. Feminist Identities after Postmodernism

While the ‘arrival’ of postmodernism is often identified as profoundly divisive for feminists (Hemmings 2011; Papadelos 2010), its reception is remembered as not particularly hazardous nor emotional in Perth. One reported that renown critic of postmodernism Renate Klein had a fit when she heard we had a postmodernist reading in our unit: as if WA has given up feminism! Another academic did her doctorate in the nineties after a decade of teaching and fell in love with postmodernism, while another remarked that postmodernists think they invented all these ideas but feminists have thought about them for a long time. Nevertheless, postmodernism is also understood to be a change agent. While early appointments reflected on the exhilaration of teaching Women’s Studies — it felt like riding the crest of a wave — while also being a bit of a ghetto but that’s exactly what women students needed, theoretical interventions around identity inevitably reshaped the structural identity of Women’s Studies:

 

The postmodern turn brought a whole lot of men into the field. The conversation changed into what was the appropriate name. Women’s Studies was connected with grumpy frumpy angry harridans of the past. The younger women were saying it would be easier for us if it was Gender Studies. Plus the emergence of GLBTQ studies which needed a home.

The inevitable logic and yet palpable sense of loss articulated here highlights competing discursive allegiances but also the immediacy of global politics on local conditions. Reflecting on such changes, this early appointment suggests a realignment of thinking:

 

When you’re riding the crest of the wave you can’t see the trough; when you’re sitting in the trough looking at the waves recede you think, bugger, when’s the next one coming? So what do we do when we’re in the trough; what are trough politics like? They’re quite different to crest politics. I think they’re about consolidation and reflection, about recognising subtler and intangible forms of discrimination.

Indeed, many talked about mainstreaming feminist units and embedding feminist material as a strategy to counter the instability of the discipline – and in anticipation of retirement and not being replaced.

While this article positions its respondents as Women’s Studies academics, there is a much more tenuous sense of identity apparent individually as people shift in and out of Women’s Studies due to organisational rearrangements and industry conditions. Early appointments were remembered as opportunistic — being telephoned or left a job application at the right time, sometimes when the incumbent academic had gone on leave and never came back — while more recent appointments understand their position as much more provisional, exploring avenues outside of academic life as options to be nurtured like writing for newspapers, magazines, romance novels, or film-making. When Women’s Studies started to dwindle I knew that it wasn’t necessarily going to be able to sustain my career, in the way that it has previous generations – because it’s so different now. I’m in my early forties and I thought ‘What am I going to do’? Even for senior academics positions change. One respondent talked about being a good campus citizen: accepting committee membership, taking on high profile responsibilities and now finding herself to be the repository of corporate knowledge in her institution. This commitment to campus life has meant being in positions from which to advocate for Women’s Studies but also having to authorise its demise in a profoundly disturbing clash of personal and professional commitments. I walked out of that meeting feeling so destroyed — it still brings tears to my eyes — I walked around the perimeter of the University in the bush and just sobbed. Another senior academic chose a contrasting route to actively position herself under the radar and on the margins of the institution as a form of self preservation. Feminist identity in contemporary universities can be understood as provisional and multiply aligned, but Women’s Studies itself is now a legacy of the past, superceded by Gender Studies or unaligned units.

Structural Limits of Feeling

If there is one memorable factor about these conversations collectively it is the feelings that infused them, confirming Hemmings’ argument that ‘feminist emotion … is central to the feminist stories we tell, and the way that we tell them’ (2005, 120). Some women spoke animatedly — even gleefully — recounting the excitement, the audacity, the hard work of teaching Women’s Studies which was wickedly fun and intellectually incredibly lively. I am so lucky to have had the bulk of my life teaching Women’s Studies. It was the best fun in my academic life. These buoyant reflections were tempered by grief at the loss of the discipline, and industrial exhaustion from endless challenges, being constantly embattled to justify the existence of Women’s Studies with the corporate turn. This seems to be exacerbated by colleagues who strategically pulled out of Women’s Studies, imminent retirements, and forced conditions in which some tend not to teach that much Women’s Studies anymore. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it. Some of these narrative threads mirror other accounts of Women’s Studies in Australia, which has often been a story of individual efforts to keep programs alive amidst institutional resistance or neglect (see D’Cruz 2012). This apparent linear trajectory of success or failure seems more diffuse now, as academics at all levels are interpolated into institutional discourses and practices which often regulate their own discipline into disappearing (see also Currie, Thiele & Harris 2002). The feelings that structure such regulatory practices are no less felt: as Hemmings notes in relation to competing stories of feminism: ‘It hurts because it matters, when we are passionately invested in academic feminist practice’ (2005, 120).

In shaping a narrative of Women’s Studies in WA over four universities and forty years, I have relied on these structures of feeling to produce stories, images, and collective tropes through which a collective history might be animated by these six conversations. There are, however, limitations to this method. In privileging a collective narrative, the contribution of specific people and their circumstances are neglected, disappearing into the group story. The group of women I spoke with are those with institutional privilege: those I was unable to speak with and all of those casual sessional staff over the last four decades may well have stories with other slants in different grammatical registers. In writing up the themes I carefully stepped over the battle metaphors and worked around the generational tropes that are so deeply embedded that they are part of the language of memory in feminism. Dismantling these narratives is hard work, but their resilience and affective weight leave traces which, I believe, need to be left. To find new ways in which to represent and write the recent feminist past means attending to those slants in spite of their limitations.  Nostalgia, loss and grief were viscerally evident in the conversations, alongside an archive of other feelings, as Ann Cvetkovich so articulately terms it (2003), which are constitutive of the recent feminist past actively produced through memory and reflection. Recognising these established narratives and their emotional registers becomes part of the tension between listening to and constructing a history of the academic feminism in Western Australia. These conversations and the clusters I have shaped them into here offer multiple and sometimes competing accounts of the past, affirming the indeterminacy of historical narratives and unsettling desire for an authoritative, reliable, or singular account. Instead, it is multiply narrated relying on discursive connections and thematic entanglements to enrich and honour the past of Women’s Studies in Western Australia, which is reproduced and also transformed through memory and its articulation, as well as through this article as just one form of memorialisation.

Acknowledgements:

My thanks to my co-conversationalists: Professor Bev Thiele, Honorary Research Fellow Delys Bird, Dr Lekkie Hopkins, Professor Jane Long, Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd, Dr Chantal Bourgault.

 

 

 


References

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