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Nonie Harris and Joanne Baker

Further information

About the author

Dr Nonie Harris is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Community Welfare at James Cook University. Her research focuses on feminist methodology, feminist theory, mothering and child care policy in cross-national contexts.

Dr Joanne Baker is the Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies and a Lecturer in the Department of Social Work and Community Welfare at James Cook University. She has written about the impact of neo-liberalism on young women's lives, with a particular emphasis on their understanding of and identification with feminism.

Publication details

Volume 19, November 2008

Connecting, Collaborating and Surviving:
The Story of a Women's Studies Centre in the Australian Tropics.

Neo-liberal conservatism dominates the contemporary Australian political landscape. Many Women’s Studies programs across the country have either been closed down or been renamed as gender or sexuality studies, potentially decentring a focus on women. In Australia, Women’s Studies programs were initially established with an agenda that embraced activism and social change both within the academy (as a key site for knowledge generation) and in the larger society (Ryan 1991). The goals of academic feminism reflected the goals of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Dickinson 2005; Mulvey 1992). For example, early Second Wave activists such as Marilyn Salzman-Webb (1972) identified that feminist learning is for ‘acting on the world’. In 1979 Adrienne Rich commended “the emerging field of Women’s Studies for offering a ‘women-directed education’ that transforms curricula and develops critical thinking about androcentric scholarship and society” (Rich cited in Sahlin 2005:164). Rich’s comment implies that the role of Women’s Studies is to journey beyond the academy with a mission to transform. Whilst Rich’s vision has continuing relevance, the contemporary challenges to such liberationary ideals are profound.

In this paper we describe a Women’s Studies journey beyond the academy and into the community – a boundary crossing that has in many ways been the essence of Women’s Studies history. Today, we argue, this is also a pragmatic and innovative response to neo-liberal challenges to structural feminist analysis and activism. We assume that Women’s Studies is a “politics which is about mobility, crossing boundaries; it is transgressive and adopts multiple forms” (Campbell 1992:16). We also assume that Women’s Studies is a subversive, feminist project that offers the possibility of using the academy to liberate.

Specifically, we will explore the benefits of a collaborative relationship between the Centre for Women’s Studies at James Cook University in Townsville and a group of local feminist activists (the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda) in our local community. The Townsville region is situated on the Northern tropical coast of Queensland, Australia. Townsville relies on a variety of industries such as pastoral, mining, tourism and defence. This geographic location, though economically and industrially male centred and geographically isolated, has provided the Centre for Women’s Studies with unique opportunities to collaborate and connect with a strikingly vibrant and active feminist community. Although replication of this context is not a necessary requirement for learning and benefiting from our experiences, possibilities for connecting, collaborating and surviving exist in the many locations Women’s Studies finds itself, and we believe our experiences are applicable beyond our own distinct context. We also wish to underscore just how much the life and longevity of individual programs can depend on very local conditions.

This paper contributes to other documented histories of Women’s Studies in the Australian context (for example Bulbeck 2006; Caine 1998 and Curthoys 1998). We also intend in this paper to contribute to the ongoing debate about the location (both within and outside the academy) and the sustainability of Women’s Studies. Our contribution is particularly relevant in the current socio-political climate – a climate that, feminists such as Chilla Bulbeck (2005) have argued, is inhospitable for feminist activism, whether located in the academy or in the community. In her review of Australian feminism since the 1950s, Gisela Kaplan provided advice on how feminists might meet this challenge. She suggests that feminists should use the current political location of the movement as a time for reflection and auditing, for “keeping feminism going” (1996:194). Australian political activist and scholar Sarah Maddison (2002) supports this argument and maintains that the role of feminists in a dispersed and marginalised movement is to sustain ideologies and networks, and preserve political space for more opportune times. What is described in this article is one way in which activism has been fostered and networks have been kept intact.

We also aim to contribute to the discussion about the future direction of Women’s Studies programs by identifying and documenting the current complex contexts of Women’s Studies in Australia. In other words we assume that a full understanding of the current location of Women’s Studies is fundamental to creating a vision for its future.. However, we also maintain that it is important to situate any discussion about the present positioning of Women’s Studies in a review of the history of Women’s Studies – acknowledging the historical and political construction of current contexts is a valued feminist priority.

Women’s Studies in Australia

In this review of Women’s Studies in Australia we begin by documenting an historical trail, highlighting how the socio-political context has shaped and continues to shape Women’s Studies programs. We have not provided a complete historical account, but rather we have focused on the central debates of the time, and situated these debates within broader theoretical discussions. What signifies the Australian context as unique is an historical moment of opportunity in the 1970s when activist women working within a progressive federal government provided a strong foundation for the establishment of Women’s Studies programs in Australia’s publicly funded University system. In more recent times this feminist presence within the federal government has been under attack. Former Australian Government advisor on women’s issues, Anne Summers, argues that equality between men and women is no longer a priority for governments: “The federal government has abolished or enfeebled all of the agencies that once argued for women’s equality and monitored women’s progress” (2003:6). In this political climate an academic focus on the lives and achievements of women has become increasingly difficult for feminists to defend against ‘post feminist’ mainstream agendas.

The Historical Context

The position of women’s knowledge within the Australian academy has been and still is contested ground. In the early 20th Century Virginia Woolf identified women as outsiders in their society – they were excluded, she maintained, from professional and political institutions (Caine 1995). Although Woolf identified women’s exclusion from key social institutions, she did not consequently seek their inclusion. Woolf argued that exclusion from these phallocentric organisations provided women with opportunities for much greater freedoms. Her argument, however, was not consistent with the goals of her feminist contemporaries who had long fought for participation in established social institutions. These conflicting views were also present in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Early debates among feminists focused on whether Women’s Studies should be situated within the academy or in the community sector (Matthews and Broom 1992). However, in the 1970s, the final placement of Women’s Studies in various locations within the academy was often a pragmatic response to unwelcoming or ambivalent tertiary institutions, rather than the outcome of considered feminist debate. So Women’s Studies has and does engage with problematic institutions that can either curtail or potentially increase women’s freedom (Stacey, Phoenix and Hinds 1992). Beatrix Campbell (1992) argues, however, that these contradictions and ambiguities can also provide a flexible and supple strength, and opportunities for innovative practice and feminist leadership.

According to Ryan (1991), Women’s Studies in Australia developed in three phases. Each phase, its central activity and particular issues and concerns are summarised in Table 1. The main debate of the 1972-1991 period is clearly summarised by Crowley: “whether the study of women should be pursued as an autonomous project, … or whether it should be located within the mainstream and conducted throughout combative engagement with the disciplines” (1999:131). What was not up for debate, however, was the importance of the study of women.

Phase Activity Issues and Concerns
1972-1982: Revolutionary feminism verses liberal feminism Women’s Studies topics in Universities were developed as a result of student agitation. There were two responses: women and … topics offered within existing structures (liberal/integrated) or the creation of a new interdisciplinary area called Women’s Studies (revolutionary/separate). Women are seen as a unified group with a common experience. The creation of interdisciplinary Women’s Studies required revolutionary action and most universities only offered women and … topics. In the late 1970s funds for the tertiary sector decreased and Women’s Studies missed this early opportunity to consolidate. The existence of both forms was precarious.
1983-1988:  Academic feminism Women’s Studies was recognised as part of the women’s movement and universities began to be seen as sites of complex political struggle and feminist transformation. Though Women’s Studies achieved intellectual legitimacy and some level of consolidation it still lacked organization as a professional area in the tertiary sector. Research and programs were funded by ‘soft’ money.
1989-1991:  Women’s Studies post Dawkins reforms* The establishment of a professional Women’s Studies organization, increasing research diversity and identifiable models of Women’s Studies programs. The establishment of a professional Women’s Studies organization, increasing research diversity and identifiable models of Women’s Studies programs.    Competition rather than cooperation became the mode of operation in the tertiary sector. Teaching practices became less revolutionary and tailored to respond to changing student profiles. Some programs expand but others flounder, and lack of consolidation and funding certainty are still major issues. (Sources: Allen, 1991; Ryan, 1991)
*Dawkins reforms: A 1998 higher education policy shift resulting in the amalgamation of tertiary institutions and the reconceptualisation of the sector as a service industry (Westerhuis, 2006).

Women’s Studies vulnerability during this 1972-1991 period and perhaps through to today was powerfully and simply described by Ryan: “Women’s Studies in Australia has been a series of individual struggles with no resources” (1991:5). The positioning of Women’s Studies within the arts, humanities and social sciences added to this vulnerability. When, in the 1990s, the pressures of economic rationalism on universities grew the ‘masculine’ science and business disciplines were favoured – where “stress on ‘efficiency’ tended to be read by senior executives in higher education as looking ill for Women’s Studies, located at the bottom of the heap – meta-useless, non-vocational” (Allen 1991:9).

However, Ryan also makes a point rarely made by her contemporaries. She argues that the strength and resilience of Women’s Studies in Australia, from 1972 to 1991, came from the close association of Women’s Studies with the women’s refuge and health movements and also with feminists in the federal bureaucracy. Women’s Studies was pre-occupied with the non-academic world and these links were fundamental to the creation and survival of Women’s Studies. Connection and collaboration between feminists in the community, government and Women’s Studies has been an enduring, though often unacknowledged, theme throughout the evolution and early years of Women’s Studies programs. Through these connections much feminist academic work has been rooted in the materiality of women’s lives and has maintained an activist agenda that aimed to change the lives of all women. At the same time feminist scholarship happening within the academy was now confirmed, at times problematically, as the intellectual arm of the women’s movement (Crowley 1999). For instance, authors such as Ellen Messer-Davidow (2002) have argued that the academic institutionalisation of feminist scholarship resulted in its taming, or ‘disciplining’. There was, therefore, a potential for Women’s Studies to become disconnected from its political roots.

Recent Challenges

In Australia, North America and the United Kingdom, Women’s Studies academics have written extensively on the challenges for Women’s Studies programs operating in increasingly conservative contexts both within and outside the academy (Kenway and Langmead 1999; Morrison, Bourke and Kelley 2005; Scott 1997; Skeggs 1995). These challenges exist in a context where there is an active backlash against women specific programs and against feminism in general. Women’s Studies programs are, therefore, constantly negotiating their location within often-unsympathetic academic and social institutions (Sahlin 2005). These struggles are carried out, particularly in the USA, under the growing influence of the political right – where neo-liberalism’s mantra of choice is used to challenge Women’s Studies and ‘left-wing’ programs on the basis that they are sites that undermine academic freedom and intellectual diversity (Wood and Schneider 2006). This right wing attack fits well with a conservative economic rationalist agenda, most relevant to Australia, that has led to the de-funding and hyper-regulation of the higher education sector to the benefit of “those areas (within the institutions) that meet conservative objectives” (Bystydzienski, Bloom, Rice, Licona and Daly 2004:2).

The establishment and growth of Women’s Studies in Australian universities has “spanned a period of enormous change in universities themselves, changes which have brought the massification and commodification of education globally” (Crowley 1999:144). Since the inception of universities in Australia there have been two major shifts in the ideological assumptions that inform university governance. In the 1970s when the first Women’s Studies programs were established Australian public universities were described as “egalitarian and democratic” (Westerhuis 2006:7). In 1988 Australian universities were restructured and economic rationalist and neo-liberal principles reshaped the sector (Magarey and Sheridan 2002) – resulting in the commercialisation and privatisation of universities. For some Women’s Studies programs survival in this market-driven, conservative landscape is now linked to economic viability based on student demand, potentially undermining the value placed on intellectual integrity and feminist scholarship.

Student demand for radical education however, is a fragile foundation for the economic security of Women’s Studies – particularly in a neo-liberal context that values individual narratives and discourages the critical analysis of social structures. The concerns that underlie this fragility are manifest in claims about young women’s rejection of overt feminism in academic settings. For example, ‘Don’t be so feminist’ (Webber 2005) and ‘Stop making it such a big issue’ (Morrison, Bourke and Kelley 2005) are the titles of North American articles that explore student responses to feminist content in higher education and encapsulate the commonality of resistance to it. Jordan Titus argues that resistance to feminist discussion may serve to "avoid any closer examination of their own lives" so resistance "offers some degree of emotional protection" (2000:27). She also notes that female students hold to the notion of a meritocracy and 'having it all'.

A significant number of authors have noted the incursion of neo-liberalism into universities. For example, Jane Kenway and Diana Langmead (1999) describe the struggle to undertake feminist work in conditions that, while increasingly hostile to it, increase the need for it. Joan Wallach Scott (1997) is concerned that individualism challenges the discipline of Women’s Studies through its de-legitimation of the conceptualisation of women as a group with shared needs and interests that merit collective attention. Wendy Brown (1997) also considers that Women’s Studies courses are vulnerable when the coherence of the object of its study is destabilised. The influence of neo-liberal individualism therefore has consequences for the ongoing feasibility of the academic discipline of Women’s Studies (already manifest in the move to ‘gender studies’) and, more broadly, for the acceptance of radical feminist and other structural forms of feminist theory.

Further, feminist scholars argue that it is important to recognise as potentially problematic the location of Women’s Studies programs as separate entities within higher education institutions, and that this location can create situations where the energies of feminist faculty and staff are channelled “toward the creation of isolated Women’s Studies programs instead of intentionally designing university wide curricula explicitly aimed at resisting women’s social conditioning and developing critical thinking about social inequalities” (Sahlin 2005:164). Sahlin continues by arguing that an important implication of the siloing of Women’s Studies is that the institution can use the isolated location as a containment strategy (allowed to exist on the margins) thus undercutting the transformative mission of Women’s Studies.

Orr and Lichtenstein distinctly summarise what these contexts mean for the ‘on the ground’ operation of many Women’s Studies programs: “Most who work within the discipline are located in institutions with heavy teaching loads, ‘high needs’ students, administrative mandates that limit the content or scope of their programs, and without resources – particularly time for research and reflection” (2004:1). Even though it is important to recognise, as Mulvey reminds us, that it is not only Women’s Studies that exists in this oppressive environment but that “feminists of all persuasions are working within this context and struggling with these pressing issues in different ways” (1992:513). In this context collaboratively organising for change makes sense.

Surviving in the Tropics

The story of the survival of the Centre for Women’s Studies here in the Australian tropics has in many ways been what Ryan (1991) described as an individual struggle with few resources. Since its establishment in 1994 the Centre’s survival has been a priority project for committed feminists from the academy and the community – connecting, collaborating and boundary crossing have been the themes that have inspired this feminist work. The Centre was originally established as an independent entity located within the Faculty of Arts. The formation of the Centre was supported by feminist academics and administrators, and committed women in the local community. Community collaboration, interdisciplinary scholarly activities and attention to the unique needs of the Centre’s geographic location were fundamental principles of the Centre. The purpose of the Centre was to provide through research and teaching an interdisciplinary exploration of women’s achievements and roles in society. The Centre’s independence meant that academic and administrative staff from other disciplines were allocated to the Centre, there was a re-current budget adequate to fund their activities and a Director, Management Committee and Advisory Committee managed the Centre.

The Centre for Women’s Studies was created as an autonomous entity, meeting the criteria of a revolutionary/separate project rather than a ‘women and …’ add on to existing University offerings (liberal/integrated) (Allen 1991; Ryan 1991). The location of the Centre as an independent, revolutionary entity within the Faculty of Arts meant the Centre’s position, as with other similar programs across Australia, was precarious and vulnerable to the conservative economic and philosophical agendas of recent Australian governments. The growing neo-liberal hegemony which brought in the new demands of university privatisation, commercialisation and cost cutting, placed increasing pressure on the Centre’s existence and in 1997, under massive university restructuring, the Centre was disestablished as an independent entity. Consequently the Centre lost its funding and staff allocation. At this moment of crisis feminist university staff, facilitated by the Dean of Arts, sought to save the Centre by re-locating it within the well established School of Social Work and Community Welfare. The resources of the School were now used to support and fund the activities of the Centre.

The location of the Centre within another School has provided both challenges and opportunities. The Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in general are particularly vulnerable to cost cutting motivated by an economic rationalist agenda, and indeed this has been the experience of the School of Social Work and Community Welfare. Consequently the resources of the Centre, in terms of staff time and financial resources have diminished. But there have also been the opportunities for flexible and innovative practice that Campbell (1992) imagined. Women’s Studies’ pre-occupation with the non-academic world and a strong commitment to a structural analysis of social injustice was a good fit with the social change agenda of the School of Social Work and Community Welfare – there was a shared radical vision. Staff commitment to and support for the resourcing of the Centre were motivated by this vision. Boundary crossing between academic institution and community was an implicit assumption in this shared endeavour between Women’s Studies and Social Work and Community Welfare and proved to be fertile ground for community collaboration.

Community Collaboration, Crossing Boundaries and Creating New Sites for Feminist Activism

We found limited literature that focused specifically on collaboration between Women’s Studies programs and community based feminist activists. Ailbhe Smyth’s (1996) edited collection of papers from a Women’s Studies conference in Ireland documents examples of collaboration between the academy and locally based women’s groups. The papers document the ways in which specific alliances have traversed the dividing lines, such as religion, ethnicity, and geographical location that can prevent women’s collective work for social change. More recently, Toman explored the link between Women’s Studies programs and grassroots feminist organisations in Lebanon, the Balkans and the Palestinian Territories. Her powerful article makes a number of points relevant to our own story of community connection. Toman argues that the main aim of Women’s Studies is to “create outreach opportunities beyond the university classroom in order to make a difference in one’s community” (2006:55). This assertion reminds us that the Women’s Studies activist agenda remains as important today as it was at the inception of the Women’s Studies vision in the 1960s and 1970s. Mulvey links the Women’s Studies activist agenda to collaboration with the community-based feminist movement, arguing that this connection “is essential to the continued authenticity and vitality of Women’s Studies” (1992:507). Women’s Studies emerged from the grass-roots women’s movement and Women’s Studies should, therefore, sustain its engagement with this ‘bridging’ project: “Activists who come together both in the field and in a university classroom truly are working to bridge gaps between generations, social classes, and those with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds” (Toman 2006:66). Of course the dichotomy of community and academia has been exposed as a false binary as many women working in academia have community involvement and many women in the community have histories with universities.

Feminist scholarship has, in part, focused on collaboration within or across academic institutions or on the transfer of knowledge generated from within academic institutions to promote social change and equality in the community. bell hooks does, however, make some broader statements about boundary crossing that are relevant to this paper. She argues that dialogue is the simplest and most effective way to cross borders and also to demonstrate that solidarity does exist across locations. Such acts of dialogue challenge public assumptions about divisions between groups and highlight “those powerful moments when boundaries are crossed, differences confronted, discussion happens and solidarity emerges” (1994:130). hooks also argues that we need concrete examples of collaboration and border crossing that challenge conservative assumptions about isolation and division: “Without these counter-examples I felt we were all in danger of losing contact, of creating conditions that would make contact impossible” (1994:130). Our aim in this paper is to offer one such example.

Connecting and Collaborating

Since 2002 the Centre for Women’s Studies and a group of feminist activist women from the local community (known as the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda) have collaborated on projects and activities. These have raised the profile and enhanced the reputation of the Centre within the University community, and provided Women’s Studies students with an enriched academic experience. The collaboration has involved co-sponsoring an international women’s conference and a winter institute for women (which also facilitated collaboration with indigenous women), the creation of an adjunct position for a local feminist activist within the Centre, and the provision of guest lectures by local activist women to Women’s Studies students.

Before describing in more detail some of these specific collaborative projects, it is worth considering some of the ideological and organisational features of the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda. The Coalition is an activist group comprising four women who believe that a feminist analysis and the centring of women’s voices are essential to developing a just global agenda. The group have focused their energies on organising courses and events based on feminist principles with the key aim of encouraging networking and the forming of local and global alliances in a world where women are being increasingly isolated. This insistence on feminism’s continuing (and arguably, increasing) significance challenges prevailing views about its demise and contemporary irrelevance. At regular intervals throughout history, the claim has been made that feminism is dead and has run its course, spurned by younger women. Indeed, as historian Jane Long has noted, there has been “a steady stream of writing which debated the extent to which feminism was allegedly unravelling along the seams of youth and age” (2001:8). However, in contrast to the large body of literature and public debate about age-based divisions in the feminist movement (for example Denfeld, 1995; Roiphe, 1994; Summers, 1994), its four members span four decades (from a thirty something to a sixty something).

The four Coalition members share a theoretical and activist orientation to radical feminism where its central problematic is its identification of and opposition to male supremacy (Thompson 2001). This has meant maintaining a focus on systemic, structural issues such as violence against women, poverty, and the sexualisation and commodification of women. As has been discussed in this article, this direction is sharply at odds with contemporary institutional responses to women that are guided by the principles of gender neutrality, mainstreaming and the decentring of feminist structural analysis in favour of post-modern interpretive modes of inquiry (Brodribb 1992).

Given the incompatibility of these prevailing trends with the ideology and activism of the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda, it has been necessary for the group’s events to be independent and largely self-funded so that their radical feminist focus would not be diluted. A detailed description of the first event organised by the group provides an example of the approach. The International Women’s Conference was held in 2002 with the theme of ‘Poverty, Violence and Women’s Rights: Setting a Global Agenda’. Professional conference organisers and large-scale institutional ‘ownership’ of the event were rejected in favour of self-funding and hands-on organisation, recalling Virginia Woolf’s assertion that there can be benefits to remaining outside institutional constraints. The Coalition has a particularly strong feminist network and history of grassroots activism (for example see McLean 1994 for a description of the community-driven development of women's services in the area). This network was drawn on to provide hard-working and committed ‘circles of support’. The local Feminist Collective discussion and activist group that meets monthly and has been in existence for twenty years formed an ‘inner circle’ of support to the conference. Contributions from these local women and from local women’s services began with donations of seed funding, loans and pledges of creative, emotional and practical help. An ‘outer circle’ of women around Australia and overseas offered their wisdom and spread the word about the conference through their networks. The Centre for Women’s Studies became a part of this network of support. This was not an indiscriminate alignment. There has been a history of interconnectedness between the Centre and local feminist activists. For example one of the authors of this paper, the current Director of the Centre for Women’s Studies is also a member of the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda. The connection between the Centre and the Coalition has been characterised by a shared commitment to addressing continuing structural disadvantage confronting women and working for social change.

In addition to the forging of positive ideological connections, the co-sponsoring of the conference by the Centre for Women’s Studies brought some practical benefits. The conference benefited from the legitimacy that can be conferred by affiliation with an academic institution. It also meant that the conference could be held on the University campus – minimising venue costs and raising the profile of the Centre across the University community. Without significant overheads required for the venue or professional conference organising fees, the majority of income from registrations was directed to bringing a generous number of keynote speakers to the International Women’s Conference. The nineteen invited speakers included Christine Delphy from France, Merilyn Tahi from Vanuatu, Imrana Jalal from Fiji, Ruchama Marton from Israel and Renate Klein, Kerry Tim, Jocelynne Scutt and Sheila Jeffreys from Australia. As soon as the costs of holding the conference were covered by registration payments, attention turned to sponsoring travel and waiving fees for Indigenous Australian and other marginalised women from Australia and overseas who would otherwise not be able to attend. The conference was vibrant and successful, attended by over 400 women from 22 countries.

The Internet was the key medium through which the conference was promoted. Although this was supplemented by small numbers of leaflets and postcards, it proved to be a time and cost-effective means of networking, allowing the organisers to cross geographical boundaries. Scholars such as Dale Spender (1995) have noted the potential of web-based connection and activism. The desire for ongoing networking and support between participants at this first conference led the Coalition to set up an international email discussion list – f-agenda – that still continues strongly in 2008.

Following the achievements of the conference, in 2004 the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda organised the Winter Institute for Women as an opportunity for participants to delve more deeply into some of the topics touched on at the Conference. This intensive week-long study program offered opportunity for participants to develop a stronger feminist analysis of issues crucial to women in the 21st Century including prostitution and the sex industry, domestic violence, feminist ethics and issues for refugee women. Women’s Studies postgraduate students were able to participate in the Institute as part of their coursework program – this drew more students into the Women’s Studies degrees and reinforced the community’s perception that the discipline of Women’s Studies in the academy is engaged with diverse areas of feminist scholarship. This collaboration has been underpinned by the belief that feminist research and thought must contribute to and be informed by individuals and groups outside of the academy in a mutually beneficial and reciprocal process.

An International Feminist Summit was also held in July 2007, ‘Women of Ideas: Feminist Thinking for a New Era’. Again, this event involved collaboration and support between the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda and the Centre for Women’s Studies. So border crossing continues to be an enduring theme for the discipline of Women’s Studies at James Cook University. This collaboration has been and remains a purposeful journey beyond the academy that aims to strengthen the position of the Centre for Women’s Studies within the University. However, this is not only a story of negotiating location within an unsympathetic academic institution (Sahlin, 2005), it is also a story of subversive activity and using the academy as a site for “keeping feminism going” (Kaplan 1996:194). For example the Centre’s collaboration with the Coalition for a Feminist Agenda appropriates the University’s conservatively motivated community engagement strategy and strongly positions the Centre as relevant to the University’s strategic plan. Further and more broadly this collaborative boundary crossing actively challenges neo-liberalism’s power to diminish and isolate women centred intellectual endeavour and to reinforce the individualised nature of Women’s Studies struggles. We also argue that this collaboration has been an essential to the Centre’s activist agenda and for the authenticity and vitality of our program – a true ‘bridging’ project (Mulvey 1992; Toman 2006).


The journey that we have described is that of an individual Centre for Women’s Studies in a specific geographical, academic and political location. However, there are elements of this journey that are applicable beyond the particularities of this experience. Strategising about our Women’s Studies program has demanded a thorough engagement with its previous history and the nature of its current context. It is likely that similar reflections would benefit Women’s Studies elsewhere. Also, understanding the simultaneous impact of post-modern and neo-liberal ideologies has underpinned many of our approaches to survival. Whilst these dominant views will manifest themselves in different ways in various contexts, their destabilising of structural, social justice oriented approaches to social change is consistent and widespread. Strong, persistent local feminist activism, in conjunction with our location in a sympathetic and nurturing academic School provided a platform for our resistance. Political alliances provide a potent challenge to venerated individualism. The establishment of constructive connections defied the barriers to collective movements and promoted solidarity in common quests for social change. While we suggest that seeking out compatibly motivated activist groups and community connections is likely to benefit Women’s Studies elsewhere, we do not propose that others should necessarily seek to replicate our experience. Rather we wish to emphasise the importance of thinking and acting strategically in one’s own context. Essentially, our experience has impressed upon us the salience of location – “Women’s Studies depends on large part on where it is experienced and what about it is valued’ (Orr and Lichtenstein 2004:3). Orr and Lichtenstein maintain further that location is a significant issue when assessing the ‘current incarnation’ of Women’s Studies and also when assessing the politics of location within current contexts.

Alliances such as we have described are also potentially problematic. A lack of funding forces Women’s Studies programs to adopt cross-disciplinary approaches that draw on the good will of committed feminists, which is no doubt beneficial, but reduces the incentive for institutions to fund full time core Women’s Studies staff (Dickinson, 2005). Such approaches can also contribute to a dynamic that replicates an unpaid model of caring to a teaching setting. However, we advocate thinking strategically and pragmatically in one’s own context. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we also think our story has been one about continuing activism in a time of abeyance. As Grey and Sawer (2008) have argued, in both Australian and international contexts, social movements such as feminism use a variety of strategies to nurture and sustain themselves between peaks of widespread public interest. What we have described here is a pragmatic response – specific concrete activities that maintain feminism through conservative times – ensuring that although the women’s movement is marginalised from the mainstream political environment, feminist activism is still strong and creative. So even though the women’s movement is in abeyance, new sites of activism are emerging and new links between feminists are being formed. We believe redefining Women’s Studies can be about developing a theme of connectedness – connection is more and more a feminist story – connecting in creative ways. These links have meant that The Centre for Women’s Studies, in remote tropical Australia, has survived – and by connecting and collaborating new sites for feminist activism and resistance have been created.


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