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Lekkie Hopkins

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Volume 5, November 1999

On Writing a Poststructuralist Feminist Thesis

My doctoral thesis (called Finding a Voice: an exploration of relationships between feminist poststructuralist scholarship and feminist activism at the dawn of the new millennium in Australia) explores relationships between poststructuralist feminist scholarship and feminist activism. It draws explicitly on my reading of Drusilla Modjeska's fictionalised biography, Poppy, to write a version of the process of finding a voice - of giving life to a story and a story to a life - as experienced by my central participant, Sandy Newby, a mature aged university graduate inspired by feminist scholarship to try to carry feminist knowledges into the arena of trade union activism. In uncovering and attempting to use narrative processes similar to those used by Modjeska, the thesis provides space for me to reflect upon my role as researcher/biographer, as well as upon the nature of my own feminist pedagogy in this post-paradigmatic world, and to attempt to generate new discursive practices to illuminate the pedagogy / praxis relationship. In this paper I reflect on some of the proceses of researching and writing the thesis.

Background to the study

In 1990, as a newly appointed feminist academic in the Applied Women's Studies programme of one of the universities in Western Australia, I developed a passion for Drusilla Modjeska's fictionalised biography, Poppy. I had been an avid reader of feminist fiction and of women's history for two decades, but had rarely felt satisfied by biographical writing. Here at last was a combination of biography and fiction whose complexity approximated life's. It was a text redolent with possibility, where gaps and spaces seemed to come alive, where the life lived off the pages of the book seemed as imaginatively real as the life played out within them and yet where the desire for ongoing story kept me as reader moving onwards to a not-yet-determined future.

I first encountered Poppy on my way home from a particularly disturbing Women's Studies conference in Melbourne in July 1990, where postmodernist tensions were in the air, and the price of feminists' postmodernist stance was seen by some to be a kind of paralysis, a total lack of agency. I already had a slender acquaintance with Irigaray, Kristeva and Foucault, but the connections between my own teaching practice and these scholars' fascinating accounts of fractured identities, multiple discourses and the dissolution of master narratives were not clear to me. I was intrigued by Poppy's postmodern feel: its elision of boundaries, its refusal of binary oppositions, and its capacity to interweave intricate personal detail with broad, sweeping historical and cultural panoramas. These strategies gave me a glimmer of an insight into ways to rethink my own relation to knowledge and experience. I was intrigued, too, that in the process of unravelling the threads of memory, history and imagination to shape the biography of Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska foregrounds the processes of storytelling and knowledge making to have the narrator ask 'Is the drama of Poppy's life to be found in the way she told it? Or in the way I tell it? Who speaks in whose name? Dimly I begin to understand why my struggle with her is also a struggle with myself, and my own attempt to speak.' (1990: 94) Above all, I was intrigued with the ways in which the book's narrative structures appeared to echo and illustrate its thematic emphasis on the process of finding a voice: of giving life to a story and a story to a life. Here was a text which played out postmodernist understandings of identity in ways which seemed to hold a key to understanding their usefulness to a contemporary feminist like me.

When I took up my university position in 1990 I inherited a teaching programme whose philosophies were based, predictably enough, on the egalitarian feminism of the 1970s and 80s. My fascination with the potential of the postmodernist and poststructuralist understandings of identity and power to construct new knowledges, and to subvert existing power structures impacted significantly on the ways in which I engaged with students as well as on what I taught them. With a colleague whose expertise lay in community development and feminist policy, in 1994 I introduced a full undergraduate degree whose emphasis lay in preparing students to work in a range of women's services. At a time when many Women's Studies programmes in Australia were becoming increasingly theoretically sophisticated and simultaneously apparently removed from their activist base (Sheridan 1998) we struggled to find ways to articulate what seemed intuitively clear - that poststructuralist understandings of power and identity interwoven with feminist understandings of difference and knowledge construction were a potent mix for aspiring activists: somehow this swirl of interconnected ideas could find application in the complex arena of social change our students were graduating into.

By mid 1997, soon after our first cohort of students graduated, I began to gather material for this thesis. I wanted to use my understandings of the ways in which Poppy is constructed as a poststructuralist biography, to explore the processes which one particular former student had undergone in incorporating feminist knowledges and practices into her life and attempting to carry them as a feminist activist beyond the university. Although my focus would be on one person, I was aware that I would have to gather information from many. I understood that it would be impossible for me as a feminist poststructuralist researcher to undertake the task of writing about my participants' lives without investigating my own. I welcomed this chance to reflect on my own teaching practice and consequently on the site of my own feminist activism.

As the work has developed, my task has clarified: in writing this thesis I want to shed some light on the process of becoming a feminist activist whose practices are underpinned by feminist knowledges, especially poststructuralist understandings of subjectivity and power, and to reflect on my own feminist pedagogy in relation to my own feminist practice. It is my desire that, when the thesis writing is completed, the doubled reflection on student experiences and teaching practices allows for the generation of a new set of discursive practices which may well enable greater insight into the links between how we think about what we do as teachers and what happens out there in the world of feminist practice. In this paper, though, my focus is on illuminating some of the processes of researching and writing.

On being a poststructuralist feminist researcher

In undertaking feminist poststructuralist research I am aware that I can be seen to be disrupting established masculinist epistemological and methodological traditions. I have been careful to contextualize my research processes by constructing a genealogy of feminist poststructuralist researchers. Their work informs every dimension of my research processes, from my initial conceptualising of the project, through the stance I take in gathering information, to the approach I take to creating new knowledges out of the material itself as well as out of the gaps and spaces of the texts and experiences with which I work. Always available, too, in imagination as well as in fact, have been my research participants, whose willingness to spend hours talking, thinking, writing and listening has kept me grounded and ensured that I fly.

Whether rejecting existing research traditions or creating others, one still writes in relation to what is given as well as to what may be possible. Lorri Neilson (1998: 262) writes of the ongoing challenge in knowing and articulating one's ideas in relation to the ideas of others. She cites Yeager (1991: 242) in stressing that the practice of following method and taking stances on methodological theorising can create a Bakhtian tension: ideas and methods invite focus, centring, normalising, cohering, reifying and replicating practices, often dangerously. Yet inquiry itself, its products and its processes, spin outward, multiply, refuse to mesh with a hegemonic centre. And here, suggests Neilson, is where the excitement lies: It is this centrifugal force, a destabilising force, which researchers have feared and which we now invite. Whether we call it feminist or postmodern... the inclination is to openness and growth, to take risks, to create critical spaces.... We can learn more when our pen is a tool of discovery, not domination. It is crucial that such creative imaginative work is never conceived of as being disembodied. Neilson cites Anne Cranny-Francis (1995 : 113) to write of the ways in which the body processes the discursive knowings of the texts through which we live; Neilson also writes of the ways in which we MUST acknowledge the gut responses, the intuitive leaps, the churning stomach of fear and anticipation which lie behind the ideas and experiments and risks and tasks of the research process.

Doing post-structuralist feminist research at the end of the twentieth century is politically necessary and necessarily political work. Jeanette Rhedding-Jones (1997) writes eloquently about the hazards of "writing between the posts" of postmodernism and poststructuralism as a doctoral student within still-tradition-bound universities. Patti Lather (1991 : 121) celebrates the liberating political potential of what she calls the "post-paradigmatic diaspora": preceded, paralleled and interrupted by critical "ex-centric" discourses and global struggles for social justice, postmodernism is a process of re-theorising the objects and experiences of everyday life in the twilight of modernity, an epochal turning point in how the world and the possibilities of human agency are conceived. It is a shift from the conjunction of liberal humanism with positivistic science to a conjunction of de-centred subjectivity and multi-sited agency with a post-paradigmatic diaspora. The resultant opening up of ways to produce and legitimate knowledge has profound implications for research and pedagogy aimed at interrupting relations of dominance.

Carmen Luke (1992 : 49) stresses the significance of this work: The feminist political and theoretical tasks of writing ourselves from the ground up, of dismantling the long history of misogynist epistemology, and of fending off the current double moves of theoretical appropriations of the feminine on one hand and the elimination of the subject on the other, are tasks unprecedented in history.

Less than a decade later, buffeted as we are by the competing discourses of economic rationalism and optimistic, idealistic visions of the newly born Australia of the new millennium, such tasks seem even more urgent.

The Research Process: gathering the data

At the heart of the thesis is the question of subjectivity: its primary focus is on uncovering the process of finding voice as feminist activists (within the trade union movement in Sandy Newby's case, and as a feminist pedagogue in my own). Implicit in the whole project is my understanding born of contemporary feminist epistemologies that when we speak of finding voice, we are speaking not of a disembodied process, but rather of a process which, to borrow a phrase from the community work literature, involves head, heart and hand.

Gathering material for this exploration has meant casting my net wide into the arena of feminist poststructuralist scholarship, as well as talking to a range of people whose lives intersect with that of my central participant. I have spent many hours talking with Sandy Newby, with and without a tape recorder between us. We met weekly for four months in 1997 to record a series of discussions about her early life, her adult life before university, her university period, and her life since then. Her university essays became crucial archival material . The process of gathering information was reflexive from the beginning. Almost as soon as the tape recordings were made, I transcribed them, and gave Sandy copies. Each week we talked about the tape of a couple of weeks earlier, so that the process became one of back-tracking, doubling up, re-visiting old territory while pushing on into the unchartered waters of her current interactions with the worlds of work, family, friendships and life. In order to get multiple perspectives on Sandy and her life, I talked also to six members of her student cohort, as well as to various members of her family, her friends, her partner, her work colleagues, and my own academic colleagues who taught her and who worked closely with me in teaching other students in this undergraduate programme in Applied Women's Studies. A year after beginning these recorded conversations with Sandy Newby, I held a collective biography workshop in which she and three other former students participated. That workshop, modelled on Bronwyn Davies' adaptation of Frigga Haug's work, (Davies et al, 1997) took the students into the embodied state of finding voice.

The Research Process: performing the data

In an attempt to acknowledge the fluid and fleeting nature of knowledge-making, the thesis is conceptualised as performance, where performance is "the art that is open, unfinished, decentered, liminal" (Schechner, in Turner (1986: 8) cited in Somerville, 1999: 16). The thesis begins with a Prologue which provides the backdrop and sets the scene for the directions in which the thesis will move.

Chapter 1 gives a reading of Poppy which celebrates its postmodernity: its elision of boundaries, its refusal of binary oppositions, and its capacity to interweave intricate personal detail with broad, sweeping historical and cultural panoramas; its foregrounding of the processes of storytelling and knowledge making to rethink the relationship between author and subject; and above all, the ways in which the book's narrative strategies appear to echo and illustrate its thematic emphasis on the process of finding a voice: of giving life to a story and a story to a life. Drusilla Modjeska's techniques in creating a postmodernist (fictionalised) biography, particularly her use of what I identify as a combination of lyric and linear modes of narration, provide the basis for my later narration of Sandy Newby's and my respective search for voice.

Chapter 2 serves as an Interlude, a break between the performance of the first chapter and the drama of the next four chapters. In this chapter I pay homage to my methodological antecedents and companions, those feminist poststructuralist scholars who have made connections between theories and practices. In this chapter, too, I identify some of the issues my thesis addresses (including reflections on how we think about and talk with students about becoming the narrators of a fractured, complex, fluid, multi-dimensional identity, and how we learn to work with these understandings in the realms of feminist activism) and outline the methods I have used in gathering the information to create the thesis.

In Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6, called respectively Head, Heart, Hand and Voice, feminist understandings of specific bodies of knowledge are interwoven with the central story of Sandy Newby's journey towards becoming a feminist activist, together with the shorter stories of the activist journeys of three of her student colleagues. My own story as researcher and pedagogue is incorporated throughout. Drawing on a range of texts (scholarly feminist tracts; works of fiction and biography; archives; photographs; transcripts; journals of dreams, memories and reflections) and a range of lived experiences, I use several genres (poetry; prose; playscript and poetised transcript ) as well as multiple voices (my voice as researcher / biographer and as subject; the participants' voices as narrators and as subjects) to bring these stories to life. In addition, Drusilla Modjeska's notion that finding a voice involves giving life to a story and story to a life, is played out thematically and methodologically in these chapters using a combination of linear and lyric narrative modes.

I want to move now into a reading of two different ways I've written up the data. One very playful modification of the transcripts I've done comes from Laurel Richardson's (1992) paper, "The consequences of poetic representation: writing the other, re-writing the self". By centering the transcript on my computer screen, and juggling a bit to create gaps and spaces, I've come up with pieces like the following, which use precisely the language of my participants, and which are called poetised transcript. In this case, the words are spoken by Lorraine Hudson, one of my research participants. In this segment of the interview we were exploring the physical, psychic and emotional dimensions of the voice - silence continuum. Here Lorraine reflects on the legacy of her early childhood experiences of shaming and invisibility:

knowing through the body

even my head can't change what happens to my body

I've got antennae that must be about 20 feet long I think.
One negative person in a room and I can pick it up.
I think it comes from having lived
in a war zone
when I was a child.
I can walk into a room now
and I can tell you the best space in that room
to go and stand in.

In my family of origin,
when my mum and dad used to go out,
my father used to make me sit behind the lounge chair
when there was people in the room.
It's true.
And that's from as tiny as I can remember.
Dad believed that children
should be
not only not heard,
but not seen.
And I can remember he'd put the lounge chair up
and sit me and my brother in behind it.

All my cousins would be out
running around.
Yes, oh yes, the other kids
were allowed out and about to play.

And when we got a little bit older we were actually allowed out,
my brother and I were actually allowed out into the back yard,
but we weren't allowed back into the house,
so we'd sit out there till dark.
Quite often in the dark.
I can remember once my father's brother,
older brother,
stood up to him and said,
"You treat your children like dogs",
he said,
"I treat my dog better than you treat your kids."

There was a tremendous amount of physical shaming in there.
So that physical thing is what comes for me still,
when I have to speak.
I used to think it was nerves,
and I know part of it is being judged.

I continually struggle with that.
I think it's my nemesis. ***

The following piece is an example of the straight narrative segments of the thesis which are woven amongst the poems, playscripts, and formal scholarly theorising. In December 1995, while Sandy was still a student, she and I travelled to India together. We had been sponsored by the University to attend a month-long workshop on Indian women and development, hosted by the SNDT Women's University in Mumbai. The workshop was feminist and feisty, and provided severe critiques of World Bank interventions into Indian life which took little account of women's knowledges or experiences. This piece is about that time. It appears in the chapter called Heart, and takes up several thematic threads including explorations of friendship, love, the teacher-student relationship, and relationship to place.

Place: Sandy in India

What happens when the heart sings?

We are on our workshop bus in Pune, en route from a truly inspiring visit to a rag-pickers' slum to a performance of street theatre by some street-dwelling women activists. Sandy sits opposite me towards the back of the bus. The other workshop participants are scattered throughout the front . Three women from the rag-pickers' settlement sit together on the long seat at the very back of the bus. Our visit there has been quite emotional for me. We went by arrangement to meet with a small group of women whose lives have been turned around by some pertinent interventions initiated by a couple of community development workers. Through interpreters we have learned that until 6 months ago, the rag-picking activities of all these women were separate and individualised. They went out alone all day each day to the rubbish heaps in search of rags, and came home alone, to be met by a broker who paid them a pittance for their day's collection. The recent interventions have been simple but effective: the women's activities have been collectivised, and as a group they've undertaken the cleaning and brokering of their own rags. Without a middle man, their earnings have increased significantly. More significantly, these interventions have removed the invisibility of their daily activities: there is now a special hut set aside as a collection point; through interpreters we've learned that the naming process means that the women themselves now consider this to be genuine work; they have developed closer friendships within their collective; their status within their community has risen; they feel happy to be providing for their children and families. To hear these stories we've had to sit in a circle on a dusty area about the width of a roadway, on the edge of what seemed to be at least a square kilometre of densely packed slum dwellings. To get to the settlement we've had to leave the bus at the main road and walk about 500 metres along a winding dirt track. Although the settlement is in the centre of Pune city, it all felt decidedly rural. A goat was tethered to a peg nearby, and chooks rushed about pecking and squawking. Of course, although our appointment was with the women, as we walked along the track we were greeted and accompanied by swarms of skipping, jumping, shouting, excited children. During our meeting with the women, the children were admonished and kept at bay. Afterwards, though, when we stood up, someone from our group took out a camera, and in they came, like bees, like playful puppies, eyes shining, smiles flashing, laughing with joy. In the midst of this playground cacophony I found myself with Sandy and Kim, a young woman from Canada, breaking out into song: to our own delight and that of the children around us we sang a round of Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree/ Merry merry king of the bush is he/ Laugh kookaburra, laugh kookaburra/ Gay your life must be. Somehow, much later than planned, we'd managed to extricate ourselves and say Goodbye to the women, the children and the few old men we'd also met. And now on the bus, my heart is full and my head is swimming. I haven't begun to process it all yet, but this visit has been infused with a joy which is hard to describe. And now Sandy, sitting opposite me in the bus, turns to the three women from the settlement lined up on the long seat across the back, and asks through the language barrier, from heart to hearts, Did you mind that we came to visit your home? Did you mind showing us this glimpse of your lives? How does it feel to have your lives inspected thus? And the women at the back of the bus spontaneously throw their arms out towards her in a gesture of embrace. We love you, they say without words. And Sandy, this Sandy from Bayswater, now in India, this Sandy who's read and thought and spoken so much about difference and fullness and love and entitlement, this Sandy whose life until recently has been so black, so bleak, so full of pain and torment, this Sandy holds her arms out to them in a gesture of reciprocal embrace, tears pouring down her cheeks, heart wide open, and says, "I love you, too".

What happens when the heart is full?

It is a big moment. In any tidy story, this would be the climax perhaps. But in this story, there is more to come. You remember I said we were on our way to a performance of street theatre by some street-dwelling activists? We'd been told street theatre. We expected theatre on the streets. But in this ancient land where little if anything is what it seems, we find ourselves being ushered at nightfall into a smallish hall which in Australia (where?) would comfortably seat fifty people facing a stage. Three hundred people crowd into this hall with us, and a further thousand it seems bang on the roof, crowd around the windows, and thump the walls outside. After an age the performers make themselves visible. Cheers go up from the already near-hysterical crowd. They know this play, and want to see it again. It's been written by women who've lived on the streets. It's a play about cruelty and indifference and betrayal and loss. It's a play about women and friendship and survival and activism. It's a play about hope. Here in this thunderous din we are seeing feeling hearing a message of hope. And there in the midst of all this noise, just half a metre away from me, a baby falls asleep at its mother's breast. I pray that nobody takes out a camera. There will be a riot.

It has been an astonishing experience. I am amazed and exhausted. My head spins. My ears ring. We emerge onto a dark but busy street, and reboard our workshop bus. You'd think that'd be enough for one day. But wait - we're going to a restaurant? Three hours after leaving the rag-pickers, 30 minutes after leaving the theatre hall, we find ourselves being ushered to a long table in a restaurant. I slip gratefully into my chair, but with a sinking heart I realise that there's a smiling Indian man sitting beside me. I glance around the table and realise there are several guests. I don't have an skerrick of energy left in me. My neighbour begins to tell me about the work he's doing with slum dwellers. I listen politely, trying to muster the energy to respond. Sandy, sitting beside me, can feel my exhaustion . With a tremendous effort, garnering all her resources, she leans across in front of me to say brightly to the man, "What do you think about the cricket?" Ah, Sandy. She is a true friend.

One of the delights of creating the thesis in these ways is that it makes a space for me as researcher, while engaging in the central task of the thesis (which is to shed some light on the process of becoming a feminist activist whose practices are underpinned by feminist knowledges, especially poststructuralist understandings of identity and power, and to reflect on my own feminist pedagogy in relation to my own feminist practice) to experience the process of finding my own voice as writer.


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Lather, Patti. (1991). Getting Smart. London: Routledge.

Luke, Carmen. (1992). "Feminist Politics in Radical Pedagogy." In Luke, Carmen & Gore, Jennifer. (Eds.), Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. London: Routledge.

Modjeska, Drusilla. (1990). Poppy. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble.

Neilson, Lorri. (1998). Knowing Her Place: Research Literacies and Feminist Occasions. San Francisco: Caddo Gap, & Great Tancook Island: Backalong Books.

Rhedding-Jones, Jeanette. (1997). "The Writing on the Wall: doing a feminist post-structural doctorate." Gender and Education, 9 (2), 193-206.

Richardson, Laurel. (1992). "The Consequences of Poetic Representation. Writing the Other, Rewriting the Self." In Ellis, Catherine & Flaherty, Michael (Eds.), Research and Subjectivity: Windows on Lived Experience. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Sheridan, Susan. (1998). "Transcending Tauromachy." Australian Feminist Studies, 13 (27), 68-73.

Somerville, Margaret. (1999). Body / Landscape Journals. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Turner, Victor. (1986). The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.

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