A Shared Milestone: Experiences from my first AHA Conference

Rachel Macpherson reflects on her first experience at the 2023 Australian Historical Association Conference, with the conference theme of ‘Milestones’.

The 2023 Australian Historical Association Conference opened avenues of research and connection that I could have never fathomed. The conference theme – ‘Milestones’ – was fitting, as the association is celebrating its 50th year and 41st conference. This was also a milestone for my own academic career, marking my first conference and my first conference presentation.

This year’s AHA was hosted by the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. The conference was held in the newly renovated Saint Theresa of Kolkata Building which opened this May. The building is beautiful, being home to incredible facilities such as lecture halls and numerous teaching rooms. A demonstration of both the facilities and the generosity of the university was that the annual Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference was being held on another floor – with no overlap.

Saint Teresa of Kolkata Building, Australian Catholic University Melbourne Campus. The site of the AHA Conference 2023. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As a first conference, I had quite a positive experience. Walking into the centre and seeing so many historians whose names I recognised felt almost surreal. I was fortunate to meet and connect with many historians across the career spectrum to share research and a love for history. My days consisted of going to papers and panels, then attending social events such as the HDR trivia night and the Australian Women’s History Network dinner. In either setting, I was able to connect, bond, and discuss a plethora of historical topics and upcoming research with many amazing scholars.

Over four days, over 70 panels were held across 10 streams including the Australian Women’s History Network Stream, Histories of Capitalism Stream, First Nations Stream, and Environmental History Green Stream. Each urged historical debate and discussion, and even applied the theme of milestones in many, academic ways.

As far as scheduling goes, there were several papers I wished I could have attended – I’ve been told this is the hallmark of a great conference. I was very lucky to attend three keynote addresses. Ultimately, I found myself at many panels in the Australian Women’s History Network (AWHN) Stream, where my main research interests lie.

The Keynote Addresses

The first keynote I attended was from the AWHN Stream. The keynote by Professor Emerita Victoria De Grazia (Columbia University) was entitled ‘A Shore Too Far: Fascism’s Woman Problem in Italian East Africa’. This keynote set the tone for both the conference and the AWHN Stream.

De Grazia took us through a journey of her career, her original research in European history, and intertwined a narrative of Italian fascism. Her discussion centred around her 30th Anniversary Edition of her landmark book, How Fascism Rules Women: Italy, 1922-1945 (University of California Press, 1992).

Professor Victoria De Grazia (Columbia University) Keynote “A Shore Too Far: Fascism’s Woman Problem in Italian East Africa, 1935—1943”. Image via AWHN.

What was most interesting about De Grazia’s keynote was the masculinised nature of Italian colonial narratives, and how women have been ultimately forgotten. Women’s relationship to Italian fascism is an interesting representation of interwar imperialism, where women have long since been portrayed as innocent bystanders to fascism, imperial, or any sort of political ideologies. It was a story of settler-colonial and imperialistic maternalism, where Italian women migrated to Africa as ‘civilisers’, but were then used as propaganda for decolonisation. It was a pleasure to be able to listen and discuss such a fascinating topic with a world leading feminist researcher.

The second keynote was by Associate Professor Aroha Harris (University of Auckland), entitled ‘Te Tuangahuru o Te Pouhere Kōrero, Te Pouhere Kōero 10’. Harris discussed the recent renewal of the Aotearoa New Zealand curriculum and its significant expansion of Māori history into primary and high school history. Such an implementation was a milestone, as Harris conveyed that this change ‘presents Māori history as foundational and continuous’. One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was ‘balance’. Harris explained that because the public sometimes struggled to understand why Māori history was important, historians had to create a curriculum that balanced Māori histories with dominant, colonial narratives.

Championing Māori histories in Aotearoa New Zealand marks a new era in national histories and what should be taught. Although Aotearoa New Zealand’s struggle is an indicator of the lasting legacies of colonialism within society, this keynote demonstrated that we have a long way to go in terms of the history curriculum in Australia. Yet, as Harris noted, there are thousands of years of Indigenous histories which should be taught and celebrated, all of which are ‘foundational’ to our nations and national discourses. Aotearoa New Zealand’s milestone, though with its trials and tribulations, is nonetheless an incredible one.

The final keynote by Professor Claire Langhamer (Institute of Historical Research) was ‘Feeling time: The milestones of everyday life’. Langhamer’s research is based around the British sociological organisation Mass-Observation, which urges volunteers to document their lives, thoughts, and feelings of both everyday life and the world around them. Recently, and connected to Langhamer’s own research, Mass-Observation focused on temporalities and emotions. This keynote displayed not only a beauty, but an innate humanlike quality within understandings and articulations of times, timelines, and events. Some of the examples that Langhamer discussed were timelines, where participants were asked to document their own life in a timeline. Each timeline was different, ranging from lists to pieces of art. The content — what participants felt was important — differed from person to person. It was interesting to see how people conceptualise, organise, and experience time, especially through a pandemic.

Finishing the conference on such a note, where for the past three days we had been immersed in discussions which consider time, temporality, and a range of milestones – personal, political, and historical – lead to a level of self-reflection. The idea of temporality reflects the diverse range of answers to the conference theme of milestones, and asks the questions, what does make a milestone? Is it specific to the content, or even the subject? As historians, we need to understand how time and temporality are reflected in our professional and personal practices; it is the core to history and many of the choices we make in historical academia.

The Australian Women’s History Network Stream

I spent the majority of my time in the AWHN Stream. The stream was fantastic, with such fascinating and diverse histories and research being presented. I presented as a part of a panel, entitled ‘Imagining Woman’s Place in Radical new Futures: Uncovering and Complicating Feminist Storytelling’, with Associate Professor Sharon Crozier-De Rosa (UOW) and fellow PhD candidate Nadia Gregory (UOW). This was an overwhelmingly positive experience, being able to share my research, and even being asked questions that I did not consider.

Rachel Macpherson presents ‘South Australia to the front’ at AHA 2023. Image via AWHN.

A particularly memorable panel was ‘Feminist Histories of Sexual Violence’, featuring Dr Rebecca Sheehan (MQ), Zoe Smith (ANU), and Bridget Andresen (UQ). This panel was equally poignant and emotional. Smith’s paper focused the critique of marital rape as a ‘legal impossibility’ in nineteenth-century Australian feminist literature. For reasons of being too radical, or perhaps a representation of societal boundaries, suffragists seldom discussed such a topic. Yet, some did, such as Louisa Lawson, and they did so in such a way that highlights a hidden history of domestic violence. Andresen’s paper examined accusations and rape trials in Queensland between 1945 and 1955. Her research brings a new perspective, and simultaneously tells the stories of the victims who suffered through an unjust system. Sheehan’s paper reread the friendship between Roberta Sykes and Germaine Greer and their embodied experiences, discussing the concept of sovereignty within a narrative of feminism and racial oppression. Sheehan explored the relationship between Greer and Sykes, noting how Greer capitalised on Sykes’ trauma. When researching concepts of suffragism and feminism, sexual violence is not often a topic discussed publicly. As harrowing as these stories are, they are still key to understanding women’s plight in patriarchal and colonial systems.

Finally, I also attended Dr Chelsea Barnett’s (UNSW) paper about some very current issues intertwining class and gender within academia. Barnett highlighted issues that many Higher Degree by Research students face, discussing her own life after completing her PhD. Within academia itself, these discussions are very highly important because these issues continue to influence our careers and choices, even if we choose to stay or leave academia. If academia is to ever move forward, and even promote inclusivity, such important, yet hard, conversations need to be held – whether on topics of sexual violence in history or the ideological state of the academy itself.

Beyond the Australian Women’s History Network

The roundtable ‘Working with feeling: Emotion in historical practice’, featuring Dr Scott McKinnon (UOW), Dr Lilian Pearce (La Trobe), Dr Margaret Cook (Griffith), and Dr James Dunk (USyd), brought together historians with intriguing backgrounds and stories to tell. Upon reflection, this panel seems even more topical considering the United Nations’ recent use of the phrase ‘Global Boiling’ and the catastrophic bushfires in Greece and Hawaii in July and August. Historians need a refined sense of emotional management, especially when dealing and documenting extreme climate events. As we’re heading into another hot summer, where loss is inevitable, historians will be there to document it and understand the emotional processes of the victims. However, historians also need to remember that their own emotions can become imbued into the stories they tell, especially the stories which are centred around devastating loss. Whilst the roundtable focused on environmental histories, much of what was discussed related to other emotional histories and practices in other historical disciplines. There is joy in moments of loss – the positive intertwined in the negative – and that is uniquely human.

As I left the conference, I felt a renewed sense of passion in history. My own research reflects the countless offers of advice and conversations I had with those at the conference. I am grateful for the new perspectives, and even the new women to research and understand. Even more so, just being able to meet and connect with many of the amazing academics who I have followed over the past number of years was fantastic. I have a much deeper understanding of academia and history, and the quality of academia in Australia. Both the AHA and the AWHN were incredibly welcoming organisations. I want to thank the AWHN enough for granting me a bursary and this opportunity to attend this conference, and of course, I cannot wait for next year.


Rachel Macpherson is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong who specialises in the history of gender, identity and citizenship. Her thesis title is ‘Australian suffrage and the construction of alternative modern nationalisms, 1880-1901’.

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