AWHN farewells 2016 and welcomes 2017…

Australian Women’s History Network convenors Jordy Silverstein and Mary Tomsic reflect on 2016 and what is to come for the network, historians and the world in 2017.

It’s hard to know how to summarise a year in the life of the Australian Women’s History Network, or Australian women’s history, or feminist scholarship, or women’s experiences as historians in Australia. So often these reminiscences can focus on the markers that the neoliberal university wants us to prioritise, which is something that, we think, is perhaps best avoided.

And the turning into a new year – entering 2017 – is, in many ways, as others routinely note, an arbitrary marker. Why this moment as a time to take stock? Where does this particular calendar sit alongside the many other calendars that people follow, and the many other different dates for the new year that our traditions hold?

But it does, however, offer a good moment to take stock and reflect – on where things are at, where they are going, and where we would like them to be. With this in mind we offer three suggestions and some plans for the year ahead.

  1. We need to be revolutionary

It is evident that at this moment in time, the worlds in which we live are struggling.

Screen Shot 2017-01-21 at 7.42.15 PM
March for Women’s Lives, 2004. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Neoliberalism, the patriarchy, racism, capitalism, imperialism, have firm grips on our lives on many scales. These forces are at play in our workplaces, our disciplines, our conferences, our neighbourhoods, as well as at the level of our states, countries and international relations.

What are the ways that we – as feminist historians, and/or women’s historians – can work against these forces? What are the big and small ways in which we can effect change?

There are numerous historians amongst us who write from different epistemologies – how can we each learn something from each other’s approaches? How can we centre non-western approaches, and work against dominant hegemonies, in our research and our teaching?

When we set course lists, do we make sure that over fifty per cent of the work that we are asking students to read is written by non-white women? When we conduct research, whom do we cite? Who are we positioning as the experts whose leads we follow? When we formulate research grants, sit on hiring committees, and organise conferences, who are we looking to work with?

In a world that encourages us to stick within our national borders, to heighten difference in pernicious ways, how can we think, write, and act across borders and boundaries? And when we work within national boundaries, do we consider these critically?

These are some of the questions that we’ve seen circulating around the edges of the Network – 2017 feels like a good time to bring them to the centre, for all of us, as individuals and as a network, to reassess the knowledge that we are creating. What work do we want our history writing to do, both within the academy and outside of its walls?

  1. We need to celebrate differently

A large number of members of the Network are employed in precarious contracts. Some of us are casually employed, others on short-term contracts, others on longer-term contracts. As we all know, this is a growing problem within academia: precarity is the new norm.

This creates a culture of heightened expectations and pressures, increasing the burden of belief that nothing we do is ever quite good enough. And so, we need to change what we imagine success to be, and what we celebrate when it comes to our own and others’ work.

Here are some achievements we might acclaim:

  • Writing a finely crafted sentence
  • Ticking all the tasks off a reasonable to-do list
  • Being satisfied with an argument developed
  • Preparing a class that challenges students to think differently
  • Helping a colleague develop her work
  • Listening to a well thought through paper
  • Spending time thinking
  • Carrying out research so that one can write
  • Having a good conversation with someone

These are all important elements of our work which – in this era of quantifying outputs and having evidence for outcomes – we want to draw attention to. This is work that needs to be celebrated alongside the more readily recognised achievements of grants, publications and paid jobs.

  1. We need to focus on ideas

Our research, writing and thinking should be firmly focused on intellectual engagement and the political implications of this. We should try to quarantine ourselves, as much as possible, from busy activities that don’t contribute to developing good scholarship, critical thought and thoughtful teaching.

So a challenge then becomes: how can we put these – and the other new approaches that we’re all thinking and working on – into practice?

Here are a few things that your network is working on in the coming year:

  1. Survey feedback and plans

Many thanks to those who completed the survey last year – we appreciated the feedback and are keen to develop plans for the network from the results. We had twenty-seven responses and some of the themes that emerged are listed below.

We are keen to hear from members at any time so please get in touch.

Overall respondents valued the network as a means to share information, particularly via the VIDA blog (more below) and conferences.

In terms of suggestions for what the AWHN should be doing – respondents said:

  • Sponsoring/co-sponsoring more events, particularly local ones
  • More mentoring and networking opportunities between ECRs and senior academics
  • Financial support for PhDs/ECRs
  • Increasing the profile of women’s/feminist history and working outside academia – particularly within schools and digital space such as Wikipedia
  • Entering into public debates and promoting women’s/feminist history in the public arena
  • Greater input within academic discussions – e.g. entering debates about publication lists
  • Promoting research and members’ achievements.

In looking to other academic networks that people were members of and felt were useful, many respondents mentioned the importance of the Australian Historical Association, particularly their newsletter. Women’s History Scotland and Economic and Social History Society of Scotland were noted by one respondent as groups with more of a public facing focus that the AWHN could follow.

We will have some conversations with the state representatives and work on where to go next with these suggestions. We’ll discuss these plans further at the Network’s annual meeting at the AHA conference.

  1. AWHN Symposium

The 2017 AWHN Symposium will be held as part of the Australian Historical Association conference from 3 to 7 July in Newcastle. The AHA conference theme is Entangled Histories, and the theme for the AWHN strand is ‘Symbiotic Histories’. Our strand is being convened by Dr Chelsea Barnett, Isobelle Barrett Meyering, James Keating and Sophie Robinson and the details of the call for papers are available here.

As well as the stream, there will be our AGM and a Network dinner. We’d love to see you all there!

  1. VIDA: blog of the AWHN

We are enormously grateful for all the work that Dr Alana Piper and Dr Ana Stevenson have put in to developing, editing and managing the VIDA blog. This involves considerable time and effort and the network benefits tremendously from Alana and Ana’s skills and commitment.

VIDA blog is a fantastic avenue for communication within our scholarly community and beyond. The blog has a broad readership and writings have been shared widely. Many members have contributed engaging pieces that reflect the breadth and vibrancy of work and research being carried out. There are a number of series on the blog including the popular day in the working life series; conference and event reviews; and research blogs, usually related to scholarly articles.

Please keep up the contributions and we’re looking forward to reading more.

Finally, if there is any other way you want to be involved in the network, or if you have an idea or project that’s related to feminist/women’s history – please get in touch.


Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 5.23.11 pmJordy Silverstein is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Melbourne University, working as part of the ARC Laureate Fellowship Project ‘Child Refugees and Australian Internationalism: 1920 to the Present’. Her research focuses on histories of Australian government policy towards child refugees since the 1970s, as well as histories of Jewish sexuality, identity, and memory. She is the author of Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (2015), and co-editor of In the Shadows of Memory: the Holocaust and the Third Generation (2016).

Follow Jordy on Twitter @jewonthis.

Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 5.22.59 pmMary Tomsic is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Melbourne working on a project titled ‘Picturing Child Refugees’ as part of the ARC Laureate Research Project ‘Child Refugees and Australian Internationalism: 1920 to the Present’. She co-edited Diversity in Leadership: Australian women, past and present (with Joy Damousi and Kim Rubenstein, ANU Press 2014).

Follow Mary on Twitter @mary_tomsic.

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