Doing feminist history: A symposium for emerging historians

Michelle Staff reflects on the recent Sydney Feminist History Group symposium for early career researchers and PhD candidates.

In 2014, Joy Damousi posed the important question: “Does feminist history have a future?”. In her response, she highlighted the various challenges faced by feminist historians. But her diagnosis was positive. “Gender history and women’s history,” Damousi predicted, “will continue to open up new ways of interpreting and analysing historical scholarship.” Though the diffusion of feminist historical scholarship throughout the wider discipline “may have splintered the focus,” she noted that perhaps this very splintering had in fact bolstered the status of feminist ideas and approaches to history.

The “Doing Feminist History” symposium, hosted on 29 August 2019 by the Sydney Feminist History Group, validated Damousi’s predictions by demonstrating the diverse, widespread and innovative nature of current feminist historical scholarship. The symposium showed the vast range of ways in which emerging scholars – both postgraduate students and early career researchers – are engaging with and furthering the feminist historical tradition. In so doing, it revealed just how vibrant feminist history scholarship is in Australia today.

Portrait of Bessie Rischbieth, 1938. National Library of Australia.

The symposium allowed a number of emerging scholars from Australia and abroad to share their research. It pivoted on three key and interconnected themes: feminist activism; feminist sources and archives; and feminist media and representations.

Together we examined the various ways in which feminist acts, movements and figures in the past can be understood. We heard about the innovative work being done on topics as diverse as American women journalists’ fight for equality in the 1970s, queer activism and queer masculinities, and Australian feminists’ engagement with internationalism during the interwar years. We explored the types of sources that allow us to access women’s lives in the past, from mission records to the collections of the Australian War Memorial. In a fascinating solution to the absence of sources for women’s dress in seventeenth-century England, one presenter demonstrated great creativity in recreating items of clothing from this period, using the relevant garment-making techniques to bring the story to life. In looking at the media, papers again highlighted the broad scope of interest, discussing feminist theatre and cinema, contemporary Indigenous poetry, the ABC and the Australian Women’s Weekly.

Sarah Bendall’s reconstruction of Jacobean dress – smock, bodies, farthingale and skirt. Photo courtesy of Sarah Bendall.

The symposium highlighted not only the ways in which Australian history is benefiting from new applications of feminist historical perspectives, but also the truly international character of emerging historians’ interests. Throughout the day we were taken on a journey from women’s refuges in the regional towns of New South Wales to the Pacific and the United States, and were encouraged to think about how women in the past have created local, national and international communities. The day ended with a discussion of how feminist historians can bring their personal and professional values to the realms of teaching, supervising and publishing.

The discussion throughout the symposium pointed to a number of recurring themes, which prompted some personal reflections on my part on the broader issues with which feminist history continues to grapple, as well as my own approach and methodology.

One of these was the question of the character and limits of feminist history. Several speakers addressed the fact that our historical subjects represent a very narrow section of society; often white, middle-class and relatively wealthy, these women offer only limited models of experience. In light of the contemporary focus on intersectionality, how does the historian whose subject matter does not readily reflect the experiences of a range of women maintain an intersectional approach? When the historical record makes it difficult to trace the experiences of, for example, migrant or Indigenous women, how do we prevent reproducing the very patterns of oppression and silencing that we are studying? These are fundamental questions that we are all continually seeking to address.

Another question that I found of great interest was that of the uses of feminist history. Bringing our attention to the early modern period, we heard about the development of Anne Boleyn as a twenty-first-century “feminist” icon in contemporary fiction and film. This prompted me to ponder: what are the purposes of feminist history? Who are we writing for? Who should we be writing for? Though I don’t have definitive answers to all of these questions, reflecting on them is an important part of developing as an inclusive and self-aware feminist historian.

The “Doing Feminist History” symposium was a wonderful opportunity to share our research and to hear from other emerging scholars working in the field. It showed that feminist history is very much alive and well in Australia today.

Many thanks to Chelsea Barnett and Isobelle Barrett Meyering for organising the symposium. Thanks also to Sydney Feminist History Group, the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, the Australian Centre for Public History at University of Technology Sydney and Australian Feminist Studies for supporting the event.

Michelle Staff is a PhD candidate in the School of History at the Australian National University, researching British and Australian feminists and their engagement with internationalism during the interwar period.

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