Writing histories of gender in Australia and the world: Personal thoughts on a public roundtable

Bethany Phillips-Peddlesden reflects on the recent roundtable “Writing Histories of Gender in Australia and the World” at The University of Melbourne, which is part of the “Australia and the World” seminar series.

How do you live your feminism? The August “Australia in the World” seminar immediately caught my attention, as this is a topic I struggle with. I am writing a Ph.D. thesis about powerful, dead, white men in Australia. I’m doing so in order to historicise and thus denaturalise the link between men and political authority, but I write about them all the same.

The India and Colonial Exhibition, London (1886). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Australia in the world at the India and Colonial Exhibition, London (1886). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In her opening remarks for “Writing Histories of Gender in Australia and the World,” chair Jordy Silverstein noted the importance of self-reflectivity when attempting to enact one’s politics. In the context of recent public outrage at the treatment of Indigenous children in detention, Silverstein reflected on the required acknowledgement of country performance and the interaction between academic practices and personal politics. This was a timely reminder to commence a roundtable discussion on the experience and understanding of writing histories of gender.

Held on the afternoon of July 28, 2016 at The University of Melbourne, the event commenced with a panel, followed by a roundtable conversation and question time. The speakers were Katherine Ellinghaus (Monash Fellow, Monash); Jacinthe Flore (Ph.D. candidate and lecturer, Melbourne); Catherine Kevin (Senior Lecturer, Flinders); and Mary Tomsic (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Melbourne). As writers of gender history in Australia (and the world), each reflected on their work, practice, ideas and issues. Such a panel was an important addition, and departure, in a series run by prominent feminist historians at Melbourne University.

The event attendance exceeded expectations – both mine and the conveners’ – ranging from postgraduates, to eminent historians such as Professor Patricia Grimshaw. Katherine Ellinghaus’ comments on her experience and practice as a gender historian were framed around the process of writing her most recent book – the forthcoming The Outalucks: Native Americans of Mixed Descent and Assimilation Policy in the United States, 1880s-1940s. This work focuses on blood, on the “measuring of blood,” in the context of American assimilation policies. Ellinghaus revealed a moment of anxiety in writing this monograph when she realised that gender had “slipped to the side” in the book. Instead, she had ended up telling a story about policy, land allotments and lists – the hermeneutics of the racial classification of Native Americans in the United States.

Mary "Hinnuagsnun" Gale La Flesche (1827-1909). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary “Hinnuagsnun” Gale La Flesche (1827-1909). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Ellinghaus’ research background is gender and colonialism. Race was there, but where had gender gone? Ellinghaus argued that the scope of the project and archives used led her away from it. Once noticed, she consciously tried to find gender again, locating it in laughter – in men laughing at women. It was an important reminder as a historian to be conscious of the projects you choose to do, the sources you choose to use, the questions you choose to ask. This point reiterated that, even as a feminist historian, writing gender history is not a given – you have to continually do feminism, to actively locate gender in your history writing, and in all aspects of your career.

Generously taking time out of the final throes of her thesis submission week, Jacinthe Flore’s talk provided another glimpse, both liberating and overwhelming, of the sheer volume of possible ways to write gender history. Flore spoke about her doctoral project on the medicalisation of sexual object choice and sexual drive. While also examining measuring, her work explores the quantification and judgment of sexual desire.

Catherine Kevin began more generally, speaking about important texts and challenges in her career writing gender history, and the road she has taken as a feminist historian. Kevin spoke frankly about how her career has been accompanied by a “worry” that has taken different forms. Of the need to be a good feminist. But Kevin also recounted her realisation, in a post-doctorate non-academic job, that previous theoretical work could have relevance in present practical contexts. And that disrupting dominant narratives, such as her recounting of positive abortion accounts, was central to the feminist historian’s project.

Graffiti en Barcelona 2016). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Graffiti en Barcelona (2016). Photograph by Zarateman. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The final speaker, Mary Tomsic, focused on the use of ephemeral primary sources such as images and audio-visual material to access particular representations of gender. Tomsic also made the case for using a diverse range of sources in feminist history. Providing an example of late-twentieth-century Melbourne graffiti, Tomsic spoke about what these images revealed about how men were meant to be men, interrogating the discourses of the men’s movement in the scrawled messages. For Tomsic, thinking about writing gender history meant innovative sources, interrogating meanings and interesting conversations.

After the roundtable, I had a further conversation with Mary Tomsic, a tutor from my undergraduate days, about a class I had run that day. I wanted advice. I am conscious of trying to live a feminist life outside as well as within the gender history I write. This makes me very conscious of the gender dynamics in the classrooms in which I teach. I am currently struggling with gender balance in my classroom discussions. However, while I want to encourage more equal participation, I need to do so without shutting down conversation all together. I therefore have to go to the classroom with awareness and strategies. Such work is a part of living our feminism, and being a feminist historian.

One particular topic of discussion in the roundtable that spoke to me was the role of emotion in writing gender history – both the potential pleasure in the practice as well as the emotional labour of the work we do. In the ensuing discussion, sadly, not much enjoyment was revealed. For some, pleasure was secondary to strategic decisions, and only came about through the connections forged with others through collaborative work.

Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD, from Rome Thermae Decianae. Photograph by Carole Raddato. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Mosaic of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century A.D., Rome Thermae Decianae. Photograph by Carole Raddato. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As a postgraduate, I feel I am trying to break in to such communities of feminist historians. I get the sense of sitting at the kids table at feminist events, of having to prove oneself worthy in an academic environment of increasingly stretched attention, time and energy.

But the thread of anxiety that was woven through the roundtable conversation was ultimately a comforting blanket for me – feelings of imposter syndrome have loomed large throughout my Ph.D.

Writing gender history – being a feminist historian – is a continual choice that, in the structures of academia and the society in which we live, can be easier not to make. Self-examination has been a central aspect of my experience of trying to make such choices, trying to live a feminist life. If I’m honest, so have stress and anxiety. While I thought I was alone in these struggles, I instead constantly find company when I am open with others. At the same time, being the recipient of such confessions because of my own desire for honesty means I know of others’ problems, and feel responsibility for their wellbeing. This gives me added sympathy for postgraduate supervisors, especially thinking of the emotional labour mine has done dealing with a student with depression and chronic pain.

When I started my Ph.D. in gender history, I had not appreciated the emotional costs (and rewards) such a process would entail. But I am grateful for the opportunities to hear from others, and to share experiences and ideas, at such gender history events. I am also increasingly aware of the importance of social media in bringing the commonality of these experiences to student attention. Recent innovations such as the Thesis Whisperer’s postgraduate course structured around emotions, “How to Survive your Ph.D.,” are fantastic in recognising and addressing these aspects of the postgraduate experience.

In this post about writing gender history and being a feminist historian, I have kept returning to anxiety. But this makes sense to me – feminism is about change, which is challenging for everyone. Anxiety is also an indicator of caring (too much?). A symptom of wanting to do better, of being self-questioning, which, when productive and not self-flagellating, is a useful and necessary tool for a feminist historian.


IMG_2373Bethany Phillips-Peddlesden is a Ph.D. candidate, tutor and research assistant in Australian history at The University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines the intersections of power and gender in the lives of Australian Prime Ministers. Bethany was a National Library of Australia Summer Scholar (2015); a member of the Australian Women’s History Network’s Lilith Editorial Collective (2014-2016), including Submissions Manager (2016); and a Postgraduate Representative for the Australian Historical Association (2014-2016).

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