History in the making, and what it means for feminist historians

Rachel Harris and Michelle Staff reflect on the year’s events to date, and what it means for the future of feminism and feminist historians. This article is based on the editorial that appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith, available now on open access here.

When we wrote the editorial for this issue of Lilith, the COVID-19 pandemic was entering its third month. A lot has changed since then, and the editorial reads much like a historical artefact of the particular point in time in which it was written. So far, 2020 has truly been history in the making.

In the midst of the health crisis, another important global movement captured the world’s attention. The killing of African-American man George Floyd by a police officer in May sparked a wave of protests against police violence both across the United States and internationally. Rallying under the banner ‘Black Lives Matter’, protestors demanded an end to white supremacy and violence against people of colour. The sheer scale of the protests has made this quite likely the largest social movement in US history.

Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne on 6 June 2020. Wikimedia Commons.

The George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter movement build upon a much longer history of resistance by African Americans to the various discriminatory policies and practices forced upon them for centuries. This story has an important gender dimension too. Black feminists have long pointed to the specific forms of discrimination that women of colour face, exacerbated by the fact they have all too often been overlooked in campaigns to end racial injustice. Despite this, they have consistently been among those who have worked to shed light on the diverse experiences of women; indeed, black women were the driving force behind Black Lives Matter back in 2013.

The international spread of the protests shows the campaign to end racist violence is not only an American story—it is a global one as well. We too in Australia have a problem with state-sanctioned violence, as shown in the disproportionate number of deaths of Aboriginal people in custody. The events of this year have reminded us that the injustices of the past are directly linked to those of the present, as the legacies of invasion and colonialism continue to shape inequality today. While statues of slave traders were torn down in Britain, 600 police officers surrounded the Captain Cook statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park to prevent it from the same fate. This came just weeks after the mining company Rio Tinto destroyed a 46,000 year old sacred site of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, showing that not all histories are considered worthy of remembering.

Women wearing surgical masks during the influenza epidemic, 1919. State Library of Queensland.

Alongside these campaigns for justice, our lives continue to be altered as the scale of the global health crisis keeps growing. Worldwide daily infection rates are now at an all-time high, while government policies enacted to stop the spread of COVID-19 are coming under increased public scrutiny. Many have drawn parallels between COVID-19 and other pandemics, most notably the 1919 Spanish flu which in Australia killed an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people. As feminist historians, we are especially interested in the gendered dimensions of pandemics past and present, including how they have impacted women. Opinion pieces proclaim that the current pandemic’s flow-on effects have left women ‘anxious, overworked [and] insecure’ and that lockdowns are a ‘disaster for feminism’ as they have placed the burden on women to balance full-time employment with home-schooling and domestic chores. Household isolation has led to a worldwide increase in domestic violence, prompting the United Nations to urge governments to ‘prevent and redress’ violence against women in their pandemic response plans. It has also warned that as a result of COVID-19 and its associated economic impact, ‘even the limited gains [towards gender equality] made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back’.

Women in academia have not been immune. The number of submissions made by women to academic journals in all disciplines since March has dropped considerably, while those from men have increased. Juggling academia and motherhood has always been difficult; for many now it is almost impossible to maintain a competitive research output and tend to children at home all week too. Those in Melbourne, now in the middle of a second round of lockdown measures, will sorely feel these effects once again.

And now the next generation of feminist scholars are at risk due to the Australian Government’s proposal to raise the cost of humanities degrees by 113% as they are supposedly not as ‘job relevant’ as STEM degrees (despite data showing that arts graduates are actually more employable than their science counterparts and have highly sought-after skills).

It is suggested these fees would disproportionally affect women as they enrol in higher numbers in humanities degrees and take longer to pay off their HELP loans (in part due to taking career breaks to start a family and undertake other carer responsibilities) while also earning less than men over the course of their lifetimes. The Bankwest Curtin Economic Centre has estimated that, across the board, young women would pay approximately $498 million more each year towards university education, and young men an additional $339 million. As feminist scholars, we are particularly concerned the fee increase would adversely affect the crucial studies of gender, race, and class which advocate for women’s rights and equal opportunity. Arts and humanities graduates are equipped with important transferable skills: critical thinking, interpersonal communication, and independent thought to name a few. In our current world, these skills are needed more than ever.

Yet women have experienced and responded to countless inequalities over time, and we take heart that many have been able to flourish despite them. The following blog posts offer a taste of what can be found in the latest issue of Lilith. They cover a broad range of topics in women’s and gender history with evident connections to contemporary discussions. They consider how Australian women have been memorialised in national narratives and museum displays; the depiction, experiences, and policing of women’s bodies and behaviour; the hardships faced by women domestic servants and asylum inmates in turn of century Australia and Britain; and the discrimination faced by women of colour in colonial Australia.

In 2020, feminist history has become more important than ever as it helps us to understand the structural inequalities that have faced women, particularly women of colour, in the past and their significance today. Lilith champions the work of feminist and gender historians and the publication of this issue during the midst of COVID-19 pandemic is testament to its commitment to the discipline and providing a platform for the work of emerging feminist scholars.

Dr Rachel Harris is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide and sessional lecturer at Flinders University. She is also the 2020 Bill Cowan Barr Smith Library fellowship holder, through which she is researching the lives of working-class women in 1970s and 1980s South Australia. She has received numerous awards for her research and has publications in War & Society, History Australia and Labour History. Rachel is a member of the Lilith editorial collective.


Michelle Staff is a PhD candidate in the School of History at the Australian National University. Her research examines feminist internationalism during the interwar period, with a focus on feminists from Australia and Britain. Michelle is also a member of the Lilith editorial collective.

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