The power of academic activism: Using knowledge for community change

Hannah Viney reviews the Australian Women’s History Network 2018 symposium ‘The Past is a Position: History, Activism and Privilege.’

The 2018 Australian Women’s History Network’s symposium began before attendees had even arrived at the venue, with the release of the AWHN’s report on sexual and gender-based discrimination and abuse in Australian academia. It was a fitting beginning to a day rich with discussion on the intersections between academia and activism, and the role that academics play in the world outside the institution. Sponsored by the ANU Gender Institute, this one-day symposium, ‘The Past is a Position: History, Activism, and Privilege,’ brought together a diverse group from across Australia, including historians, activists, community organisations, artists and filmmakers.

The day was characterised by intellectually stimulating and inspiring conversation across the arbitrary lines that often separate academics and activists. The varied offerings asked questions about whose stories have been privileged in the historical record, shedding light on forgotten campaigns and campaigners, and challenging how the histories of women’s activism have been remembered and told. One of the particular highlights of this year’s symposium was the variety of mediums participants used to communicate, with film screenings and workshops organised alongside the typical 20-minute conference presentation.

After Ngunawal Elder Wally Bell’s moving ‘Welcome to Country’, Barbara Baird, Chelsea Bond and Suvendrini Perera opened the symposium with a wonderfully diverse and thoughtful plenary exploring their own experiences of the relationship between activism and academic work. Throughout all three presentations was the acknowledgement that their academic career has been influenced by their own activism, which in turn has influenced their academic research. Baird began the panel by reflecting on her time campaigning for LGBTI rights in 1990s Adelaide.  Combining activism with history, Baird argued, has the power to give individuals a sense of self as historical subjects. She reminded us that academics have privileged knowledge that should be put to use in the community in a form of ‘ethical academia,’ a responsibility which Baird suggested makes academic work more ‘fun.’

Bond, a Munanjali and South Sea Islander woman, then spoke about the ongoing erasure of Aboriginal women’s resistance. She urged that the past is not a position, but is ever-present. Interested in what happens when Aboriginal women are ‘given the mic instead of the script,’ Bond considered both historical and recent representations of Aboriginal women and their communities. She posed the provocative question that if historical representations of Aboriginal women are products of their time, ‘what time are we in now?’ to suggest that even now, stories of Aboriginal women act as a form of colonial control. Perera closed the plenary by reflecting on the influence Aboriginal activist Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes had on Perera’s own intellectual development. She turned to her complex identity as a migrant in a colonial settler society to explore how we are placed and place ourselves as subjects.

The morning sessions continued to employ the self-reflective approach used by the plenary speakers. Nell Butler opened an emotional, affecting panel on ‘delinquent girls’ with a screening of her film Winnie Girls (2000), exposing the traumatic experiences of girls – including Butler – incarcerated at the Winlation Youth Training Centre in the late 1980s. Jacqueline Wilson took up the idea of survivor-driven activism in her presentation on how survivors of the state welfare system have worked to challenge and reform welfare policy while Bonney Djuric reflected on her efforts to establish the Parramatta Female Factory Institutions Precinct as a site recognising the history of institutionalising women and children. Nell Musgrove closed the session by discussing her research into child welfare and the challenges of working in such a difficult area.

Catherine Bishop opened a panel on problematic activism by considering how we remember activists that we might not agree with today. She used the example of Annie Lock, a missionary who campaigned for Aboriginal women’s rights whilst also advocating forced child removal, to explore how activism is not always straightforward. Likewise, Michelle Arrow turned the traditional story of second-wave feminism around and looked at anti-feminist activists in the 1970s. Sue Taffe discussed Mary Montgomerie Bennett and contemplated the difficulties and problems of applying modern labels (such as ‘feminist’) to historical figures, while Elicia Taylor explored the intentional and unintentional activism of female doctors in World War One who campaigned for women’s education and training.

The third morning session revealed expressions of women’s activism that have been forgotten or neglected by academics and the public. I began the session introducing the audience to the Australian women who campaigned against nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. Shifting to the next decade, Jeannine Baker shed light on the women working at the ABC in the 1970s, who staged the broadcaster’s first strike and successfully achieved a fifty-two percent pay rise. Samantha Owen told the story of Ilys Booker, a Canadian ‘accidental activist’ who worked towards community development in Menti and Sicily in the twentieth century. Finally, Monique Hameed and Rosi Aryal spoke about their work with migrant and refugee women at the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health. They contemplated the tensions of relying on government funding, whilst acknowledging that women they work with often suffer from restrictive government immigration policy.

At lunch, the AWHN’s AGM offered attendees the chance to discuss the report released that morning. Participants were asked to suggest what steps should be taken to change the system that has seen 48.7% of survey respondents experience sexual abuse or harassment in the academic workplace. Whilst no one was able to provide an easy solution, participants recommended that these statistics can only be improved if academics reflect on the role we play.

Afterwards, the afternoon sessions continued the stimulation and creativity of the morning. In a series of workshops, Helen Morgan and Melanie Gustafson explored the intricacies and difficulties of creating modern archives in the digital age, showing audience members how the websites they had created – the Australian Women’s Register and Clio Visualising History respectively – could be used to stimulate greater visibility and global accessibility. Catherine Layton ended the workshop session by asking audience members to draw a ‘stone-age man’ or ‘stone-age person’ to demonstrate how our assumptions of the past are still influenced by ideas of gender. She used this to suggest that our understandings of historical women – such as her subject Mary, Dowager Duchess of Sutherland – are still very much influenced by these ideas today.

Alongside gender, class was also interrogated, with Diane Kirkby (and Emma Robertson in absentia) considering how ‘Railway Janet’ Oakden challenged the sex-segregated railway industry. Kirkby illustrated how Oakden called upon both the union movement and the feminist movement to argue for her right to be employed as a train driver. Cathy Brigden took the union theme further and spoke on the formation of women-only trade unions in the twentieth century, while Phoebe Kelloway discussed women’s activism through the lens of industrial disputes, arguing that as women’s involvement in such disputes was outside the boundaries of respectable femininity, it should be read as women fighting for their own rights as much as for men’s.

Liz Conor and Anastasia Kanjere took up the themes of the opening plenary again and reflected on their own experiences of the intersection between academia and activism. Conor spoke about her involvement in climate change, women’s rights and native title campaigns.  She considered both how her activism was influenced by her research and how the historical narrative is being created around recent campaigns. Kanjere recognised that knowledge is not only inaccessible to many people, it is also often used to reassert the status quo. She questioned how academics could use their knowledge in productive ways without becoming complicit in the system that reinforces this inequality.

Finally, the 1970s and 1980s have been a popular period for studies of women and women’s activism but, as the fourth afternoon panel argued, there are still stories from this time that have yet to be told. Isobelle Barrett Meyering presented on the difficulties feminists had campaigning for both women’s rights and child rights in the 1979 International Year of the Child, given that many in Australia insisted on characterising the women’s movement as ‘anti-child.’ Rebecca Sheehan argued that letters between Germaine Greer and activists such as Florynce Kennedy, Roberta Sykes and Oonagh Lahr demonstrate that there were intersectional friendships and alliances during this period that crossed divisions of race and class. Finally, Sophie Robinson reviewed how her research on lesbian feminists challenges dominant narratives, and suggested that interviewers in these fields have to straddle the line between disseminating people’s stories but also protecting them at the same time.

The day closed with a heartfelt tribute to the late Tracey Banivanua Mar, a Fijian historian who specialised in colonisation and post-colonialism in the Pacific area and who was an inspiration to many. Maria Nugent began the closing plenary, telling the audience how although she had never met Mar, their correspondence had a profound impact on her work, prompting her to focus on the small and episodic. Ann Curthoys spoke next, lamenting the loss of a friendship that could have been but came too late. Connecting the closing discussion with the opening, Curthoys ruminated on the relationship between activism and historical scholarship. She argued that we are all ‘activist scholars’ and whilst there are tensions between activism and academia, the connections are clear. Crystal McKinnon, a Yamatji woman, concluded the panel with an emotional tribute to Mar, revealing how Mar’s passion inspired her to use her academic skills for activism.

The final panel’s emphasis on diversity – including the focus on the life of a Fijian historian who researched race relations, a presenter of Indigenous descent and a discussion of young Aboriginal activists – was an appropriate end to a symposium that hoped to be inclusive and accessible. By reaching out to presenters outside of academia, the symposium organisers ensured that the discussion was dynamic and particularly geared towards finding ways to utilise academic knowledge for concrete community change. Coinciding with the release of the AWHN’s report, this symposium offered a timely reminder that we all have a role to play in creating better institutions and systems. I offer my congratulations and gratitude to the organisers for bringing together such an engaged community of people for a day of exhilarating conversation. I left the day with many new friends, feeling inspired to find ways to use my research to make a difference.


Hannah Viney is an MA candidate at Monash University, researching Australian women’s anti-nuclear activism in the 1950s and 1960s. She is interested in women’s political history, and how Australian women engaged in the tumultuous political climate of the Cold War. She is particularly fascinated by expressions of women’s political interests in the decades before the Second Wave feminist movement so publicly challenged gender expectations in the 1970s.

Follow Hannah on Twitter @hvineyhistory.

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