Review of the AHA conference

Kathryn Ticehurst shares the perspective of a first-time postgraduate attendee at the Australian Historical Association conference. Her review of conference proceedings focuses on the place of gender within the papers presented, and on the emerging themes and trends in evidence.

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Mechanics Institute Ballarat, 1868. Image via State Library Victoria.

Early in July, the AHA held its annual meeting, this year themed “Boom and Bust,” in Ballarat. This was my first time attending an AHA conference, and I am really glad that I went. The event provided five busy days of thought-provoking papers, keynote speakers, book and journal launches, and opportunities to meet other historians working in Australia. The Ballarat setting was rainy but beautiful, and convenient to explore on foot, although I sometimes struggled to get between different sessions in the more distant venues, being six months pregnant and a little slow on my feet. The Mechanic’s Institute in particular was a grand venue, and very welcoming on cold days.

There were lots of papers to present and many concurrent sessions, which inevitably meant missing out on some exciting talks. Despite this, all the sessions I went to were well attended with engaged audiences and thoughtful questions. I found the conference to have a friendly and supportive environment. There were lots of other postgraduates to meet, and more established historians were generous in their support of postgraduates and their research.

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Mechanics Institute Ballarat, 2007. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It was a good place to present my work as a PhD student: the discussion and feedback after my talk, on anthropologists working in segregated country towns in the mid-twentieth century, was serious and useful but not intimidating. I was also glad that I had attended the Australian Women’s History Network conference earlier in the year, which meant I found a few more familiar faces this time around.

I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to find out more about research that historians are currently working on, to see trends and new ideas and find connections or inspiration for my own work. The conference programme included a broad range of papers, although I felt that amongst the diverse talks that comprised the conference, I might have expected a few more papers using gender as a key line of analysis.

Overall, only a small number of papers focused on gender as a central theme, but many more wove gendered analysis into their histories. The papers I particularly enjoyed followed the theme of the AWHN conference, Intersections, and looked at themes of gender alongside other lines of inquiry. In particular, some papers kept gender in focus within broader discussions of migration or race, a fruitful method resulting in thoughtful analysis and layered understandings of the material.

One example was Anne Scrimgeour’s paper about women’s equality in an Aboriginal-run Pilbara mining cooperative in the 1950s. She explored the way that the cooperative instigated a change in women’s status and equality in the venture. Scrimgeour also analysed the representation of the cooperative, and the women in it, in Don Stuart’s book Yandy. Don and Des Stuart, a married couple, were involved in the cooperative and Don portrayed Des as a model of modern womanhood for Aboriginal women to emulate, and their own marriage as a model of equality (even when this was not the case). Don Stuart saw women’s liberation as something external to Aboriginal culture, and something that he and Des would impart to the group. The paper paid attention to how ideas about race and gender played out in assimilationist narratives.

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Two Japanese women on driveway to overseer’s house, Hambledon Sugar Plantation, Ciarns, 1891. Image via State Library Queensland.

Another example of insightful intersectional analysis was Julia Martínez’s paper on the movement of Japanese women in Queensland before 1930, which looked at race, labour and gender. Martínez used immigration and police records to track Japanese women arriving and moving across the state, demonstrating their mobility by mixing a detailed local account of women working in the sex industry in coastal and country towns with their broader movements across seas and national boundaries.

Other engaging papers focused on gender issues included: Melissa Afentoulis on the role of gender in migration and the Greek diaspora in Australia; Petra Mosmann on Germaine Greer’s paisley coat; Fiona McLachlan on narratives of progress in women’s sport; Gary Osmond on understandings of masculinity and homosexuality in sport; and Bronwyn Lowe on girls’ career choices in the 1950s and 1960s in Australia.

For me, the AHA conference was also an occasion for real sisterhood in at least one respect: my own sister, Laura Ticehurst, was in attendance. Laura presented a paper on modern dating rituals in the 1940s-1960s, paying particular attention to the concept of female pleasure.

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Activist Freda Brown in East Berlin, 1987. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I unfortunately missed Lisa Milner’s paper, but my sister informed me that it offered an excellent exploration of Freda Brown’s involvement in the Anti-Vietnam War movement, and in particular focused on the way Brown combined maternalist and communist ideas and narratives to oppose the war, showing how ideas about gender were used within the anti-war movement more generally.

Across the conference programme more broadly, other well-represented themes were urban history and heritage, rural and regional histories, Indigenous and settler colonial histories, gold rushes and war. These last two topics in particular were revisited in new ways, some using gender analysis to re-approach old topics, for example: Louise Blake’s paper on women on the Upper Goulbourn Goldfields, Melissa Bellanta’s paper on men’s dress and what it reveals about the relationship between masculine identities and class on the New South Wales goldfields, Lorinda Cramer’s paper on men’s sewing on the Victorian goldfields, and Melissa Watts’ paper on representations of women serving in World War II.

At other times, it felt like there was still more work to do to pay attention to the potential of gendered analysis to improve our understanding of the past. In an otherwise very interesting paper by Dan Tout on Xavier Herbert and P.R (Inky) Stephenson’s ideas about “settler indigenisation,” it seemed to me that greater consideration of the role of gender in colonisation and race relations would have pushed the analysis even further. Tout showed how Herbert thought that “settler indigenisation” could be formed through mixed race relationships, and fantasised about fathering a “Euraustralian” child to legitimise his presence on the land. The gendered nature of these relationships mapped onto ideas about patriarchal and imperial control of land and Indigenous people.

Environmental history, which had its own “green stream” at the AHA this year, was very popular and created a buzz of excitement. It seemed to be a field where historians were exploring new and interesting ways to think about the past, while still confronting longstanding historical questions about colonisation and labour history. The specific stream also helped to create a space that showcased a collaborative community working on similar themes and drawing on each other’s work. Environmental history, as an approach, seems to offer a route to exploring the past in new ways, trying to complicate and localise history, and in that has parallels with gender history. This made me think about feminist history in the sense of opening up new parts of life and subjects and topics to historical study, making our overall understanding much richer.

I particularly enjoyed Nancy Cushing’s paper on pigs. Even though it was on a Friday afternoon at the end of the conference, Cushing’s paper was engaging and showed how this perhaps unlikely-seeming topic could widen the focus of historical study, opening up views onto parts of life which were everyday and not recorded. Pigs were marginalised in the historical record but roamed large in life. It also shed new light on old debates about how historians deal with the agency of the people (and animals) they write about.

I am looking forward to next year’s AHA, which will be in Newcastle.



Kathryn Ticehurst is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sydney. Her thesis examines the work of several anthropologists who worked in Aboriginal communities in the 1940s and 1950s. She is more broadly interested in histories of empire and colonial science.



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