Feminisms/Femininities Symposium

8 November 2019, Kathleen Syme Library & Community Centre, Carlton

I was excited to attend the Feminisims/Feminist Symposium. It had been on my calendar for weeks. This was the first event in a long line of conferences and public lectures over the following week that I planned to use to challenge core concepts in my thesis, feminism, decolonisation and gender. The presentations here were rich and varied. While there were many important papers delivered this day I have selected, for the sake of brevity, to recount a select few for this piece.

The day commenced with Professor Marilyn Lake’s keynote, ‘Subjective femininities and feminist subject positions: white maternalism and the will to power.’ Her book, Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and TransPacific Exchange Shaped American Reform and her research surrounding Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism were the foundational texts for this presentation. Placing emphasis on the words historians locate in the archive, the formation of feminist discourse, and the political ethics of care in society, Lake urged attendees of her keynote to read documentary evidence carefully. Determine what the document says in its entirety, question the context. Do not simply consume the words the author has produced, according to their agenda. I found Lake’s presentation of particular interest with the consideration of how maternal authority was utilised by white women in association with the civilising mission. Lake also asserted new feminist movements contest and challenge existing forms of feminism.

In the next panel, Rosa Campbell’s subsequent presentation was well-positioned in light of Lake’s commentary. Campbell’s paper, ‘From the Only Women Demonstrating to Women’s Liberation: Rethinking the beginning of Australian ‘second wave’ feminism through global history’, focused on the Union of Australian Women (UAW). With this study, Campbell challenged the notion feminism occurs in waves and the notion that feminism is a progressive discourse. Instead, Campbell urged her audience to consider feminism is an ideology that works in ebbs and flows, with marginal groups included and excluded to the will of the dominant group- white middle class women.

The following presentation by Brydie Kosmina’s, ‘“We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn”: Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Feminist Activism and Historical Memories of Witch Trails’ was a timely inclusion, with the fate of the protest group MFW being challenged that week in social media forums. It was also a great pleasure to see Michelle Staff’s PhD progress into British and Australian feminists and their engagement with internationalism during the interwar period’, after initially being introduced at a previous Feminist Symposium. Taking a life stories approach Staff detailed to the audience the feminist experiences of Bessie Rischbieth and Margery Corbett Ashby, two of the twelve women she will be investigating for her thesis.

Across this panel, all speakers recognised the difficulty and power structures in play within women’s movements and feminist movements. Through their case-studies, these emerging scholars re-thought the boundaries and chronologies of women’s rights movements. Notable too was the attention these researchers paid to the liaison work done by politically active women to link ideas and networks beyond their national borders.

The next paper to give me pause as to my social and culturally assumptions was by a PhD candidate in gender studies and philosophy, Belinda Eslick. Her paper, ‘Women’s Ways of Doing Politics: Exploring the Possibility of a Feminine Politics with the Work of Luce Irigaray’, provided a theoretical discussion. Eslick’s concise argument exposed how, in research, the masculine subject is the accepted and frequently unchallenged norm by which an individual’s and community’s political action is measured. Eslick argued ‘it is not enough to merely document women’s non-institutional political activity…without challenging normative notions of politics and citizenship.’ Examining how women enact non-institutional politics is a radical challenge, one needed to document and recognise the legitimacy of women’s actions outside of institutional politics.

Then, Deborah Eddy utilised her position as an emerging mature age contemporary Australian feminist artist and researcher for the highly engaging ‘The Invisible Feminists.’ Highlighting the fact older women are frequently absent subjects from our galleries and artistic forums, Eddy utilised art to bring attention to these issues. Eddy also contended older women needed to work to bring the attention of younger feminists to their shared issues, such as sexual victimisation. Eddy critiqued the argument that older women are ‘being stereotyped as doddering, feeble and intellectually deficit.’ Eddy’s presentation certainly showed this stereotyped is problematic, as she passionately and creatively utilised craftivisim to demonstrate feminist issues. 

Likewise, Lizzy Emery’s position as a feminist scholar, artist and educator crafted a fascinating presentation of ‘Reading Feminism, Through the Feminist Craft Object.’ Emery illustrated how objects of feminism, such as the Pussyhat™, speak for some groups and, consequently, are a rich source of material evidence by which feminist history can be interpreted. Emery’s discussion highlighted the tension between capitalism as she brought her audience’s attention to the trademark. There was also substantial discussion regarding how Pussyhat™ is a protest object that is indicative of the ‘continuing dominance of white cis-gender women as the majority voice of feminism.’

Then, having completed her minor thesis in Gender Studies at Melbourne University, Sumaiya Muyeen’s, ‘’Lifting the Veil’ on white grief’ directly challenged how the mainstream media, in Australia and abroad, and their associated communities, disseminated contestable and damaging representations of Muslim bodies.  Muyeen explored the argument that ‘saving’ Other women are a form of Western violence. Examining the massacre of 51 Muslims in Christchurch and associated images of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern as a case-study Muyeen sought to answer the question of whether white grief and empathy are a form of racialised and gendered violence. Her emotive and nuance research demonstrated in this instance, Ardern’s assumption of the veil was highly problematic for some members of the Muslim community. An extensive round of questions from the audience continued to explore the themes of violence, gender, religion and national politics raised in Muyeen’s paper. These questions and responses mirrored the issues that arise in public when such topics are raised; who has the right to speak, who has the right of reply, what is the best course of action in response to massacres such as this. Ultimately, there are no easy answers and harm befalls more than physical victims.

As the day concluded, I considered this Symposium in association with the Oceania femininities and feminisms I research. I also turned my gaze to the femininities and feminisms my daughters and I interact with daily. The event was highly beneficial and the organisers should be credited, being it continued existing conversations, started new avenues of consideration and facilitated opportunities for further research. Following the urging of Emery I did research the debates surrounding Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974-1975. Directed to this work I then fell down the rabbit hole of associated social commentary. Therefore I considered who was not in the room with us on the day of the Symposium, the multiple conceptualisations of feminism, and what this means for us as scholars. All that resulted, perhaps not surprisingly, were more questions: how do we bring everyone to the table? Perhaps these discussion spaces should not be conceptualised as a table, with upper and lower elements, high and low positions. Perhaps we should instead be looking for a seat in the park. A place where our positions ebb and flow with seasons. It will be interesting to see what papers are the consequence of Feminisms/Femininities in the Lilith Journal 2020 issue.

-Deb Lee-Talbot

Photo: unsplash