Future Appointments in Feminist History

Article excerpt

It was a dejected image invoked by Jill Matthews in 1986 when she spoke of women historians chancing upon a few 'women worthies', 'grazing quietly' by 'the male stream'. (1) It is even gloomier to picture ourselves there again, chewing the cud of Howard's culture wars and wondering who will want the milk of our discredited knowledge. The unmistakable intent to further marginalise our manner of history-making relies on the assertion that it has ascended, unwarranted, to dominance, side-lining the true, capital-'F' Facts of nation-building to the grey matter of school children's indoctrinated minds.

This purported dominance of feminist history, of course, bears as much relation to historiography as Andrew Bolt's rantings do to journalism. There are many cultural war horses just as ready as he, bristling with enthusiasm, to mistake their own paucity of historical understanding with omniscience. It is an effortless bit of renunciation: if I don't know anything about it, it doesn't exist. And thereby the persistent unpleasantries of nation-building, such as widely documented Indigenous child removal, can be dispensed with. Tra la la.

How many, I wonder, are quietly wishing from the archives that something truly historical would befall these fulminating columnists and broadcasters who hang off our venerable Prime Minister's bottom lip and anything that issues from it.

In such a climate of strategically disingenuous ARC applications, valiantly rephrasing the methodologies and disciplines once shamelessly bannering our undergraduate course descriptions, a Lilith conference is hardly an innocent gathering.

Reflecting on the future of feminist history might have renewed purpose. It might dovetail nicely with the new imperative of Knowledge Transfer, as we aspire to particular sorts of Impacts--body blows to Howard's body politic. And yet the conditions of that participation in these contestations of past significance may circumscribe who says what.

As Natasha Campo's research presented at the Lilith conference shows, the attack on feminist history has been framed as maternal repudiation. Self-proclaiming Daughters have invoked the peculiar witnessing of the day-to-day, and it seems to them so close and intimate, the likelihood that their feminist mothers may have had a past of any note let alone notoriety is deftly renounced with that same discursive elision: if I don't know about it, it couldn't have happened.

Katie Holmes remarked on the mirror of the daughter. It almost seems that the status of daughter cannot be sustained in grown women if certain histories are not absented. The disappearing act of women within history Holmes reflected on is then redeemed by the chivalry of male historians who take an interest from time to time, but then drift along in their male stream undetoured.

Helen Masterman-Smith made an interesting distinction when she spoke of feminist history as a political and not just an intellectual project. With all the external pressures of renunciations and repudiations of our history and history-making I've been traversing that line again, wondering if praxis is such a comfort after all, if there isn't something to be said for making a distinction between analysis and taking a position. Then again, the very wrestle for historical significance, the real and painful loss of collective memory for the kitchen-table movements that Helen described in the working-class women she researched confirms again that those things relegated to the invisible--domesticity, locality, community--are gendered. Can they have political effects if they are not made visible to history? When Terri Grote spoke of the ways the political activism of first-wave feminists were construed as exhibitionism in the 'full blaze of political life', she in part answered this question.

Visibility and the morass of strategic and moral meanings it unleashes were untangled in Pei Yuxin's work on 'beautiful women writers'. …