Academic journal article Outskirts: feminisms along the edge

Commentary: Speaking Up for Women in the Neoliberal University

Academic journal article Outskirts: feminisms along the edge

Commentary: Speaking Up for Women in the Neoliberal University

Article excerpt

(A speech delivered to Victoria University's Feminist Research Network, 22 May 2017)

When I went to university in the second half of the 1970s we still had to argue about whether men were smarter than women, fight to write our essays on women's experience, contest sexist language, get talked over in class, deal with men disrupting women's meetings, campaign for safety on campus and against blaming the victim. There were very few academic women in ongoing positions or senior positions. Most women general staff were 'secretaries'. Some of my friends' parents only let them go to university in the hope they would find a rich husband, or at least one with good prospects.

But this was also the heyday of second wave feminism, and we were loud and proud on campus as young women, pushing our way in and backing the academic women organising, and ganging up with the mature-age women students (who were there thanks to the Whitlam Labor Government's abolition of fees, introduction of TEAS and the return to study schemes). There was one Women's Studies subject in third year sociology. There was a national 'Women and Law' conference in my second year organised by students and staff. We had student general meetings in my first year on abortion rights and for gay rights and the Australian Union of Students women's department was getting underway. The AUS women's department went from strength to strength, and was importantly a resourced women controlled entity as we campaigned for government funding of women's health and legal organisations off campus.

When I started working at Victoria University in the early 1990s, we had a major in Women's Studies and had just started a postgraduate coursework program in Women's Studies. We had postgraduate research students working on topics from overtly feminist positions. Our discourse was increasingly nuanced, interdisciplinary and cross cultural. Intersectional perspectives were in hot development and the diversity of the VU student and staff cohort invited, or insisted upon, this inclusivity. But we still found ourselves having to fight to keep the major over and over again, and for 'gender inclusive' curriculum across the university. This latter project has not been successful anywhere.

The efforts of women (and some men) in Australian higher education to mainstream, normalise--or make ordinary--gender diversity and equity in our curricula and practices has been going on for a long time, right back to the Bluestocking era of the nineteenth century. Back then women had to fight for access and then to challenge the curriculum. Consider that medical students were still taught that women should not be admitted to higher education as it would cause their womb to 'atrophy' as the finite energies fled to their head.

Much has changed, but running alongside are still the crass realities that show that nowhere near as much has changed as we anticipated. The neoliberal university makes much of its gender equity policies and high participation rates of women, yet antagonism to feminism and feminists, in all our diversities, is constant and virulent.

Despite women now being the majority of staff and students, and despite the rhetoric of equality and inclusion scattered over university mission and value statements, when it comes to determining our narrative as women we still have limited voice and agency. The neo-liberal university with its focus on the market, on the commodification of education and research, on reconstituting students as customers and research partners as clients, has no trouble speaking to the demands of liberal feminism for gender equality and even equity.

There is no shortage of excellent affirmative action policies introduced since the 1980s, which were designed to reach gender balance. They have worked to the extent that the proportion of women promoted through to senior lecturer doubled, but still less than a third get through to the next level. …

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