Academic journal article Hecate

WOMEN'S STUDIES IN THE '90S: WHAT DIFFERENCE?

Academic journal article Hecate

WOMEN'S STUDIES IN THE '90S: WHAT DIFFERENCE?

Article excerpt

This paper is the synthesis of a rather longer written paper and the more colloquial, shorter version presented in the final session of the conference, "Bringing it Together." Given the range of issues covered by the earlier speakers it would have been impossible to take the session's title too seriously. This is yet another attempt to try to find out what `it' is, and worry about why `it' is so elusive.

Women's Studies seems a fruitful site for interrogating the relationship of Women, Theory and Australia, not least because it has itself been such a contested area within feminist politics. One of the pleasures of the conference has been hearing how so many of the concerns I have been struggling with as a co-ordinator of Women's Studies can be articulated in different ways from different perspectives while still maintaining some sense of common interests.

In my discussion I am drawing heavily on the specific context of my own teaching at a tertiary institution in the outer-Western region of Melbourne, so I want to spend a little time in establishing that context. The Western Institute was opened in early 1987 in an area that has a low tertiary participation rate, was heavily industrial but now has increasing unemployment, and has a high proportion of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. It was hailed as an innovatory institution, combining TAFE and Advanced Education programs, and initially had two `schools:' Business and Community Studies. Four years later the Institute is the smallest of three partners in an amalgamation forming the Victoria University of Technology. Within the Institute there are now four faculties: Business, Health Science, Applied Sciences, and Humanities. The original cross-sectoral staffing arrangement has reverted to a separation between traditional TAFE and Advanced Education sectors.

The Australia with which I am concerned here is the one I would identify as in the process of construction through, in part, those policies associated with Dawkins that have been instrumental in dismantling the original community focus of the Western Institute. These policies establish a particular hegemony of business and government alliances through the definition of what Gramsci calls "national tasks"(1) and Australian Government policy documents like the Dawkins' "White Paper" (Canberra 1988) call "national priorities." It is hard to work out, from within a marginalised faculty inside a University of Technology, where or how Women's Studies can be placed within this Australia.

The Australia being busily produced out of DEET-defined national tasks purports to join together the interests of economic rationalism and social justice. Marxism and feminism may have needed Heidi Hartmann as a marriage counsellor, but the yoking of the other two seems to be the product of a computer-dating service. The "White Paper" is essentially a bank statement: students will draw on educational capital in the university, top up their savings, and then pay back the loan by working at those national tasks - and more concretely by paying back HECS. The banking model of education is of course not new, but what is new to the Australian system is the emergence of an official discourse that assumes the supremacy of the economic and translates the banking metaphor literally and explicitly into education.

The effect of this discourse is to homogenise or disguise difference. As Jane Kenway (1989) has pointed out, this list of Australia's national priorities pays little attention to issues of gender or ethnicity. The delivery of social justice is equated with a topping-up of deficits whereby those called out as `disadvantaged' are given temporary borrowing rights so that they can become just solvent enough to participate in the national, nationalist agenda. Leaving aside the questionable value of multicultural policies, it is worth noting that multiculturalism is not a term of reference within the "White Paper. …

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