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Clare Wright: one of many women historians carving a role as a public intellectual. Dan Himbrechts/AAP

How women historians smashed the glass ceiling

Earlier this year, I visited Federation University to partake in the ritual get-together of Australian historians: the Australian Historical Association annual conference. Each July, around 500 historians converge upon a nominated university, and spend a week sharing research, catching up with colleagues and drinking too much coffee.

This year, as we contended with the Ballarat drizzle, I was struck by the number of women who had descended upon this iconic working man’s town. I presented my paper on an all-female panel – one of many listed on the program. At tea breaks, I was greeted by a sea of female faces. When I tallied up the names in the conference program, the results were striking: 64% of papers were presented by a woman.

Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel (2016). Black Inc.

Several months later, I read ANU historian Tom Griffiths’ The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft (2016). An eloquent meditation on “the art and craft of history in Australia,” Griffiths’ account of 14 prominent historians has deservedly received high praise. But the book, as Griffiths freely admits, is a “personal” account of his “favourite historians.” The individuals highlighted reflect Griffiths’ own passion for environmental history and the creative aspects of history making. Five chapters profile women, but gender is not the focus here.

Yet as my conference experience suggests, we can also give an account of the “craft of history in Australia” that has women and gender at its heart. Since the 1970s, the profession has become conspicuous for the number of women in its ranks and the widespread acceptance of feminist scholarship. Compared to both the male-dominated STEM disciplines, and other social sciences like philosophy and political science, Australian history has been remarkably feminised.

This was the conclusion of a recent ANU enquiry into the status of gender in the social sciences. The results, published in 2014, found that history was “the discipline most changed by feminist scholarship.” When it came to “improving the participation of women” and “mainstreaming feminist approaches and gender scholarship,” history departments were judged “impressively successful.”

The Australian Historical Association leadership is symptomatic of this broader trend. The current president, vice president and the two immediate past presidents are all female. This is not a recent phenomenon: women have sat at the helm of the Association for 14 of the past 20 years.

Women also fare well when it comes to funding from the Australian Research Council. Of the nine Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards granted to history in 2016, five were secured by women. And of the 23 history Discovery projects funded in the latest round, 16 have female Chief Investigators.

These statistics are reflected in who gets published. Over the five-year window from 2012-16, 62.5% of research articles published in the journal Australian Historical Studies had a female author. The same is true of History Australia, where 56.5% of authors were women.

History also has a relatively high number of female Fellows of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences. At present, 38.5% of history fellows are women. This is in contrast to philosophy (23%), political science (26%), education (20%) and economics (10%). Of the major social science disciplines, only sociology (42.5% female) can boast a more impressive gender ratio.

And Australian history may even be outperforming its international counterparts. Former AHA president Angela Woollacott believes that “history in Australia has a higher profile of women than in the UK or US.”

Exciting new histories

Fellow former AHA president Marilyn Lake also maintains that women are writing the “most exciting new histories.” As she noted at a recent book launch, women have spearheaded the “new wave of Australian history,” which places the national story in its global and regional contexts.

Not all these women historians focus on gender in their research, but there are abundant signs that feminist scholarship is also going strong. In 2012 the long-running feminist history journal Lilith was revived after a short hiatus, while earlier this year the Australian Women’s History Network launched a blog that publishes new perspectives on gender history several times per week.

And the mainstreaming of gender within Australian history is not limited to women. The ANU’s Frank Bongiorno, for instance, a stalwart of labour and political history, has written about sexuality and gender in The Sex Lives of Australians (2012) – the book selected by expert judges to win the Australian history category in the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

How do we explain this state of affairs? Woollacott stresses the “methodological synergies” between gender history and the cultural and postcolonial “turns” that have reshaped the discipline as a whole. Others have pointed to the prominent role of historians within women’s liberation and university gender studies programs.

Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath, Marian Quartly, Creating A Nation (1994). McPhee Gribble Publishers

Woollacott agrees that the generation of feminist historians who came of age during the 1970s played a pivotal role. Reacting against the masculinist mythologies espoused by radical nationalist historians during the 1950s and 60s, these scholars rewrote Australian history from a feminist perspective — a project that culminated in the co-authored Creating a Nation (1994). And importantly, these trailblazing women also provided role models for those who followed.

Of course, the picture is not all rosy. Less than 40% of female Academy Fellows is hardly gender parity. Nor is history immune from structural forms of gender inequity at work in society at large. Across all professions, women continue to bear the brunt of childcare and domestic labour, with almost inevitable consequences for career progression.

And as Lake laments, male historians loom large in the public sphere. For every female public intellectual such as La Trobe historian Clare Wright, we can point to a host of men such as Stuart Macintyre and Geoffrey Blainey who “write as authorities on ‘the nation’” and “dominate the public perception” of historical scholarship.

Even so, in an age of persistent gender inequality, the feminisation of Australian history represents a rare cause for celebration. But it also provides cause for reflection.

As we continue the conversation about the “craft of history in Australia,” it worth asking what this female and feminist presence means for the tales we tell about our past. And if, as Griffiths writes, history has a “daily revolutionary influence,” how can we best use this feminised scholarship to reimagine a nation in which (white) men and their stories still predominate?

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