Growing up in 1980s Australia, I thought that the battle for equal rights for women was pretty much won. Sure, there was still the gender pay gap to be reckoned with and it was pretty clear that white women - especially middle-class white women – were the main beneficiaries of all those social and cultural changes women had been agitating for throughout the 20th century.
In the 80s there were: female prime ministers (although not yet in Australia); people laughing in horror at the old sexist advertising that proliferated the previous decade (remember the Chiko Roll posters in fish and chip shops?); women musicians in bands I liked who didn’t feel compelled anymore to dress ‘feminine’ to appeal to their loudmouth audiences (looking at you, Joan Jett); and my two sisters and I believed that we could do whatever we liked if we worked hard and had good values.
Yet here we are in 2018 hearing news reports about ongoing and systemic harassment and assault of women in industries where celebrity women are deemed to have ‘made it’. We are still reading horrifying statistics about domestic violence in our country and others, women in the public eye are continually subjected to vitriolic and brutal comment, especially online - and we still haven’t fixed that pay gap.
So much has progressed, but so much needs to be done. Women are standing up to say #MeToo, but we might also wonder why we are not asking #WhyStill?
It’s perhaps not immediately obvious why and how a bunch of humanities scholars can grapple with these sorts of issues, especially not humanities scholars like myself, a medieval historian.
But it’s what humanities scholars can bring to the table when advocating for and creating change that makes us so powerful in these contemporary debates – perhaps now more than ever.
This is why I’m setting up a research network of humanities scholars to grapple with the topic of Women and Power. We want to bring our skills to bear on some of the big issues of our time - and the subject of women and power is one of the biggest we currently face.
I’m in a position of some power myself – I’m a Head of School (the first female head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry) and I’m a professor, so I’m in a place where I can influence others and set some directions that might have an impact. In my professional life, I choose to do this by mentoring, support, and giving people a voice where I can. And I do this through my own academic work, of which our Women and Power network is apart of.
I’m a historian of a long distant past where power relations were different, grounded in concepts and practices that seem alien to us, and where social and cultural expectations and encounters need to be carefully understood as products of their time and place. My own disciplinary training has taught me to attend to the reasons and meanings behind inequalities and understandings of gender. I might be reading about the men and women of the 13th century, but I’m also thinking about why they thought and acted the way they did, and what was behind their value systems, beliefs, and actions.
"We want to bring scholars together to work out ways of participating in conversations that are currently conducted in the public sphere without us."
To do that, I like other humanities scholars, deploy the skills of my particular discipline. And I try to do what other humanities scholars do so well. We in the humanities are exceptional at understanding contexts, we are adept at critical reasoning and analysis, we communicate our ideas creatively and persuasively, and we are wonderful writers. We are also good at empathy and compassion (or we should be), and we try to be sensitive to all the forces – cultural, historical, social, intellectual, political, religious – that govern what people think is right or wrong, how they choose to behave, what they think is important and why, and how they give meaning to their lives and their worlds. We put people at the centre of our fields of inquiry in all sorts of ways.
Our network wants to use our combined skills in all these ways to talk about women and power in a range of contexts. We want to bring scholars together to work out ways of participating in conversations that are currently conducted in the public sphere without us. We want to show that not only are humanities scholars useful to have around when you are talking about how to fix structures and relationships between people - but also that we are necessary. Big ambitions? Yes. But then, we think that there’s so much to gain from listening to us.
Professor Megan Cassidy-Welch
Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry