Feminist scholarship

When I was a child, my mother gave me a collection of “non sexist children’s literature” picture books published in the 1970s by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. My favourites were written by Adela Turin and illustrated by Nella Bosnia. In Sugarpink Rose, girl elephants are kept in an enclosure and have beautiful pink skin from eating flowers and avoiding mud, except poor Annabelle who remains stubbornly grey. In Arthur and Clementine, a husband tortoise buys his wife everything she wants and piles it on her back until she is unable to move.

It seems my feminist credentials were established early. I was thinking about these pink elephants as Vanessa Fredericks and I were undertaking a review of feminist scholarship published in Higher Education Research and Development over the last forty years. Our article, Tracing the feminist contribution of HERD over 40 years has recently been published in a special issue that celebrates HERD’s 40 year anniversary.

Reading 40 years worth of articles was surprisingly enjoyable — having Vanessa as a co-researcher certainly helped — and happily feminist scholarship is not quite as rare as pink elephants. In its 40-year history, HERD has published 1,472 articles in total. Our analysis identified 52 articles as feminist. We coded titles, keywords and abstracts using Acker and Wagner’s (2019) definition:

In general terms, feminist research is thought to put women and gender at the centre of analysis; to deconstruct unequal power relations (not limited to gender); to work towards the improvement of women’s lives; to value participant voices; to emphasise care and collectivity and de-emphasize hierarchy; and to acknowledge the situational nature of knowledge and the importance of researcher positionality and reflexivity (p 70).

We highlight some gems, including Briony Lipton’s (2017) ‘Measures of success’ which uses Berlant’s theorisation of ‘cruel optimism’, when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing, to examine how ‘our attachment to gender equity and diversity policies as tools for improving the representation of women may be detrimental’ (p 487). Another notable work of theorisation is Emily Henderson’s (2015) article on academic conferences, which undertakes a Butlerian analysis of an autobiographical experience of naming and misgendering at a conference.

Special issues have proved fruitful for feminist research, especially Ō tātou reo, Na domoda, Kuruwilang birad: Indigenous Voices in Higher Education (2021), Queering the academy (2015) and Leading the academy (2014). Well worth reading (or re-reading).

Our conclusion is that there remains significant work to be done in conducting, publishing, citing and evaluating feminist scholarship in higher education.

As a starting point, we encourage higher education scholars to consider keywords and citations in your writing. In Living a Feminist Life (2017), Ahmed is explicit about the politics of citation as feminist memory. Explore the scholarly contributions of queer, non-binary, Indigenous and global south higher education researchers. And promote diversity in scholarly publishing among authors and editorial boards. This can start with your responses as a reviewer.

I’ll end with a quote from Sugarpink Rose: “Annabelle scampered out of the garden enclosure, took off her booties and collar and pretty pink bow, and went to play in the tall grass, amidst trees full of delicious fruit, and in the mud puddles.”

It feels wrong to end a post with muddy puddles, given the widespread flooding across the east coast of Australia. And my heart is with the Ukraine. I hope readers are keeping safe.

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