- “We’re Not Afraid of the ‘F Word”:Storying Our Voices and Experiences of Women and Gender Studies in Australian Universities
I could tell her house from the others as soon as I turned down the street—a modest bluestone cottage in an inner suburb of Melbourne, complete with a rambling front garden of roses, lavender, alyssum, and daisies. I had not had time to think about meeting her, but now that the moment was approaching, I felt extremely nervous. As far as women’s liberation went, she was the “real deal,” and the opportunity to interview her felt like a once in a lifetime occasion. The iron gate squeaked as I opened it, and not wanting to make any more noise than necessary, I hesitantly pressed the doorbell. Moments later, a delicately framed woman with white hair came to the door. “Hi . . . Merle? I’m Liz,” I said and reached forward to introduce myself.
She took my hand and gently kissed my cheek. “Welcome to my home,” Merle said and gestured for me to come inside. We walked down a narrow corridor to the end of the house, the walls lined with black and white family photos and more recent colour snaps of her children and grandchildren. Nodding for me to sit down, Merle placed herself on a wooden chair opposite. “Before we begin,” she spoke quietly and with authority, “I am curious to know how and why it is that you come to be here with me in my dining room?”
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Some of us might know Merle Thornton as the mother of Sigrid Thornton (a well-known Australian actor); as the feisty feminist who famously chained herself to the bar at the Regatta hotel in Brisbane in 1965 for women’s right to drink and inhabit the same public social spaces as men (Thornton, “Our Chains”); or perhaps as the political activist who fiercely and [End Page 126] successfully fought to overturn the commonwealth marriage ban on women working in the public service in 1966 (Thornton, “Scenes”). Few of us are aware that Merle Thornton began the first women’s studies course in Australia at the University of Queensland in 1972.
It was this groundbreaking chapter in her life, and indeed women and gender studies in Australia, that had brought me face to face with Merle. “Well, I’ve been teaching in women and gender studies since 1997,” I explained. “We’re writing a position paper about the history and strengths of our discipline, but we’ve realised that we don’t actually know how and why women’s studies began at UQ. All we know is that it was the first course of its kind in Australia and that you were the woman who made it happen.” I paused. “You see, we find ourselves struggling against the neo-liberal surge to ‘de-profile’ (Baird 112) difficult disciplines such as ours and we now have to justify why we should continue to exist as an area of undergraduate study.”
Merle nodded knowingly. “Yes, sustaining women’s studies was never going to be easy—a lot of the regressive politics of today are a reaction against the success of the women’s movement—there are still those who would wish to see us disappear,” she murmured. “That’s why I’m not afraid to say the ‘f word’—both of them in fact!”
The title of this paper “underscores the status of feminism as unspeakable” (Weber 125) within contemporary culture and draws inspiration from the well-known 1962 play and later Hollywood film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. “Who’s Afraid?” attempts to portray and analyse the damaging effects of traditional and stereotypical gender roles, particularly for women, and the name itself references feminist author and writer Virginia Woolf. In what is considered one of her openly feminist works, Three Guineas, Woolf (63) develops in detail the arguments around the social, political, and cultural institutions that combine to keep women dependent on and unable to access the power of men (Bowlby 19). With particular reference to education, she commented on the academic procession of men...