Susan Magarey: Australian feminism and Dangerous Ideas

We profile Professor Emerita Susan Magarey, founder of the University of Adelaide’s Research Centre for Women’s Studies, the Magarey Medal for Biography and the Australian Feminist Studies journal.

Professor Emerita Susan Magarey AM, FASSA, PhD, founded the University of Adelaide’s Research Centre for Women’s Studies (RCWS), the Magarey Medal for Biography and the Australian Feminist Studies journal. However, there still exists a “certain amount of bewilderment” about what Women’s Studies actually are, she tells The Adelaide Review. Susan Magarey was born in Brisbane in 1943 – her mother’s journey to reach the Queensland capital in the height of World War II, to reunite with her husband, a doctor deployed to the Kokoda Track, is adventure enough for a novel or two. From these daring roots sprung the woman who sits before us now, a silver cup of coffee in one hand. She leans towards you, both forearms pressed against the table, when a subject seizes her interest. In stark contrast to her parents’ harrowing wartime experience, Magarey grew up nearby to Wilderness School – where she studied – and saw life as a teenager in the 1950s. “It was the 50s, you know,” she says. “The 50s were pretty staid and dull.” These early years instilled a great love of literature in Magarey. “I was going to be the greatest writer of the 20th century,” she says, with a slightly mocking smile. “That would have been in about 1959, so” – she laughs heartily – “I didn’t quite manage that one.” Her high school study was successful, and her vocational guidance counsellor wrote a report recommending Magarey for university. “She should be allowed to go if she wants to,” Magarey recalls. “Of course I wanted to go to university. I had no idea what university would be like, but I wanted to go on being a student.” It was at university that she was introduced to the importance of recognising women’s presence in and contributions to history. A lunchtime movie session, held by the History faculty at the University of Adelaide, fuelled this feminist fire. The session involved the viewing of a documentary about the women’s camp at Auschwitz – at that stage, those atrocities were more recent in memory than the 70s are today. “Oh … I still remember that,” says Magarey with a great sigh. “We had no idea. I had no idea.” That particular film had quite an immediate impact on the young Magarey. “Of course,” she says, “then I didn’t want to be a great writer, I wanted to make films, but I hadn’t the faintest clue about how to do that.” Literature, history and this introduction to film led to a “quite poor” and “muddled” first degree, though her undergraduate qualification was to be the first of many more. After a year teaching at Brighton Secondary School, into and out of a marriage, through a PhD at ANU, riding and rolling with the Women’s Liberation movement, Susan Magarey emerged in the 1970s among contemporaries such as Anne Summers, Germaine Greer and Fay Gale, for whom the University of Adelaide’s Fay Gale Centre for Research on Gender is named. One particular memory, acting as a milestone in Magarey’s education-themed journey towards Women’s Liberation, was a chance encounter she had in the corridor at ANU in the middle of 1970. In her book Dangerous Ideas, Magarey remembers meeting Daphne Gollan, a lecturer in Russian History at ANU, one afternoon in the middle of 1970. “There’s a meeting I think you should come to,” Magarey recalls Gollan saying to her. This meeting was the first held by the Canberra Women’s Liberation group. The women’s movement in Canberra was to shape Magarey’s personal, professional and academic life for some time to come. In 1976, Magarey’s colleague Dr Ann Curthoys was appointed to a Lecturing Fellowship in the Faculty of Arts at ANU. In this role, Curthoys founded the university’s first course in Women’s Studies. They committed three years’ funding to the role. Two years into these three, however, Curthoys was offered tenure at the New South Wales Institute of Technology (now the University of Technology, Sydney), and Magarey was offered her job at ANU. Magarey recalls: “I was an active and keen participant in Women’s Liberation, but at the time this came up at ANU, I had just designed a new Australian History course and was really looking forward to teaching it. “The Dean rang me up and asked if I’d do it, because to be able to do that was going to cost them a lot less than having to advertise, and I said yes. Ann had it really well set up; our student numbers were rocketing up, and they really liked what she was teaching. “For the first year, they let me have a lot of money for visiting lecturers, so I could just sit and listen to the lectures myself, so it was a process of fairly intensive in-servicing,” Magarey says with a secret, cheeky smile. “So that was good. By the time I had been doing that for a year or two, I was totally committed.” Her work at ANU led eventually to the invitation from the University of Adelaide to come home and set up the RCWS, which operated from 1983 to 2000. It was the first research centre of its kind in Australia. “It wasn’t easy, setting it up,” says Magarey. “Nobody at Adelaide Uni seemed to have the faintest clue what ‘Women’s Studies’ might be. They wanted a research centre; they didn’t want undergraduate courses, and that puzzled me.” The RCSW was met with no shortage of confusion and derision. “I ran into quite a lot of” – she smacks one hand against the other’s palm, three times in a row – “brick walls, and a certain amount of prejudice.” She worked with the anthropology department, who then said she wasn’t allowed to set any readings. She triumphed over boorish male colleagues – one giggling the whole way through the first lecture she hosted; another demanding to know her marriage status. Still a little rankled, Magarey recounts, “There was this dick in the administration who just wasn’t going to let me have rooms for a conference I had organised because women wear high-heeled shoes and they would disturb students doing exams nearby.” Against all these blocks, Magarey built a thriving centre that invited thinkers and speakers from disciplines across the academic spectrum and across the country. She founded the Australian Feminist Studies journal – no longer run out of Adelaide, but instead published through Routledge – and the $10,000 biennial Magarey Medal for Biography. Underpinning her story is the history of the women who emerged around her, who formed and fed the theory behind the feminist movement. Magarey has been trying to write a history of Women’s Liberation in Australia since the 90s. “It’s huge and difficult,” she says. Her recently published work, Dangerous Ideas, is an attempt to get started, again. Dangerous Ideas acts as an overview of the progression of feminist thought in Australia from the crucial 70s to now. Ranging from IVF technology to sisterhood – and the intersectionality of this – to utopian futures and seminal essay The Tampon, Magarey’s book is a key resource for people looking to learn how Women’s Liberation emerged in Australia. It also helps to assuage some of the “bewilderment” about what gender studies really are. “A number of people say that it was the [contraceptive] pill that meant that women were part of the sexual revolution, and this is what brought feminism about,” explains Magarey. “Well, for a moment, maybe, until we realised that it was a way for men to say ‘you’ve got to come across, because you haven’t got the excuse that you might get pregnant anymore’. So the sexual revolution, for women, anyway, lasted for about two minutes. There were a lot of other things that determined what kicked feminism off.” A renewed interest in feminism from school students has instilled a bit of hope in Magarey, but there’s more work to be done. Getting people started is where the responsibility lies. Magarey remembers: “There was a moment when the Whitlam Government abolished fees, and all of these housewives suddenly rocked into the university and turned up in our classes saying they’d been hanging out to do this, but they were going to have to steal the money for the fees out of the housekeeping because they weren’t in paid work. “So simply being able to come to university was this wonderful liberation. One of the explanations for the rise of women’s liberation in the first place is the generation of women who did get to universities and had a massive expansion of their mental horizons; it doesn’t happen with every education – it certainly didn’t happen much with my undergraduate – but it is quite wonderful learning all this stuff, and you suddenly realise how constrained and limited your own world is.”   Dangerous Ideas by Susan Magarey is available as a free PDF download or as a hardcopy through University of Adelaide Press. Susan Magarey will be discussing her work towards a history of Australian Women’s Liberation at a special presentation on Thursday, June 18 (6pm for 6.30pm start) in the Ira Raymond Exhibition Room, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide. More information: Photos: Sia Duff

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