Embedded misogyny: the academic erasure of women

We recently attended the annual conference of the peak scholarly body in our field. These conferences are great – always warmly supportive of established and new academics. On the last day, most of us packed into a large lecture theatre to listen to the plenary speaker. Natalie was buzzing after chairing a fantastic panel on Indigenous storytelling and the ways we can more meaningfully incorporate this into our teaching pedagogies. As well as criticisms, the papers offered strategies for moving forwards and some models that could be used in research and the classroom. Enza had been to a session where presentations evocated discussion on the nature of imagination and play in research and knowledge generation in a contemporary world. We both walked into the auditorium brimming with ideas.

Plenaries can be conference highlights. Last year at two different conferences Tony Birch and Rita Felski delivered searing, thought-provoking plenary sessions, both of which have changed the way many in the audience teach, write and research. At this conference the plenary speaker was cloaked in impressive accolades: a Professor from the UK, a translator of and collaborator with a renowned French theorist, and the author of sixteen books. Most of his work looks at cultural fields, the ways these are created, and the dynamics within them. It looked like it would be an interesting talk.

It wasn’t.

‘The Professor’ proceeded to talk for forty minutes about music as well as other artistic endeavours such as literature and visual art. To ‘map the field’ he dropped names like boiled sweets – John Keats, Henry James, William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Beatles – do you see where we’re going yet?

In forty minutes he managed to discuss the work of 44 male artists influential to him and/or his biographical subject. When it came to women, he mentioned three (one of whom was only referred to as someone’s mother). Women musicians, as well as artists and writers, were made invisible, evidence of them and their work wiped from ‘the field’.

By the end of the talk, Natalie was exhausted and livid. She wanted, desperately, to ask The Professor how he had managed to overlook generations of female artists in all of these fields, but didn’t think she could ask the question in any civil way. She left.

Outside Natalie was joined by several other academics who had quietly walked out of address, and some who were too smart to go in in the first place. The academics Natalie spoke to included men and women from several different ethnic backgrounds. No-one could believe that at a conference in a creative field in Australia in 2016, a plenary speaker could be so blind to gender (and to race, for that matter – but that’s a whole other paper).

Sitting in the middle of a row, Enza couldn’t leave, instead complaining to her neighbours, all women, who nodded in frustrated agreement. When The Professor finally finished, a number of men in the audience raised their hands and asked questions about methodology, about the period, about music. Fuming Enza raised her hand, ‘My question is about the women,’ she said, trying to phrase her question as politely as she could out of respect for the conference organisers. ‘Why is it that in your mapping of the field you have not mentioned women musicians at all?’

The Professor’s response; ‘Well the musician’s mother was important and he did have a wife …’

‘That was not my question,’ Enza called out, the microphone already out of reach.

He went on to tell us that the musician had a wife who was not musical but went along with him to gigs and collected the money. Another woman asked a question focusing on the fact that his examples were all also predominantly white men. Again The Professor shrugged the question off, saying something about his subject being a man, and that you can’t include everyone.

Over lunch many other academic women joined in critiquing The Professor and it became obvious that the silencing of women artists we had just witnessed in the plenary session had infuriated many of us.

The experience prompted several issues. Most disturbing was that so many of us – strong, articulate feminist academics – had just sat there, mute, polite, civil, while this man spoke of three artistic fields in such a way to erase women’s contributions entirely. Why didn’t more of us ask questions, or storm out? We had the numbers on our side in this particular gathering (women outnumber men in the creative writing field). The Professor’s talk not only made women invisible but it silenced those present – why? Was it because of the work so many good women had put into the conference organising, and our desire to not make trouble for them, to not be those feminist ‘killjoys’? Was it because academia is so hierarchical and the ‘authority’ we bestow on senior white male academics seems impossible to challenge even when their work is so obviously flawed? Or were we so exhausted, angry and frustrated by the continual dismissal of women that we did not have the energy to fight?

The Professor was not aware, or did not care, that he was addressing a roomful of women academics and that most of us are practising artists as well. We publish books and win awards. Why didn’t The Professor take his audience into account when preparing for this talk – what stopped him mentioning names such as Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickenson, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Sylvia Plath? Surely he could have mentioned Margaret Preston, Georgia O’Keefe or Louise Bourgeois? And if he wanted to talk about female folk singers, then there are women like Odetta, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez as well as countless others who have made significant and lasting contributions to shaping that genre. Yet these women’s names, as well as the names of artists of colour who have played a major role in shaping contemporary music across genres, were all omitted.

This smacks of academic laziness – a laziness resulting in research that continues to promote the work of white men, while rendering women and people of colour invisible.

This has made us think about the importance of vetting keynote speakers. When speakers actively silence their audience and ignore questions raised, then not much can be learned. Indeed, such a response is a disservice to all attendees of academic conferences.

But the experience also makes us think that it is time to re-evaluate how we determine whose work is of merit, whose work is funded and published. If a scholar is cloaked in accolades, as The Professor is, but actively ignores everyone other than white male authors and artists, then how comprehensive can his knowledge be? We need to stop thinking of these concerns simply as issues of diversity or inclusion, and rather as the actual foundation of what we call academic knowledge.



Natalie Kon-yu

Natalie Kon-Yu is a lecturer at Victoria University and has been published nationally and internationally. Most recently, she was a contributor to and co-editor of the collection #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement (2019).

More by Natalie Kon-yu ›

Enza Gandolfo

Enza Gandolfo is a Melbourne writer. Her acclaimed second novel The Bridge was shortlisted for the Stella Prize 2019. She is an honorary professor in creative writing at Victoria University.

More by Enza Gandolfo ›

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  1. I did not attend the talk, but if the professor was speaking about those who’s work was influential to himself, why should he have spoken about anyone who’s work did not in fact influence him?

    Do you say he should have lied and stated he was influenced by various women in the field when he in fact was not? Certainly you can question why he did not hold any women in those fields to be an influence on him, but what was his purpose there? Was it to talk about his own experiences or give some reassuring affirmation to the audience about the presence of women in academia?

    But the experience also makes us think that it is time to re-evaluate how we determine whose work is of merit, whose work is funded and published. If a scholar is cloaked in accolades, as The Professor is, but actively ignores everyone other than white male authors and artists, then how comprehensive can his knowledge be? We need to stop thinking of these concerns simply as issues of diversity or inclusion, and rather as the actual foundation of what we call academic knowledge.

    What an asinine comment from someone who calls themselves an academic. Surely the merit of work is inherent in the work itself and the logical strength of its positions and arguments, not in regards to whom it does or does not make reference to.

    1. I’m racking my brain trying to come up with a field in which female artists haven’t made a lasting contribution. I can’t think of one.

      Also, regarding meritocracy: like any field in which people have been shut out of the means of knowledge production, academia is not built upon meritocracies.

  2. Bravo to both of you. My blood boiled as I read this piece -yet what occurred seems so commonplace. As common as boiled sweets. The sense of male entitlement displayed by the guest-speaker is fortress-like.. Blind arrogance, and dare I say it a type of violence. I understand why you didn’t name him, but if only all those who were present at his talk could write a letter to the speaker -articulating exactly what you have done here.

  3. Impossible to judge, really unless you actually give us details. Who this dude was, script of his talk… Otherwise I might have to agree with Bob above. Some fields have been historically male-dominated so it is still possible for academics to have an area of focus where men predominate.

    1. The author has clearly stated that the fields mentioned were general–and has demonstrated that they do have many women of note. You’re enacting a kind of violence yourself here, demanding to read the script like it’s some kind of original artefact. Also, the point of a keynote is to make broad statements, which, no matter how small your field, should include women and people of colour.

  4. Thank you both! Great article, so frustrating. This is not isolated. Rosi Braidotti jut spoke at VCA in impassioned tones about the “erasure” of 30 year of female-written feminist scholarship. Complete and active erasure. So infuriating. Let’s keep speaking truth to power – thank you Enza and Natalie!!

    1. Argh! I’m annoyed I missed hearing Braidotti speak about this, but thanks for your kind words, Anne. It’s a thrill to be mentioned in the same sentence (as it were) as Braidotti!

  5. Congratulations for writing this powerful piece on the banal, ignorant and stultifying inability of some academics to see, much less recognise, even the possibility of women as creative intellectual forces. Despite the numbers of women in these fields their occlusion persists – in all male panels, male ‘international keynotes’ and their absurd invisibility in the scholarship itself. And as for ‘historically male-dominated’ fields – oh please, stop! These authors nailed it – this is vapid, lazy scholarship and it is time to call it out.

  6. ‘”Why have there been no great women artists?” The question tolls reproachfully in the background of most discussions of the so-called woman problem. But like so many other so-called questions involved in the feminist “controversy,” it falsifies the nature of the issue at the same time that it insidiously supplies its own answer: “There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness.”‘

    Amazing how little has seemingly changed in the past 45 years, based on this comments thread

  7. I stand side by side with you on this issue. Happens all the time, and is never any less infuriating and frustrating. But I wonder why we don’t name names? Or why we often feel most inclined to say something and get angry when it’s an ‘outsider’ speaking? Other case in point, the Lionel Shriver uproar earlier in the year.

  8. I was there, I walked out. Not because of the lack of women mentioned – that was a symptom of the disease, and the disease was chronic late-career intellectual narcolepsy. He wasn’t so much talking as snoring.

    More troubling still was that he actually succeeded in getting a sizeable portion of the audience to sing along to The Streets of fncking London before they even started to twitch. Come on, people. That was the smoke alarm going off right there and if you didn’t hear it maybe you deserved to choke in your seats. Anyway, this is the true cost of giving Dylan the Nobel. If I had a hammer.

  9. I have had many such experiences. The most recent was Thomas Picketty at the Jaipur Literary Festival. I sat and sat and waited for this global bal star to say something that a) had not been said long ago by feminist economists and b) acknowledge that women live in the world and should be part of every economic theory. Neither occurred. I fumed and thought, how come this man has become such a star? I am widely read in this field and have written papers and presented at feminist economics conferences. I was sitting a very long way back and tried to get in a question. With luck Bina Argawal was sitting in the front row and asked a question not dissimilar from the one doing the rounds in my head. His answer was more than inadequate. He did not seem to know about feminist theories.

    As an aside, if you want to know what I think not just about feminist economics but also economics taking into account Indigenous and ecological and class issues, my book Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity is available here: http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=171

  10. I was very relieved you asked your question, Enza. Ay the time it articulated my own semi-formed, racing thoughts. As to why more of us didn’t leave or express fury earlier, I would add in our collective defence that the nature of the talk was a chronological progression through a biography – perhaps women would pop up as we neared the present? It was only super clear by the end that they wouldn’t. Appalling, but not unusual. Actually, what I found astounding was that he didn’t seem to understand the Q put to him on whether this absence was a reflection of the field of the subject of his biography or rather of the field of the biographer. Ie, were there no women in X’s life or did he, the writer of X, struggle to see/look for/recognise them? Basic stuff really, and by the way he tried to side-step the question it’s clear it had already gone over his head.

  11. Yes Kay, his defensiveness over Enza’s question was unfortunate in that it was completely unreflexive. I think he was (though he wouldn’t admit it) chastened by the whole episode. IT was a surprise to us all. Well done on calling it out Enza and Natalie.

  12. Thank you Natalie and Enza,
    this article has given me the ethical and intellectual support I feel that I need to be more proactive at conferences when these instances arise. With this article you have turned something deeply unproductive into something very very productive for thought and conversation.

  13. Great article – grim to think that academics can be so tunnel-visioned…

    An interesting point that isn’t really mentioned in the article – everyone name-dropped by the academic comes from a Western country!

    There is a dearth of interest amongst the general populace in the Anglosphere on culture from non-Western nations, unless it’s something we can “relate to”, e.g. Gagnam Style!

  14. You are absolutely right Lorry. It was quite stark and obvious on the day. However we focused on the gender angle as our audience was primarily female, and still, sadly, primarily white. But the issue of race in academia remains just as problematic as the issue of gender. I’ve just written a piece on the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the Australian publishing industry, so I’m very aware of the issue.

  15. Ouch, shame their is such academic blindness! Though cuts both ways. I’m a white middle aged heterosexual male, from a disadvantaged background. I will not attend educational academic conference keynotes as I feel I’m a target. I did not kill the aboriginal people, I am not responsible for racism in academia, I am not rich, I am more interested in knowledge than gender.
    I did not do it and am fed up being blamed for it.

  16. “Why didn’t more of us ask questions … ” as female academics, we need to ask more questions. In numerous academic scenarios I see question time dominated by males while females hang back (with some exceptions). Need to get our thoughts / questions out there at question time … don’t hang back.

  17. I was one of those who walked out of this keynote (lasted about 30 mins) — partly for the reasons mentioned, but also out sheer boredom to be honest. It was a stupefying speech.

  18. It is horrible and painful to hear that the speaker erased female artists by omission. Especially relative at this point in history due to the constant erasure of opposing thought by college professors . This erasure of women is just another example of many. How dare you question their authority! Many of them ,arrogant in their ignorance, constantly erase sexual orientation, gender, and political thought on a regular basis. Who is empowering them? The universities. If more than 50 percent of the students are female, the staff should reflect that as well. Female students especially need to make sure their education dollars are spent at institutions that honestly and openly support them with their actions Not just academic pedigrees . Just talking the politically correct talk is how an arrogant ,ignorant “academic ” becomes a keynote speaker .

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