The strike that won a feminist philosophy department

Revisiting the radical beginnings of gender studies at USyd.

In June 1974, a small group of feminists and leftist activists took on the historic fight to set up the first women’s studies course at the University of Sydney and the second in the country.  What began as an administrative fight to implement the course “Women and Philosophy” turned into a month- long strike. The result of which was not only the successful implementation of the course but a second Philosophy Department that was fully autonomous and under the democratic control of students and staff. As student activists today, looking at the success of the strike can give us hope and inspiration for what collective action can achieve. 

From the mid 1960s, universities in Australia followed the global trend of rapid expansion. Instead of exclusively educating the country’s elite, universities opened up to middle and working class students. Although many of these students embraced the counterculture of the post-war era, the ivory tower remained a pillar of conservatism and chauvinism. Students filled lecture halls to capacity but were unsatisfied by the teaching content, particularly as issues such as the anti-Vietnam War movement began to take hold and student left wing clubs became hubs of activism and resistance. Students also began to criticise the role of universities as “degree factories” where education was, and continues to be, transactional and designed to produce productive workers. Academics and students alike began revolting and pushing through alternative forms of education. Occupations, free lectures, and protests for the formal introduction of new courses were all methods to change what was the stifling nature of university education. 

In the US, the fight for radical education merged with the Women’s Liberation Movement as women began criticising how university was a male dominated space – both physically and academically. Although women were entering university in significant numbers, women who were academics were few and far between and there were hardly any courses, let alone studies, that prioritised the experience and oppression faced by women. After a year of intense organising, the first women’s studies program was established in 1970 at San Diego State College, and this campaign spearheaded the fight for women’s studies courses around the world. During the early years, setting up these courses and departments took extremely radical action. Many courses were taught in unofficial ways before they became formalised – with faculty members often going without pay to teach students and non-student community members alike. 

Taking inspiration from these events, Flinders University became the first university in Australia to follow suit, and in 1972 they began the process of setting up a women’s studies course under the Philosophy Department. This course would be self-managed, group-assessed, open to members of the community, and with an emphasis on practical knowledge and activism. One of the feminist academics involved in this fight, Jean Curthoys, moved to Sydney University the year after and so began the process of replicating the success of the course there. 

It’s worth noting how revolutionary these actions were. The Women’s Liberation movement had only just arrived in Australia. With groups setting up in 1969 and 1970, their work focused on spreading awareness and coming to theoretical conclusions on women’s oppression. It was also a time in the movement where the women involved had come from other activist groups and left wing spaces and so tied their experience of oppression to other forms of injustice. Setting up these courses was also a fight to rethink education, to get rid of the divide between students and teachers, and to give education  a practical grounding. 

At USyd, management were failing in their attempts to stifle their students’ radicalism. Although the “Women and Philosophy” course proposal was accepted to be taught under the Philosophy Faculty by faculty members, the head of the Department, Professor David Armstrong, refused. In a meeting he presented a detailed list of objections to the course and questioned the validity of the course in the university and in the Department of Philosophy.

Students did not give up easily. On June 28th, a general meeting of over 300 students and staff gathered in the Quad to pass a motion in favour of Jean Curthoys and another academic Elizabeth Jacka teaching the course “Philosophy of Feminist Thought”. This group invaded a private meeting of the highest decision-making body at the University, the Professorial Board, and presented the motion and a list of hundreds of petition signatures for the course. While this didn’t sway the Board’s decision, it did spur on another General Meeting to decide whether or not to strike. 

It was voted two to one that a general strike of unlimited duration would take place until the Professorial Board accepted the course. A month-long strike erupted. Numerous staff and students in Philosophy were the first to strike but were quickly joined by other departments, including Italian, Government, Fine Arts and History. Activists picketed classes that were not on strike. A ‘Women’s Embassy’ was set up in the quadrangle and was used to talk to and leaflet passing students. As the weeks passed, the strike received media attention and amassed more support.

The Builders Labourers Federation banned all work on construction on campus, and Jack Mundey declared that building would only resume when the “university altered its sexist policies.” The Clothing Trades Union and the Shop Assistants Union — both female dominated unions — gave their support and highlighted the importance of launching women’s studies courses.  Although feminists spearheaded the fight, other left groups and particularly socialists gave support. This reflected the solidarity that was present between left groups during this time. It also reflected how this fight was not only about setting up a course that discussed feminism, but also for student democracy in education. 

The strike was an absolute success; the protestors won not only the implementation of the course, but additionally the splitting of the Department of Philosophy into two departments. The Department of General Philosophy was born, departing from the cultures and practices of the pre-existing  Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy. It’s not surprising that enrolments to the second Department tripled those of the first. Not only did the course teach feminist subjects, but it also strove to be fully democratic. Both staff and students had the right to speak and vote on matters of course content, assessment and appointments. Meetings of up to 500 students were not unheard of, and exams were eliminated. In some subjects, students even assessed themselves. 

Because of the democratic nature of the course, there were many highly charged debates about what the course should teach and what it should represent. In a paper reflecting on the experience, Jean Curthoys explains how after students won, the department and their different political currents had opposing ideas of how it should progress. Many wanted to push the fight to democratise the university into other departments, while others wanted to focus on consolidating their efforts. This reflects the split of the Women’s Liberation Movement itself, as it would soon rebrand as the Women’s Movement and fight to win professional equality for some at the expense of liberation for all. Regardless of the issues the department had, the success of the strike cannot be denied. It also correlated with other wins in women’s studies which would proliferate by the 1980s. 

In the context of 2021 and unprecedented attacks on university’s staff members and arts courses, this 1974 strike is illustrative of what student power can achieve. Through collective action, it is entirely possible to transform and reclaim education for the majority.