The Research Centre for Women’s Studies (Part Two)

(From part one)

The Research Centre for Women’s Studies seems from the outset to have been broadly supported across the University. A 1985 petition to secure permanent funding for the Centre, for example, gathered hundreds of signatures from across the various faculties:

RCWS Petition

Indeed, the RCWS maintained a high profile during its first 18 months of operation with activities including teaching, higher-degree supervision, and a number of research projects underpinned by funds brought in from outside the University. There were also several lecture series including six lectures by prominent scholars, introducing the impact that feminism had already made in their various disciplines – which ranged from Anthropology to Law, from Economics to Sociology and included two Historians – to the University of Adelaide community. And in March 1985 the Centre hosted a two-day conference, ‘Crucible of Feminism’, with papers given by academics from around Australia, including one from overseas:

'Crucible of Feminism' 1

'Crucible of Feminism' 2

'Crucible of Feminism', day one program

Regardless of the apparent success of the Centre, however, fiscal contractions in the University sector raised the prospect of the experiment being essentially defunded within a year. The subsequent campaign reached its peak with an announcement that students would picket an April 29 commemoration ceremony to celebrate the centenary of Edith Dornwell’s graduation. The centenary was an occasion of considerable and justifiable pride for the University and it’s likely that the prospect of the ceremony being sullied by a protest on an issue as kindred as this one played a role in forcing the University’s hand. The following press release appeared shortly before the April 29 celebration:

The permanent establishment of Australia’s first Research Centre for Women’s Studies was announced today. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide Professor D.R. Stranks, said that the commitment for continued funding of the Centre was an appropriate initiative when the University was celebrating the centenary of the first woman graduate….The Centre had been an outstanding success and already had attracted a number of research grants. Dr. Magarey’s scholarship had attracted number of women graduates to undertake honours and postgraduate research degrees. Ultimately the Centre would be funded from the University’s recurrent grant but in the interim period, costs would be underwritten from private donations and bequest money.

Reproduced below are leaflets produced by the RCWS to be handed out at the picket – both the original and a modified versions:

Original picket leaflet

Modified picket leaflet

Sadly,  Professor Stranks died suddenly little more than a year later aged only 57. His commitment to the Centre, however, was made clear by a January 1986 with a decision to make a personal gift of $1,500 per year to be divided between the funding of the salaries of the Director of the RCWS and the Professor of Management. Women’s Advisor to the Premier Carol Treloar paid him the following tribute in The Advertiser:

It has been under Professor Stranks’s leadership that the University of Adelaide has examined and rectified many of the traditional practices which have prevented women scholars, students, teachers and other employees playing their full role in university life. The fundamental justice of equality of opportunity was strongly supported by Professor Stranks whom I came, though my frequent discussions and contact with him, to respect as a man of great courtesy, generosity of thought and spirit, principle and professional expertise. In the face of extremely tight tertiary education funding last year, Professor Stranks volunteered to find from his own salary at least part of the money for the permanent establishment of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, whose operations and aims he was very keen to see succeed.

There were further funding crises such as one in 1994 which, like the 1985 campaign, also neatly coincided with a centennial milestone for women’s rights. This time it was the year of the 100th anniversary of the passage of women’s suffrage legislation through the parliament of South Australia. Susan Magarey was more than qualified to make this point having published the definitive biography Catherine Helen Spence, South Australian electoral reformer and advocate of women’s education (among other things).  The biography is available here from  the University of Adelaide Press, and below is a transcript of the powerful tribute she gave to Spence at an 18th of December centenary celebration :

Catherine Helen Spence tribute 1

Catherine Helen Spence tribute 2

Catherine Helen Spence tribute 3

Despite periods of financial insecurity, the RCWS continued to operate until 2000. The Centre remained under the directorship of Susan Magarey throughout and it was responsible for numerous publications, conferences, public lectures and seminars. The Centre attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in research grants, oversaw the work of several PhD and other higher degree students and was the home of Australian Feminist Studies, an A listed journal that continues to be published. Dr. Magarey has continued to work with the University where she is now Adjunct Professor in History.

RCWS 10th birthday celebration publicity




Lastly,  a chronology of some of the achievements of women at the University of Adelaide compiled by former University Archivist Susan Woodburn on the centenary of Edith Dornwell’s graduation:


'Women at the University of Adelaide' 1

‘Women at the University of Adelaide’ 2

‘Women at the University of Adelaide’ 3

‘Women at the University of Adelaide’ 4

‘Women at the University of Adelaide’ 5

‘Women at the University of Adelaide’ 6

‘Women at the University of Adelaide’ 7


(All records from University of Adelaide Archives Series 1474, ‘Research Centre for Women’s Studies Papers’).

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