Celebrating Women’s Contributions to the Asian Studies Association of Australia: An Introduction

Celebrating Women’s Contributions to the Asian Studies Association of Australia: An Introduction

This special series of Asian Currents reflects upon and celebrates women’s contributions to the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA). The series features posts from women who have made significant contributions to the life of the ASAA through various service roles including on the Council, Asian Studies Review, the Women’s Caucus/Forum and Women in Asia book series.

The series – organised and edited by myself and Natasha Naidu – seeks to capture the contributions made by these women, particularly in the earlier years of the ASAA from the late 1970s to 2000s. The posts remind us of the rich history of the ASAA and of the people who worked hard to establish and maintain the association. ASAA has a long and proud tradition of volunteerism. While this series can only capture a small part of that tradition, we acknowledge that there have been many other scholars who have served on the Council, organised conferences, contributed to sub-committees, and been vital members to the life of ASAA over the years.

The series pays tribute to the ASAA’s first woman president (1987-90), Elaine McKay who sadly passed away in late 2023. When I spoke to ASAA members about her, they recalled many remarkable aspects of her career. For example, in 1956-7, Elaine was part of the first Australian student delegation to visit Indonesia for three months, which included meeting President Sukarno. Members also recalled her contribution in lecturing on the role of women in Asia at Ormond College, where she held a prestigious Fellowship. During her time as ASAA president, Elaine was central to efforts to lobby the Hawke government on Asia literacy. A fitting and more detailed tribute to Elaine’s scholarly life and contribution to the ASAA is offered by John Ingleson in this series; it’s an inspiring read of a remarkable life.

Many of the women featured in this series contributed to the ASAA’s Women’s Forum, previously known as the Women’s Caucus. In brief, in 1978, the Women’s Caucus was established to support and foster scholarship on women in Asia. In 1981, the Women’s Caucus held its first Women in Asia Conference at UNSW (and it returned there in 1997 and 2019). Numerous other universities have hosted the interdisciplinary Women in Asia conference since including Monash (1983), ANU (1985, 2001, 2010), Melbourne (1993), University of Technology Sydney (2005), University of Queensland (2008), University of Western Australia (2017), and most recently La Trobe University (2021). The Women in Asia Conference has brought together scholars working on issues concerning women in Asia and has often attracted strong participation from scholars from the region.

Another early initiative of the Women’s Caucus was a newsletter to inform members of current publications, initiatives and opportunities. The newsletter was produced several times a year up until 1997 at the initiative of Antonia Finnane, and then replaced by the Women’s Forum Listserv, and more recently the Women’s Forum Facebook page. We encourage members to join the Facebook page if you are interested in keeping up with news or would like to post details about publications, conferences or other initiatives.

An ongoing feature of the Women’s Forum is the Women in Asia book series that has been productive in publishing 54 books from 1992 to 2019 (see here at pp. 98-9). The interdisciplinary book series is edited by Louise Edwards, who has also contributed a post to this series. The series includes all regions of Asia and a wide range of disciplines, with particular emphasis on history, sociology, literature, anthropology, sexuality, health, politics, religious studies, labour studies, youth studies, urban planning, and legal studies. I can attest to the wide reach of the series in Asia: back in 2018 I bought a copy of Women in Asia: Tradition, Modernity and Globalisation edited by Louise Edwards and Mina Roces after finding it at a second-hand roadside bookstall in downtown Yangon, Myanmar. The rewards of second-hand book shopping!

In 2023, the ASAA welcomed its first Women’s Forum representative on the Council, Sarah Gosper, who currently oversees the Women’s Forum Facebook page. The upcoming ASAA Conference will include a meeting of the Women’s Forum and we encourage all interested members to come along.

For this blog series, we asked each contributor a series of questions about their experience and time on the ASAA Council. These included: what role/s did you hold on the ASAA Council and/or Women’s Caucus/Forum, and when/why did you get involved? During your time serving ASAA, what were some of the initiatives you or the Council/Forum were involved with to support women? What has been your experience of the ASAA Women’s Forum/Women in Asia book series/Women in Asia biennial conference and related initiatives? What do these initiatives mean to you and how have they supported your career or those of other scholars? Why should women join ASAA and become involved in the Council? What do you think ASAA, or academic associations, needs to do to support women?

In addition to the tribute to Elaine McKay by John Ingleson, the forthcoming weekly posts over the next two months include reflections from Beverley Hooper (president 1995-96), Kathryn Robinson (president 2009-10), Mina Roces (publications officer 2004-15), Amrita Malhi (secretary 2013-16), Louise Edwards (president 2015-16; secretary 1999-2004), Anne Platt (assistant editor, Asian Studies Review), Virginia Hooker and a concluding reflection to the series by Natasha Naidu (editor, Asian Currents).

We also take the opportunity to highlight the tribute to Carol Hayes (secretary 2020-21) written in 2022 by Li Narangoa (the latter is herself a significant contributor to ASAA in her role as West, Inner and Central Asia Councillor).

If you are looking for more to read on women in the ASAA, also see our past career pathways in the study of Asia series that featured Elly Kent, Michele Ford and Lis Kramer.

We hope you find this series inspiring, encouraging, thought-provoking, and perhaps even the impetus to put up your hand for the next call for ASAA Councillors (which will be coming later in the year!). There are also many other short-term ways to be involved, such as putting up your hand to serve on one of our grant or prize committees; please do get in touch with us if that interests you. Finally, we encourage our members to contact us if you have an idea for a post or a series that you are keen to publish on the Asian Currents blog.

Image: Elaine McKay meeting President Sukarno on the Australian student delegation to Indonesia, 25 December 1957 (supplied by Elaine’s family).

Melissa Crouch is the President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia and a Professor in the Faculty of Law & Justice at the University of New South Wales.

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