Louise Edwards on ASAA as Academic Family

Louise Edwards on ASAA as Academic Family

Louise Edwards is Emeritus Scientia Professor of Chinese History at the University of New South Wales and was the 2015-16 President of the ASAA. In this post she describes how the ASAA became her “academic family”. Read the other posts in the series celebrating women’s contributions to the ASAA here.

What roles did you hold on the ASAA Council, and why did you get involved?

My enthusiasm for the ASAA began through the Women’s Caucus when Susan Blackburn and Lenore Manderson organised their pathbreaking workshops on women in Asia during the early 1990s that mentored postgraduate students and connected them with each other and with scholars in the field. These would later become the much larger, regular Women in Asia conferences that now lead the world’s research and research training on women and gender in Asia. The welcoming environment made me enthusiastic about deepening my involvement in the ASAA.

Basically, I was keen to get involved in the broader ASAA because it was very much open to new ideas and young people. In the 1990s Asian Studies was a field that was in the process of sloughing off the habits of Orientalist scholarship of earlier decades. And, the ASAA was a hub for new leadership that sought fresh and respectful relationships with Asia. The scope for change and a sense of mission was palpable—advocating for Asian Studies in schools and universities during those years promised to literally change the face of Australia and chart a new course for the nation’s future. The ASAA included all the key thinkers that would shape Australia’s orientation towards Asia—and I wanted to be part of that change.

I started out as China Councillor from 1997-1998 after being encouraged to take on the role by Beverley Hooper—Bev was immediate Past President of the ASAA and her support was crucial to my nomination to the Council. I had served on the Chinese Studies Association of Australia council from 1995 so aimed to be a bridge between the two professional bodies. When the vacancy for ASAA Secretary emerged in 1999, I was very pleased to be able to take on the role working with Bob Elson as President and Tony Reid as immediate past President. I continued as Secretary until 2004 working with Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Robin Jeffrey as Presidents. After a period of working in Hong Kong University, I returned to Australia and between 2015-2016 I had the honour of taking on the Presidency after John Ingleson. I had the great pleasure of working with Colin Brown as treasurer and Amrita Malhi as secretary.   

During your time serving ASAA, in what ways did the initiatives you were involved in support women academics?

The Women’s Caucus was always close to my heart and so when Antonia Finnane stepped back from editing the ‘Women in Asia Newsletter’ in 1994, Anne Cullen and I decided to take on the role together. We were both graduates of Griffith’s PhD program in Asian and International Studies and so moved the operation from Victoria to Queensland where Anne Cullen was at Bond University and I was at Australian Catholic University. At that time the newsletters were printed, stapled, folded into envelopes and posted to members. We sent out 3 issues per year between 1994 and 1998. We had great fun pulling together news items and articles for the Caucus members—it all seems laughably primitive now!

Image: Extract from the November 1994 Women in Asia newsletter, edited by Louise Edwards and Anne Cullen, introducing the women’s caucus e-mail network (supplied.)

Later, in 1998, when Sue Blackburn and Lenore Manderson were looking for a new Editor in Chief for the Women in Asia Book Series that they had established in 1991, I put my hand up to take on that role. We worked initially with Patrick Gallagher at Allen & Unwin in Sydney but he encouraged us to go to Curzon to work with Peter Sowden to secure greater market access. Curzon was soon absorbed into Routledge and Peter became our advocate there. Under his expert guidance we now have over 60 books in the series. The authors in the series include scholars working in the Asian region as well as academics from Australia and around the world. The series both shapes and sustains the study of women and gender in Asia as a distinct research field. Peter retired from Routledge in February 2024 and we now have the pleasure of working with Stephanie Rogers who is also very familiar with the ASAA and Australian Asianists.

The Women in Asia Conferences were crucial to community building among women academics—who were still marginalised in the Higher Education sector in the 1990s and 2000s. Our meetings would always involve identifying new women who were interested in being nominated to the ASAA Council and securing ‘nominators and seconders’ for the names that came forward. We organised to promote women in leadership roles within the Association. The conferences themselves were exciting events. They have always included a significant postgraduate training component that includes women scholars from the Asian region. And we were particularly keen to include in the conferences NGO practitioners from Asia who advocated for women’s rights and interests. I had the pleasure of being on the organising committee for the 2019 Women in Asia Conference hosted at UNSW led by Melissa Crouch and Tanya Jakimow. The Conferences now have taken up a broader remit to include LGBTQI+ issues and participants.

The ASAA’s Biennial Conferences are always inspiring—and they are supportive of women’s involvement in part because of the key roles that women have played in the Association for so many decades. The ASAA was central to my career progress and enabled me to meet academics that would become important mentors, close collaborators and friends. For example, Mina Roces and I met at the Melbourne University Women in Asia Conference dinner in 1993 when by chance we sat next to each other. Over decades to follow, we went on to co-edit 8 books together and organise conference panels at ASAA and international conferences—all on topics relating to women in Asia. It was a decades-long professional collaboration and friendship made possible by the ASAA and the Women’s Caucus. And we met wonderful like-minded scholars through those books and panels. The ASAA is a superb association for meeting smart people focussed on the most dynamic region of the world who see beyond the strictures of the nation-state.

Why would you encourage other women to join the ASAA and become involved in the Council?

I would strongly encourage more women to join the ASAA and participate in its activities. As well as its long tradition of nurturing women’s careers in academia, the ASAA has a greater openness to recognising the importance of contributions to the humanities and social sciences produced by Asian-Australian and Asia-based scholars than many other academic fields. Members are genuinely invested in cross-cultural, multilingual experiences and nurture curiosity that is both professional and personal. ASAA members have been central to all my career progression over decades—the ASAA is my academic family.

Support for women in academia, especially in Asian Studies, now requires attention to ensuring that scholars with knowledge of Asia fill roles throughout the university sector. The myriad new departments and schools organised around centres dedicated to ‘grand challenges’ or ‘wicked problems’ are the focus of university leaders and their budgets. The risk is that the English-language dominant academy will revert ‘back to type’ and ignore Asia and people from Asia—the study of women in Asia could also be further marginalised on the grounds of race and sex. Equally, we need to pay attention to gender diversity and ensuring that the work that the Women’s Caucus did in helping make the ASAA a great place for women scholars can be extended to LGBTQI+ scholars as well. The strategies are well-established: networking, mentoring, supporting and maintaining a welcoming, open academic culture.

 Feature image: Louise Edwards speaks at the 2019 Women in Asia Conference at UNSW (supplied).

Louise Edwards is Emeritus Scientia Professor of Chinese History at the University of New South Wales and was the 2015-16 President of the ASAA.

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