Placing Gender: Gender and Environmental History

Workshop report (10–12 December 2018, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia). Sponsored by the Rachel Carson Center, Munich; La Trobe University’s Centre for the Study of the Inland; and Monash University.
(*Feature image: MPavilion by Rob Deutscher, 2018, CC BY 2.0, via flickr. MPavilion in Queen Victoria Gardens, Melbourne, is an ongoing series of architecture commissions initiated in 2014.)

By Katie Holmes (La Trobe University, Australia) and Ruth Morgan (Monash University, Australia)

Despite Carolyn Merchant’s provocative 1990 article on gender and environment in the Journal of American History, this multifaceted discipline remains an under-developed area of inquiry. For example, the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference in July 2017 hosted just one panel on gender and environmental history, while presentations in the area at the 2017 American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) were similarly sparse. More recently, discussions on social media confirmed that few environmental historians have considered the implications of a gendered analysis for understanding environmental change.

Participants at the workshop

It was in this context that the workshop, Placing Gender, aimed to bring together scholars working on gender and environment in order to advance the study of gender in environmental history. The call for papers elicited an array of topics from a variety of countries. We sought to gather a broad list of topics from scholars at different career stages. The list of 14 participants and their papers can be found at the end of this report.

In organising the symposium we sought to introduce participants to a range of physical environments and to raise some of the challenges they have posed for European settlers. We kicked off the symposium in one of the beautiful Melbourne parks very close to the central business district, on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri and the Boon Wurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation. Its current name, Queen Victoria Gardens, speaks to the history of colonialism that would be a recurring theme throughout the workshop. In an open-air pavilion, Dr Nikki Henningham from the University of Melbourne talked to us about ‘The Invisible Farmer Project.’ The project has been a partnership with Museum Victoria, and Nikki has been involved in the project’s oral history component, interviewing women from all Australian states and territories. She spoke eloquently and movingly about the way different farming environments have shaped women’s experiences, the constraints and possibilities of gender, including challenging political environments where women are cautious about speaking out and frequently seek to tell stories that please. While Nikki was not one of the formal workshop participants, her presentation was an excellent opening for some of the themes the workshop would address.

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Dr Nikki Henningham talking about The Invisible Farmer Project.

From the gardens, we moved on to La Trobe University’s city campus where we began workshopping the pre-circulated papers. Each paper had been assigned a commentator who offered thoughts and questions prior to opening up a discussion. On the second day of the workshop, we travelled to the regional city of Bendigo, on the lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung traditional owners. Bendigo was built from the profits of gold mining and on the third morning of the workshop, Dr Charles Fahey took us on a guided walk of a former gold mine that sits close to the centre of the city. The area was nearly completely burnt in the devastating Black Saturday fires of February 2009, so our awareness of the different kinds of environmental challenges faced by settler Australians was further enhanced.

Among the papers emerged themes relating to the gendered environmental anxieties associated with empire, settler colonialism, migration, and urban development from the nineteenth century to the present. Contributions explored the intersections of gender and environmental history in studies of Canada, the United States, South Asia, Sri Lanka, China, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Afghanistan.

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Eloise Vinen hand milking cows at Channel Farm, Nyah West, near Swan Hill, 1924. This public domain image is part of the Museums Victoria/Invisible Farmer Project collection.

An overriding impression from the workshop was that irrespective of context, the relationship between gender and environment is tightly enmeshed and a challenge to untangle. Both can seem all encompassing, and as a result, taken for granted. But the historical lens is vital in helping us avoid essentialist understandings of their relationship, enabling the recognition of the different contexts in which ideas about gender and environment are manifest. In addition, the study of gender and environmental history can help us to discern the different kinds of meanings they carry as well as the ways those meanings change over time, in different locations and circumstances. The ways in which gender is also racialized emerged repeatedly in our discussions, as well as the associated intersections with labour and class. Regardless of context, such understandings were in turn used to justify dramatic environmental interventions, particularly in settler-colonial contexts, with often devastating, and enduring, environmental consequences. As the workshop revealed, the social and material changes these interventions wrought continue to inform the ways in which people make sense of place, demanding a closer reading of their gendered environmental history.

We are intending to publish a special issue of a leading environmental history journal with papers from the participants, and also an edited collection. Watch this space!

See here for the conference program.

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