The Wom*n’s Room is a cosy nook located on the first floor of Union House. It’s down a corridor and around a corner, intentionally a little hidden from the world, as it’s a safe space for women. The room is bright and bursting with feminist literature. Compared to the University of Melbourne’s feminist history, though, the room, and the accompanying Wom*n’s Department—which was officially incorporated into the Student Union constitution in 1992—are a pretty recent instalment.
You can see our feminist progress by trawling through 60-year-old copies of Farrago. In the ’50s, there were a few female-related articles thrown in among the news. They covered International Women’s Day and had debates on marriage and contraception, but the articles were predominantly written by men.
The content of the magazine began to change in 1956 when Germaine Greer enrolled in our hallowed institution. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1959 and stirred up the student media while she was here. It was publications like Compass and Farrago that gave Greer a start as the renowned feminist you know her as today.
She blatantly slammed the Christian Society and the Rationalist Society, wrote letters to the editor, and ran for Students’ Council.
Greer ridiculed the president of the 1958 Rationalist Society for blushing at a joke about the club’s motto being ‘Intelligence and Sexuality’. Even as a lowly student she was not afraid to take on the patriarchy.
Many of her articles were met with wanky, counter letters to the editor. One Hilton R. Brown, for instance, wrote “It was with regret that I read the letter from Miss Germaine Greer … in which she blatantly and hypocritically decried the aims and morals of the members of the most essential society in this University”.
But Greer didn’t let this trouble her. She continued pointing out the flaws in the university and people continued to criticise her. “It would seem rather that Miss Greer has vigorously executed all the gallant gestures but just failed to bring it off: the gauntlet has stuck fast to her clammy hand,” argued a man simply known as Watson.
The tone of Farrago began to shift and by the ’60s there were regular feminist articles, corresponding with the arrival of the second wave of feminism.
The ’70s saw regular columns like ‘Women in Revolt’ and the venus symbol began to appear everywhere. The words ‘sisterhood’ and ‘unite’ were thrown across pages.
Things calmed down for a while until 1985 when the feminist zine Judy’s Punch was launched. Judy’s Punch was a hardcore, colourful zine that peaked in the ’90s. The name was chosen over ‘Girlstalk’ and ‘Women’s Rag’, due to men making schoolboy jibes. In the first edition, the editors explained, “Eventually we hit upon Judy. Baby in one hand and rolling pin in the other. Raucous and rambunctious, she best expresses the energy and punch of the women’s handbook”.
Judy’s Punch was unapologetic and designed with a ‘90s punk aesthetic. It sparked the production of various other zines in the early ’90s such as a 1993 lesbian publication called Shout: The Love That Can’t Keep Its Big Mouth Shut.
This magazine is equally as wonderful as it is frightening. It was packed with articles, poetry, cartoons, and photos in support of gay women. Almost every page had the words ‘dyke’ and ‘censored’ slapped diagonally across the writing. It was the kind of feisty, dominant feminism that wouldn’t fly today.
Unfortunately, these punk zines and Judy’s Punch stopped printing by 2005 due to a lack of funds. Only the old copies in the library remain. The publication was re-launched as a blog in 2013, though, when Wom*n’s Officer Amy Jenkins discovered that its production was a constitutional requirement.
The Wom*n’s Room was renovated in 2012 and found in the archives were posters, zines, and notebooks from former members of the Wom*n’s Department. Women had left notes for one another on paper, throwing around words like ‘spunky’ and ‘girl power’.
The Wom*n’s Room continues to be a safe space for everyone who identifies as a woman. Although it’s a little old school, the room is still a beautiful place to discuss feminism and girl power and all of those wonderful things.