The workshop is timed to immediately precede and contribute usefully to a conference on Women and Leadership, part of an ARC Linkage project for which Sawer, Grimshaw and Smart are Chief Investigators.

The objectives of the workshop are threefold:

  1. To bring together social scientists, senior government officials and representatives of the six currently funded peak bodies to review the relationship between national women’s organisations and governments past and present;
  2. To examine how lessons learned can contribute to a productive framework for well-informed and collaborative dialogue between WNGOs and government on policy issues and the integration of such dialogue in the policy process;
  3. To publish an edited collection of the papers as a special issue of a scholarly journal. We intend approaching the Australian Journal of Politics and History in the first instance.

The theme of the workshop is of central relevance to current governance research on community engagement in policy development and the relationship between such engagement and ‘evidence-based’ policy. Although there is an existing literature on gender assessment within the policy process and an increasing body of literature on the history of WNGO engagement with governments, these have not been brought together systematically.

Sawer’s current work on mapping the contemporary Australian women’s movement is informed by her past work on women’s networks and institution-building and the impact on democratic governance of limiting the capacity of community-based peak bodies to represent their constituencies.

The work of younger researchers Sarah Maddison and Merrindahl Andrew, some in collaboration with Sawer, also focuses on the relationship between democratic institutions and feminist activism in Australia, examining strategies adopted by WNGOs to deal with changes of government and broader discursive shifts in the framing of government/NGO relations.

These and other researchers have employed concepts of abeyance, political opportunity structures, cycles of activism, and co-option, as well as computer-assisted network analysis, to explicate the patterns of influence of WNGOs on Australian national governments from the 1970s—that is from the rise of the so-called second wave of feminist activism. Grimshaw has served on the board of the National Foundation for Australian Women, and her previous ARC Linkage and LIEF grants have resulted in the creation of an archival database, the Australian Women’s Register. Grimshaw currently leads a new ARC Linkage project recording and theorising Australian women’s leadership in the 20th century.

Current research can be enriched by reference to the forms of engagement with government adopted by WNGOs since the 1920s, the subject of work by Quartly and Smart, Andrew, Grimshaw, and Lake. Equally, engagement by historians of the earlier activism with the theory and methods being employed in relation to recent and contemporary movements, will provide new lenses for their analysis. An important outcome will be a more complete understanding of the historical trajectory of the Australian women’s movement’s political work.

In terms of applied policy relevance, this workshop will offer a timely and useful forum for assessing both past experience of WNGO/government relations and progress within the new framework instituted in 2010.The bringing together of social scientists, government officials and representatives of the six funded alliances will ensure that different perspectives and bodies of knowledge contribute to this assessment.

The main themes of the workshop will be:

  • the extent to which Australian democratic institutions and structure of government have been accessible and receptive to women’s advocacy at the national level;
  • the different experiences and approach of diverse WNGOs in their relations with governments over time;
  • changes in access and institutional avenues provided by governments over time;
  • changes in strategies in dealing with government adopted by women’s organisations and networks over time;
  • planning for effective information sharing, dialogue and consultative processes involving the Alliances, the Office for Women and government more broadly.