Skip to main navigation menu Skip to main content Skip to site footer


Vol. 10, No. 1 = No. 10 (2002 Winter)

Feminist Academics as Nomadic Subjects: Reconceptualizing Women in Universities

  • Elizabeth Hills
  • Leonie Rowan
June 19, 2017


From a feminist perspective, it is more than a little axiomatic to say that higher education has traditionally produced and reproduced, naturalized and valorized specific sets of behavior, specific forms of knowledge and specific versions of intellectual practice which celebrate that which is coded as masculine at the expense of that which is produced as feminine.

The production of this opposition is attendant on the primacy of the western cultural separation of the public from the private and the celebration of all that is associated with the first term at the expense of all that is subsumed under the second. This, in turn, is based on the construction of masculinity as synonymous with rationality, intellect, reason, culture and the production of femininity as all that is not male: in this binaristic logic women are irrational, emotional and nurturing. Braidotti (1994a) summarizes the situation well when she writes:

the universalistic stance, with its conflation of the masculine to represent the human and the confinement of the feminine to a secondary position of devalued "otherness", rests upon a classical system of dualistic oppositions, such as, for instance; nature/culture, active/passive, rational/irrational, masculine/feminine. Feminists argue that this dualistic mode of thinking creates binary differences only to ordain them in a hierarchical scale of power relations. (p. 155)

Consistent with this logic, the university has been naturalized as a homogeneous male institution: the true home, if you like, of the 'enlightened male subject'.

Women's marginality within academic environments manifests itself in diverse and complex ways. Women have been consistently absent, not just from the classrooms, offices, and meeting places of Academe, but also from the discourses, texts, and subjects on which a university education is based (Rich, 1979). There are fewer women academics in universities than men, they tend to be concentrated in the lower employment categories, and by extension, more likely to be engaged in teaching than in research. Women have been under represented on decision making bodies, and have encountered a 'glass ceiling' in attempts to achieve promotion (Porter, 1995).

The phallocentric nature of university environment has prompted significant debate among feminists in academia and given rise to a wide range of activities designed, in one way or another, to challenge the dominant masculinist culture. Despite many years of effort, however, universities remain male dominated environments within which women continue to be employed at lower levels, on shorter contracts, and with narrower career prospects.

In other words, there exists a significant gap between the hopes many of us held for the future of women in universities and the current (on-going) realities faced by those of us working in these environments. It is this gap and what it tells us about the on-going need for feminist reform in academic circles that has inspired this paper. More specifically, we are interested in using the work of feminist scholar Rosi Braidotti as a basis for identifying a particular 'mindset' that is valuable for thinking about the on-going challenges associated with the cultural transformation of university environments. We will illustrate the need for and value of these mindsets through a discussion of one particular university, and one specific attempt by women within that university to improve women's participation in research activity.

This introduction, then, is followed by four main sections. In the first, we demonstrate the ways in which our case site, Central Queensland University, reflects the same kind of phallocentric ideologies that can be seen to characterize university environments more generally. In the second, we outline some of the major (feminist) strategies developed within this university to improve women's research activity and discuss some of the differences of opinion concerning how this is best achieved. In the third section, we will explore what it is that Rosi Braidotti's model of nomadic subjectivity offers to those women engaged in the work of cultural transformation, and in the fourth and final section, we will provide a brief example of how nomadic consciousness can shape the day-to-day practice of women academics.

As any exploration of gender and its consequences necessitates analysis of the particular context within which women are located, it is necessary for us to begin this paper with a brief overview of the particular university that we will be using to illustrate our points.