A unique conference
In the first week of July, hundreds of young women will be gathering again at the Network of Women Students in Australia (NOWSA) conference in Melbourne. The conference has been held annually since 1987, when an enterprising group of women students in Canberra decided to organise a national gathering at which women could exchange ideas and information and coordinate activities around issues facing them on and off campus.
Over the years the conferences have taken up many themes, including feminism and racism, higher education fees, women in the developing countries, sexuality and reproductive rights. A regular feature of each has been an activist component, ranging from a kiss-in in 1993 to the occupation of DEET offices in opposition to the introduction of higher education fees.
The conferences have been important focal points for women students involved in activities both on and off their own campuses, and who once a year get the chance to get together, network their ideas and build campaigns with a national focus.
They have always been well attended, providing an opportunity for many campus women who may not have been involved in politics at all before they got to uni to test the waters of political activism, build their confidence and discuss their (still forming) political views.
In the annual national conference scene, NOWSA is unique. Organised and attended overwhelmingly by grassroots women activists, NOWSA has continued to resist attempts to subsume its energy under the non-grassroots peak student body, the National Union of Students. Such a step would also tie it financially to this organisation, dominated by Labor students.
Instead, NOWSA activists have clung fiercely to the belief that independence is its lifeblood. For nine years this conference of hundreds of women has managed to get organised, hold discussions and workshops, debate ways forward for the student and women's movements and take up broader issues as well. Conferences have featured international guests and provided an opportunity for women involved in their own campus activities to speak.
NOWSA has a rich and valuable history for activists. As hundreds of women head towards Melbourne for this year's shindig, despite the differences of opinion and even heated debates that will undoubtedly occur, they are likely to emerge all the more confident about the potential for feminism to change the world, and their ability to participate in the process.
By Kath Gelber