By Angela Luvera
"The National Organisation of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) was born during a period of student activism in opposition to tertiary fees and the graduate tax. The original NOWSA activists fought for women's access to education, and from there we were led to an awareness of sexism in all aspects of our lives and the lives of our sisters, mothers and daughters", said one of the founders of NOWSA, Karen Fletcher.
In August 1986 the federal government introduced an up-front fee of $250 for all students. Demonstrations against the fee were held on campuses around Australia within days of the announcement. Many thousands of women got involved in the campaign against tertiary fees.
In this climate of political action and energy, the feminist collective at the Australian National University in Canberra called women activists together for a conference called Women on Campus in July 1987.
Around 250 women from 26 campuses participated in this conference. They decided to form the Network of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) in an attempt to fight back in a more organised way.
At the same time, Labor students and some other left activists were forming the National Union of Students (NUS). The women involved in NOWSA were keen to retain the independence of NOWSA from NUS. Some were very critical of the dominance of ALP students within NUS and its bureaucratic structures.
NOWSA's independence from NUS allowed it to become a strong and political voice for women students.
Initially NOWSA consisted of a loose network of women activists who organised and attended a national conference and produced a monthly newsletter. The responsibility for the newsletter was rotated to different campuses, and the newsletter was distributed to every campus in Australia.
Issues covered many debates occurring in the feminist movement, including how to achieve free education, stopping violence on campus, racism, sexist language, Third World women's struggles, prostitution and women and work. The production and distribution of the newsletter ended after 1994.
The first NOWSA conference was held in 1988 in Brisbane. Attended by more than 250 women, it featured major political forums on the graduate tax, Aboriginal women's issues, and campaigning and organising.
The 1989 NOWSA conference attracted more than 300 women. The issue of racism assumed prominence in Brisbane and has been an important discussion at all following NOWSA conferences.
Themes since then have included "Different women, different lives: Issues and action in the 90s" (Sydney, 1990), "Revolt, resist, rebel" (Melbourne 1995), "Looking in, speaking out" (Brisbane, 1997) and "That was then, this is NOWSA: Building, bridging, activating" (Western Sydney, 1998).
This year's conference will be held in Melbourne with the theme of "Beat back the backlash, smash the patriarchy, fight for a feminist revolution".
Throughout its history, NOWSA has provided an open forum for feminists all around the country to come together and debate the way forward. This tradition has been challenged in the 1999 collective by some feminists attempting to impose a single political perspective, which excludes women who disagree with it.
Resistance activist Wendy Robertson explained, "To make sure NOWSA plays the role that it should in rebuilding a vibrant women's liberation movement, we need to ensure the organising collective remains open to a diversity of political opinions within feminism. To help ensure this, Resistance is proposing a charter for NOWSA which enshrines the principles of open political organisation and inclusion of all who identify as women and feminists in the NOWSA collective and conference."
NOWSA now consists of an e-mail discussion list, on which there has been discussion of who should participate in NOWSA and the women's liberation movement, including the question of men and transgender women.
"NOWSA remains the most important national feminist network in Australia which is independent from all major political parties", Fletcher explained. "It's importance goes beyond campus, because it is students who are playing a leadership role on many major social issues today. NOWSA has the potential to lead the feminist movement, and it should take that responsibility seriously."