The Sydney Philosophy Strike and the Ownership of Knowledge

Hannah Forsyth


“knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided?” Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge, pp.8-9

In 1973, Sydney University PhD students Jean Curthoys and Liz Jacka proposed to teach “Philosophical aspects of Feminist thought”. Failure by the professorial board to approve funding for the course – already (though barely) approved by the department and the Arts Faculty – led a large number of staff and students, supported by the Builders Labourers Federation and other unions, to go on strike. What became known as the Philosophy Strike marks a significant moment for intellectual feminism, and also for the ownership of knowledge. The Strike pitched students and junior staff against the authority of the university’s professoriate – and students won. This revolutionary moment challenged the structures controlling and defining university knowledge. This contributed to a substantial change in the values that inform the role of the university broadly, and academics and students within it.

Who decided what knowledge was for the university? What did it mean for new (and feminist) knowledge to emerge from the student body rather than from the professoriate? And when it did, who was then positioned to authorise and examine this knowledge? If, as Jacka and Curthoys then claimed, the professoriate had no authority in this case, what did that mean for the authority of expertise: or even for the necessity of the university?

This paper comes from my PhD project currently called “The ownership of knowledge in Higher Education in Australia 1939-1996”.