The game-changer

Raewyn Connell has reshaped the field of sociology through her groundbreaking research into educational inequality, gender relations and much more.
By Diana Plater
Raewyn Connell

Raewyn Connell

A striking black and white photo has pride of place to the right of Professor Raewyn Connell’s desk. It’s of her great aunt, Maude Connell, a member of the first generation of Australian women to go to university. She later became headmistress of a girls’ school in Perth.

Like her great aunt, Professor Connell is a groundbreaker. Over the past 45 years her body of work has reshaped the study of sociology and made her a world authority in the field. As she prepared to retire from her position of University Chair in the Faculty of Education and Social Work this month, she could reflect on a career of transformative achievement, which the University will acknowledge with a symposium on her work.

Firstly, Professor Connell was a pioneer in sociology teaching as foundation professor of sociology at Macquarie University (1976-91). Here she did influential research on inequality in schooling, and developed a theory of gender relations which emphasised that gender is a large-scale social structure, not just a matter of personal identity.

Professor Connell is also a founder of the research field relating to the social construction of masculinity, making her mark internationally with her book, Masculinities (1995, 2005), which is the most cited in the field. (It has been translated into nine languages.)

She is also a world authority on the global sociology of knowledge, emphasising that intellectual activity is a form of work that involves global divisions of labour. Her other areas of research include poverty and education, sexuality and AIDS prevention, ways to reduce violence against women, class dynamics and labour movement strategy.

The list goes on and on, yet sitting in her office in the Education building at the University, where the walls are covered in political posters which form a chronology of her own life, she appears resolutely humble.

Her journey began back in the early 1960s, when she was an undergraduate student at Melbourne University, studying history and psychology, when widespread political activism was beginning. Professor Connell was in the front line as a graduate student at Sydney, taking part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and in student movements to democratise universities and support Aboriginal communities.

“I wasn’t arrested on any of them…I don’t have that particular badge,” she laughs. “My most militant moment was at the height of the Vietnam war involvement… we at one point occupied the headquarters of the Liberal Party and sat in overnight and were eventually expelled by police action.”

With “the world going up in flames” around her she decided she wanted to work in areas which she thought mattered. “I’ve tried to construct knowledge projects that produced information and understanding about the world which would be useful to people who are trying to change it, especially people trying to change it in the interests of social justice,” she says. This began with the student-led Sydney Free University in 1967 and has continued in a formal academic career.

During 50 years of university life, Connell was going through her own personal journey.

From the start Professor Connell could see she needed to make international links and networks. So, following her PhD at the University of Sydney (1966-69), she spent her postdoctoral year at the University of Chicago. Professor Connell remembers taking part in the March on Washington in May 1970, following what became known as the Kent State Shootings, when 100,000 people demonstrated against the Vietnam War and some unarmed student protesters were killed by the Ohio National Guard.

“Pam and I got a whiff of the best quality federal tear gas,” she says, speaking of her partner Pam Benton, an activist in the women’s movement, and psychologist, social researcher, writer, and public servant, who died in 1997 from cancer. Professor Connell points proudly to a photo of their daughter, Kylie, who is now doing her masters in anthropology in New York.

Professor Connell was first employed at the University as a lecturer in government in 1971-72, and returned in 1996 as professor of education. In 2004 she was appointed University professor. Her other appointments have included time at Ruhr-University in Bochum and a year as professor of Australian studies at Harvard, as well as three years as professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Over the past 15 years she has deliberately shifted focus away from the United States and Europe, developing connections around what she calls “the rest of the global periphery. That produced my book Southern Theory (2007), which is largely about social thought from the post-colonial world,” she says.

But during these 50 years of university life, Professor Connell was going through her own personal journey. A transsexual woman, she made what she describes as a formal transition late in life. “It is important to know that transition is not ‘sex change’, it is more about recognition of something that has always been the case. The issue is how do you deal with this deep contradiction in your life,” she explains.

“At a certain point some people say, ‘OK I need to make a transition to be recognised as a woman’. So that’s what I did relatively late in life, having dealt with the situation in different ways earlier in life.”

She says she was lucky in that the University was a safe place to do this, with her boss and colleagues extremely supportive. “Transsexual women are subject to a lot of violence in many parts of the world and a lot of family rejection. There’s quite a high suicide rate. The University saw it as a kind of human rights, anti-discrimination issue and said, ‘Fine’. I’ve never had the slightest institutional hassle.”

Connell adds that she was also lucky to receive family support. She was named Robert at birth and known as Bob, with most of her earlier work published under the gender-neutral name RW Connell. She wanted to keep these initials and after discussing the subject with her family, her elder sister found the name Raewyn, which reflects her heritage. Since 2006 it has appeared above all her written work.

Professor Connell has attempted to clear some of the confusion in the current debate about men and violence. Writing recently in The Conversation, she pointed out that a huge body of data shows men as a group and women as a group are psychologically very similar. This is an example of “getting solid academic knowledge into practical situations” but although we’re now more inclined to treat boys and girls on the same basis than we were, “it’s still a battle”.

While there have been changes over the years in methodology and other areas of her discipline, there have also been huge changes in the way universities work. Professor Connell is deeply concerned that the collaborative and shared nature of academia, in what she describes as “one of the wonders of our civilisation,” is being put to the test.

She made her thoughts public in an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor in March last year regarding the industrial action that was taking place at the University, gaining wide circulation on social media.

“I’m winding up my career at a time when I don’t think it’s a happy time for universities,” she says. “We’ve fallen into a culture of hyper-competitiveness where universities are regarded by their managers and governments essentially as competitive firms, competing against each other for resources, rather than what’s the reality, which is a knowledge system based on co-operation and sharing.”

This latter value is one she hopes to maintain with the doctoral students she will continue to supervise after she stands down. With a host of international research and activist projects on the boil, plus 22 lectures in “five or six different countries” just for 2014, Professor Connell sees many years of work ahead. “I’m still going to be in that struggle,” she declares.