The emasculation of the State Records Office of Western Australia: how can an institution be feminised?

The Western Australian McGowan Government is implementing Machinery of Government changes, which will amalgamate departments and remove the independence of the State Records Office, bringing it under the State Library of Western Australia. The Australian Society of Archivists protest this change. Recently, in an Australian archives and records forum, a staff member of the Australian Society of Archivists described the changes as an “emasculation” of the office.

First, let’s get down to some gender theory. Gender is a social construct. Anatomical and biological differences have been divided into a binary of man or woman (which doesn’t sufficiently cover the range of human bodies, such as intersex people) and gender has been assigned to these two types. Normatively, the woman is female and possesses femininity. In a patriarchal society, the masculinity of men is privileged, to the extent that we have a word at hand to describe being deprived of this power. Emasculation. And it isn’t just that to lose masculinity makes you gender-neutral and powerless; it is to become the lesser – to become feminine.

A woman losing her femininity is a personal failure, a reflection on her – she hasn’t performed the female act sufficiently. (Remember: one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.) But not only can an individual man be externally deprived of his birth-right to be privileged, as many who are critical of feminism are concerned with – apparently an institution can be deprived of its embedded gender privilege. But what qualities do that?

The ASA media release drew attention to the independence of the Office, something that would be put in jeopardy once it is amalgamated. The Office is conceived of as independent, sovereign and therefore masculine, and it is only by having a “parent agency” that the Office would lose this masculinity and become feminised by the maternal government. It is interesting to consider how gender constructs, the way we have developed personalities and subcultures based off a simplified understanding of anatomy and biology, can be applied to institutions (let alone umbrella usage, earplugs, etc. ad nauseam). Are we seeing this ideal independence, of the Records Office holding the government to accountable, a public guardian and sentinel of memory – is this only a masculine figure?

Do we think so narrowly within our binds of gender that the very governance of archives and records becomes tainted by the binary understanding of men and women? How would women get ahead in an institution where leaders of the field conceive of its operation and function as gendered?

– Jess


Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration, United States of America, via Telling America’s Stories. Used under CC BY-NC-ND license.

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