Surviving your feminist research project

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University and a research theme leader (gender, equality and diversity) in the Centre for People, Organisation and Work (CPOW).

Her work is focused on using feminist theory and methods to address gender inequality and violence against women in a range of contexts, from emergency management to the sex industry. You can read more of Meagan’s work here

She tweets (occasionally) @DrMeaganTyler.

There are always joys and challenges in undertaking research, but there are particular joys and challenges associated with conducting feminist research, and there is often precious little space in formal academic contexts to discuss them.

In part to address this absence, in October 2017, the Feminist Forum series in Melbourne included a session on ‘How to Survive Your Feminist Research Project’, and this post is based on Meagan Tyler’s contribution to that session.

Photo by Alex Mazzarello | >> "Protestors in Vancouver, BC as part of Women’s March on Washington, Vancouver chapter."
Photo by Alex Mazzarello | >> “Protestors in Vancouver, BC as part of Women’s March on Washington, Vancouver chapter.”

Most of my colleagues don’t know what it’s like to expect resistance every time they present their work.

I recently found out that many of them simply expect polite applause or – worst case scenario – a curly question from a grumpy professor.

They don’t generally expect to confront accusations of prudery, rape threats on Twitter, attempts at no-platforming, or orchestrated campaigns from men’s rights activists.

But for many feminist researchers these experiences are all too common. It can feel as though there is a significant divide between our working lives and those of non-feminist colleagues.

There is also a noticeable divide in motivation between those doing research which is genuinely committed to liberation, social justice, and positive change, and those for whom these are not considerations. There are successful professors who will tell you to publish your work only in order to get grants, get grants only to get promoted, and get promoted only to earn more money.

This is not the academic research world I have inhabited. Most of my feminist colleagues are motivated to publish because they believe their knowledge and research are important to women’s lives, and they are committed to building a world free from misogyny and violence against women and girls.

Such experiences of dislocation and difference give us a chance to think about the great benefits of feminist research. How brilliant to be surrounded by women motivated in this way! How wonderful to conduct research that has impact! What strength to put forward robust and persuasive arguments in the face of such hostility!

There is frequently a personal cost to conducting feminist research, however, and it can be difficult to speak about this openly.

We regularly study harrowing topics. When you’ve been doing it for a while, it can be easy to forget how hard it is at the start: what it’s like to read your first feminist text, or write your first feminist essay, or undertake your first feminist research project. It opens your eyes, but it might also feel a bit like the world you knew is falling apart.

Taking up feminist research can also be challenging in that it often means you lose friends. This is true for most women new to feminism. There will be people in your life you will see in new ways. People you’ll clash with. People you can no longer stand to be in a room with. There will also be people who don’t want to speak to you anymore. Or will only communicate with you by leaving passive aggressive comments on your social media posts.

It is an unpleasant process. And I don’t envy you if you are still trying to figure out where you will draw the line.

But, here too, there is still an upside. Through this process you will also discover amazing new friends and colleagues who will support you in what you do. These people are like gold-dust. Celebrate them. Let them know you’re grateful they exist. Promote their work. Help each other stay afloat when it all feels like too much.

Because I do not know of a feminist researcher who has not experienced a moment when she has felt that it’s all too much.

So, how do we survive?

In the midst of the current cultural obsession with ‘wellbeing’, it feels almost negligent not to emphasise thriving, rather than surviving. I do hope that one day that we all feel as though we are thriving, but I think thriving is a lot to expect while living under white-supremacist capitalist-patriarchy.

I regularly come back to an article by George Monbiot from a few years ago, in which he extols the virtues of being OK with being disturbed by the world we inhabit:

To be at peace with a troubled world: this is not a reasonable aim. It can be achieved only through a disavowal of what surrounds you. To be at peace with yourself within a troubled world: that, by contrast, is an honourable aspiration. This column is for those who feel at odds with life. It calls on you not to be ashamed…So, if you don’t fit in, if you feel at odds with the world, if your identity is troubled and frayed, if you feel lost and ashamed – it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You are a deviant. Be proud.

This works for me when I’m having a bad day. Maybe this particular idea doesn’t work for you, but it’s good to find something that does.

To that end, here’s a list of top tips to get you started:

Feminist research survival tips 2017: 1) First and foremost, is IS important that you survive. Never forget that this is your top priority. 2) Find a feminist friend (or even more than one!) - IRL is better than online. 3) Find something you enjoy that ISN'T about your research. 4) Find something - anything - you can be positive about (and be prepared to lower your expectations). 5) Remember that self-care (a la Audre Lorde's great quote) can be a political act of resistance. 6) Find a way to acknowledge the feelings that your resaerch brings up. And, finally, 7) FIND A WAY TO LET YOURSELF LIVE WITH CONTRADICTIONS.


  1. Thank you for this article, it feels very timely. I have only just recently recognised my research as feminist, and announcing that publicly and explicitly at my my confirmation last week felt a very a big deal. Now I am wrestling with what being a feminist researcher means and might require.


  2. I once read that every feminist becomes her own epistemologist and that’s true in my case. I kept researching ideas I had, discovering they had validity, and then found out that in the 1970s another feminist had written a book on the subject that was widely hailed for its insights and rigor but is now virtually unknown. And when I read these older books, the authors said that they too had done all this work only to discover an earlier generation of feminists had said the same thing.

    Of course we have better research methods now but the isolation you allude to can be excruciating. From researching prostitution and pornography (among many other things), I have horrific images burned in my brain. If I tell other women about some of the things I know, they literally shriek in horror so I don’t do it anymore.

    I live in NYC and you’d think there’s be a lot of feminists here, and organized ones, but if there are I haven’t found them and I’ve been trying for 7 years.

    Dr. Tyler, thank you so much for your tireless work and your strength. It’s inspiring and makes me feel less alone in my radical version of feminism.

    I have a BF, a Nigel type, and friends but nobody else really understands things the way I do, the way Dworkin did, the way you do. And my PTSD from having been assaulted more than once and really badly injured has turned into agoraphobia, I rarely leave the house anymore. My mother was, I recall, the same way as she got older and so is a sister.

    It’s also the years of drip, drip, dripping sexism that I never noticed as such at the time but I felt the sting of people being uncomfortable with a woman who worked as a Sovietologist on nuke reductions, and was always the only or one of the first girls or women in her school or field. The men did fine as mediocrities but for any woman to make it, far more was required and far fewer rewards were given.

    Thank you again for all you do.


  3. Great article Meagan. I am not an academic researcher, however, I am a proud feminist and do what I can where I can to press for progress both at RMIT University and in the wider community. Your article resonates strongly with myself and so do your survival tips. Even if they were initially intended for academic researchers undertaking Feminist Research, they are useful for any feminist. Thank you for all you do for all of us.


    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and sharing such kind words. It means a lot to know that it has resonated with other feminist women.

      And always nice to hear from someone else fighting the good fight at RMIT, too!


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