Theme Aboriginal Women

Written by Anna Haebich, Curtin University

For Aboriginal women the foundation for all levels of their leadership is 'community'. Jackie Huggins AM (Indigenous Women and leadership: A Personal Reflection, 2004, v 1) writes that only Aboriginal women who 'truly have the interests of our community at heart' can call themselves leaders. Reconciliation Australia (Reconciliation Australia, 2007, v 4) identifies 'family identities and relationships to "country" as ''the heart'' of Aboriginal communities: they are a 'constellation of individuals, families, clans, ceremonial groups and language groups'. Linked by shifting 'complex, layered, sometimes fluid and unbounded sets of affiliation', they include 'geographically discrete settlements' and 'dispersed communities of shared identity'.

Aboriginal women's distinctive leadership can be inherited, conferred by age, status, cultural authority, social standing and local knowledge. It follows a complex system of rules regarding 'who can speak about what'. 'Leadership' as the entwined performances of (white) power, (white) masculinity and individualism is hardly appropriate. The Hon. Linda Burney MP (n.d.) explains, 'I prefer to describe myself as an Aboriginal person that's in a leadership position. [It's] a really Western construct for Aboriginal people, it's often something that the media or White Australia dubs you as'.

Concerning the specifics of community leadership, Aboriginal women hold a wide spectrum of views. This diversity is due to a 'complex interweaving of place, traditional roles and local religion … [and] changes in gender relations … consequent upon the time, degree and nature of [a community's] contact with non-Aboriginal society' (Gale 1990, 382). Still, there are recurring observations, some listed below, garnered from formal and informal discussions amongst Aboriginal women: 1

  1. Leaders are shaped by their family and community, culture and history, the example of other leaders and the responsibilities that come with maturity, as well as their personal experiences of discrimination, other ways of life, education, employment and difficult life circumstances.
  2. Qualities for leadership are honesty, courage, compassion, perseverance, passion for their cause, resilience, confidence, assertiveness, a sense of humour, altruism in wanting to bring others up in life, and inspiration for others.
  3. Their ways of working are based on Aboriginal terms of reference and include respect for elders, bringing community people together, speaking out and confronting issues, having a shared vision with an analysis and solution for problems, and the capacity to achieve a multitude of tasks.
  4. Their motivations and goals are to be catalysts of change, working to alleviate community disadvantage in line with principles and practices of self-determination; to promote maintenance and recovery of culture and country; and to empower communities by reclaiming traditions of women's leadership and power in cooperation with Aboriginal men.
  5. Women leaders are respected holders of knowledge who work to keep culture strong and encourage respect for cultural knowledge, and they take responsibility for transmitting this knowledge down the generations.
  6. Women leaders face many challenges that can lead to burnout, such as the personal sacrifices in meeting the heavy demands of work and family, feelings of obligation to give back to others and be accountable to community expectations, and the tensions of divided loyalties and community divisions that may arise. Interacting with the non-Aboriginal sector, they can face conflicts of interest, different values and styles of leadership, demands of bureaucracy and the media, and dealing with sexism and discrimination.
  7. In all their work, leaders find precious support in family, community and relationships of trust with other Aboriginal women.

For much of the 20th century, Aboriginal women were ignored as leaders by authorities guided by gendered leadership models. Nevertheless, many courageously challenged their discriminatory treatment. Tracing the history of Aboriginal women's leadership sheds light on the many obstacles they faced under the policies of protectionism and assimilation and their agency and skills in representing their cause and then participating in the dramatic advances from the 1970s. What emerges is the special importance of the protective web of community and family acting as buffers against the outside, giving economic and emotional sustenance in hard times and providing a natural arena for building support.

Teasing out the strands of Aboriginal women's experience from the historical record shows the ignorance and prejudices of conventional historians who uncritically absorbed negative stereotypes from anthropology that were also present in the biases of written sources. From the 1970s, historians recording oral histories of Aboriginal women's lives began to remedy these omissions. However, it was the work of Aboriginal women recounting their own life narratives shared in books, films, theatre, dance, song, story-telling and the visual arts that provided the real wealth of material to reshape this history into complex readings of the local relations of power in which women operate and new accounts of their agency. Haag (2007) provides a bibliography linking publications to periods of heightened socio-political activity.

Women's powerful story-telling through various media is a culturally esteemed quality associated with Aboriginal leadership. However, the passing of time and memory means that, for earlier periods, we are left with only tantalisingly brief glimpses of its extent and power. Understanding leadership prior to colonisation has been advanced by cultural knowledge of Aboriginal women today, new work by women anthropologists and new readings of historical sources. Aboriginal women's status emerges as equal and complementary with that of men in most Aboriginal cultures. Women played significant roles in the economic sphere as food providers, in nurturing and rearing children, caring for health and wellbeing, leading women's religion and ritual, transmitting knowledge down the generations of women and as custodians of country and sacred sites. Their significance in society found expression in the mythical accounts and performances celebrating the power of ancestral female beings.

This status was irrevocably altered during the 19th century by the destructive forces of colonisation- dispossession of land and resources and destruction of life and culture- and colonists' prejudices looking at Aboriginal women through the prism of race and gender. Their demeaning beliefs reverberated into the 20th century. The race theory of Social Darwinism relegated women to the very bottom of the evolutionary ladder below Aboriginal men as their chattels and slaves. At the same time, they suffered under the gendered practices of the colonial patriarchy that controlled power and decision-making and deemed women to be inferior beings confined to the privacy of the home. This combination of race and patriarchy transformed Aboriginal women into outcasts in the opinion of white men and women and shaped ethnographers' conclusions that they were insignificant in Aboriginal political and sacred life. Colonists' debased imaginings about Aboriginal women encouraged their abuse and exploitation and set the scene for the introduction of special laws for their protection.

There is evidence that, during the 19th century, some Aboriginal women continued to hold authority as providers for their families and as brokers in the new colonial order. Through their partnerships with white men, they negotiated food and safety for their families' survival. Educated by missionaries and trusted to work as servants in white households, they learned colonists' language, values and behaviours and put this learning to good use in negotiating with them. Diane Barwick recorded that women on missions in Victoria during the 1870s and 1880s developed skills and participated in political actions such as protests, strikes and appeals in letters, and they expected to be listened to as Aboriginal women had been prior to colonisation (Barwick 1970, 37).

Federation in 1901 ushered in a unifying vision of a White Australia built on racial purity and cultural uniformity that endorsed white supremacy and ownership of the land. This laid the foundations for the following 50 years of state control of Aboriginal people that continued to influence relations to the end of the century. The status of Aboriginal women was further demeaned by new legally mandated structures of racism and discrimination enshrined in policies of protection, segregation and assimilation. Legally British subjects (and Australian citizens from 1948), they were excluded from the nation. An example was their effective disenfranchisement in contrast to white women who now exercised the vote. They negotiated these pressures by drawing on the resilience of collective community identities and shared bonds of family.

The new mechanisms of governance introduced in the states and territories created rigid systems of protection and segregation. Government officers charged with the duty of the 'protection and care' of Aboriginal people by providing for their welfare, health and the education of their children focused on the enforcement of restrictive legislation. Punitive for Aboriginal men and women, this surveillance and control was gendered, with women and girls targeted for special treatment.

In Western Australia, the 1905 Aborigines Act controlled most aspects of Aborigines' lives: whom they associated with, where they could live and work, their earnings and personal property, and family life. There were additional controls for women: their choice of marriage partners and sexual contacts and their rights as mothers to raise their children. In contrast to 'half-caste' men, the women remained subject to the provisions of the 1905 Act for life. There were also gendered differences in removals to most institutions, with more women and girls sent in and detained indefinitely (Haebich 1992).

State intervention through these gendered measures, usually explained in terms of moral and medical policing, was also anti-natalist, intended to halt further growth of the population of mixed Aboriginal descent. Anxiety about large populations living in the heart of a prosperous white nation, fanned by white fears of racial contamination, violence and degeneracy, provided the rationale for unprecedented control of women and girls. This is highlighted by the contrasting pro-natalist treatment of white women: their idealisation as mothers; their esteemed duties as bearers and nurturers of the nation's future citizens; the benefits they received to carry out these duties-the maternity allowance, basic family wage, housing, public amenities, and medical services and education for their children. By contrast ,Aboriginal women were devalued as mothers: their children were taken to be raised by the state; the state also intervened to prevent them from bearing children by controlling their sexual and marriage partners; and women, expected to work, were confined to poorly paid domestic service. Denied the benefits assumed as a right by white women for their children, Aboriginal women were forced to lived in extreme poverty, thereby providing officials with further reason to remove their children 'for their own good'. In the 1930s, drastic eugenic measures intended to eradicate Aboriginal physical features from the population through state-controlled marriages promised to solve the Aboriginal problem altogether (Haebich 2000).

These debilitating circumstances struck at the very heart of Aboriginal womanhood and severely constrained women's capacity to respond proactively to their situation. Those who did act dealt principally with local family and community matters, but there were also many who focusd on wider issues of land, culture and political representation. They did so at considerable risk to themselves and their families.

Women who were trapped in the cycle of state control in institutions and organised employment in white households found their freedom of action severely curtailed. Yet, even here, there were women who used the lessons of survival to represent their cause. There are examples of extraordinary courage like the escape from Moore River Native Settlement north of Perth narrated in Doris Pilkington Garimara's (1996) book, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, as well as girls' letters smuggled out to the 1934 Moseley royal commission and detailing their terrible living conditions there (Haebich 1992): 2

White women genuinely concerned for the plight of Aboriginal women could find themselves having to match their humanitarian interests against punitive government measures and suffering in the cross-fire. Victoria Haskin (2006) gives an account of the efforts of her great-grandmother, "Ming", on behalf of her domestic servant that only brought further hardship for them both. Feminist Mary Bennett championed the rights of Aboriginal mothers and daughters in evidence to the Moseley royal commission, using the League of Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (endorsed by the Australian government in 1925), but was publicly attacked and her recommendations rejected (Haebich 2000).

Outside the institutions, women in rural areas struggled to support their large families on meagre wages from domestic work in town or seasonal farm work with their husbands, and lived in camps on unused land without medical care or schooling for their children. Discrimination and segregation shaped their lives but there was also freedom in the bush and, drawing together traditional knowledge and personal experience, they learned the lessons of cooperation through working in family groups and sharing scarce resources, of organisation through planning events and entertainments for their extended families and of negotiation in their dealings across the town colour bar with white employers, shopkeepers, and the police. The women also experienced the continuing power of traditional knowledge and skills, with Aboriginal midwives birthing babies in the bush as well as gathering food and hunting for their survival.

Letter-writing to government officers and politicians provides an example of women's agency and allegiances to family and the land. Nelson, Smith and Grimshaw (2002) compiled a genealogy of letters written by literate Aboriginal women of mission background in Victoria between 1867 and 1926, and grouped them according to themes of family and children, land and housing, personal freedoms, missionaries and stations managers, religion, and material assistance. For Van Toorn (2006, 201), their protests created a 'small space' of 'anti bureaucratic discourse' that appealed to their readers' sympathy to act on their complaints against interference in their lives.

Heather Goodall (1996) provides examples from New South Wales of public activism by Aboriginal women on a range of issues, including land, and also shows the interconnected networks of politics built around relationships of family and the land. The right to remain on family land at Burragorang, west of Sydney, motivated Selena Shepherd and Mary Toliman to negotiate with the Catholic Church over a period of eight years between 1908 and 1916. The families remained there until 1924, when the Aborigines Protection Board transferred the land to the church (Goodall 1996, 146). In 1926, Jane Duran of Batemans Bay sent her protests to King George V against the exclusion of Aboriginal children, including her grandchildren, from the local state school and attempts to move the families out of area. The following year she travelled to Sydney to petition the Education Department. Her efforts were successful when, in 1928, the children were allowed to return to school, and the families stayed on in the town (Goodall 1996, 148, 160, 187). Anna Morgan recounted her traditional stories on radio and, in 1934, published a letter in Labor Call protesting against the government's action in resuming Cummeragunja land and excluding the people, and pointing out the injustice of the domestic apprenticeship system for girls (Goodall 1996, 187).

John Maynard (2006), in his history of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (1924), identifies further instances of activism, including the commitment over many years of non-Aboriginal woman Elizabeth McKenzie Hatton and of Aboriginal women like Jane Duran, active in the AAPA. Pearl Gibbs, originally from the town of Brewarinna in western New South Wales, worked alongside Bill Ferguson as a spokesperson for the Aboriginal Progressive Association to organise the Day of Mourning in Sydney in 1938 to protest against the 150th anniversary of British settlement, and she continued her activism into the later campaign for civil rights.

A new phase in the governance of Aboriginal people emerged in the 1950s under the policy of assimilation. This was a new international vision of an Australian nation of citizens united by culture, not race, and a process to absorb Aboriginal people into the 'Australian Way of Life' as equal citizens. Governments promised a process of rapid change through the repeal of all discriminatory laws and practices, improved living conditions and access to all mainstream services, benefits and legal rights and protections. However, reform moved at a snail's pace, while interference in the role of women and the family increased. This failure to meet raised expectations was a target of the growing political action from the 1950s.

Aboriginal women were again the focus of gendered government projects of change, although still not as leaders. Assimilation promised to transform them into popular images of white suburban mothers and homemakers. Girls could become office workers, nurses and teachers. While new housing and essential improvements in living conditions lagged, forced inspections and domestic training escalated. The restrictive legislation that restrained women's rights was only gradually repealed. Together with continuing poverty, this left mothers vulnerable to losing their children. Still, as segregation was gradually relaxed, women found more freedom to meet together and share experiences and to learn new skills from their white trainers, including how to negotiate with government officers and school authorities.

Aboriginal women responded in various ways to the rhetoric of assimilation and to some of the tangible changes they saw taking place around them. Dashed hopes prompted individual acts of courageous defiance. In Geraldton, Western Australia, Alice Nannup held up a departing cinema crowd at the Radio Theatre to protest their racism against her family, despite the arrival of the police. She also protested against discrimination at other flash points, including the local hotel, church, school and from her bed in the hospital labour ward (Nannup, Marsh, Kinnane 1993). However, it was from within the emerging network of organisations founded by Aboriginal people and white supporters that most women took up their cause.

The Coolbaroo League was founded in Perth in 1946 by Helena Clarke with the endorsement of local Nyungar elders. Clarke was the daughter of Aboriginal activist Lawrence Clarke, who set up the Euralian Club in Port Hedland during the 1930s. Using dances to draw people together and strengthen community, the league ran its own arts and souvenir shop to raise funds and, in 1954, started a newspaper, the Westralian Aborigine. With its political agenda of citizenship that embraced Aboriginal identity and community identification with family and country and immediate equality in political, social and economic processes, the league stood in stark contrast to the government's organisations-the Native Welfare Council and local town committees of white men-with their program of staged training and earning of rights and erasure of Aboriginal identity. Nevertheless, the department sought to co-opt the league into its own agenda under its organisational umbrella. Dependent on the goodwill of the department, Clarke had to carefully manage working with its representatives while promoting the league's own objectives (Haebich and Marsh 2008).

The first all-Aboriginal association in South Australia was formed by women who migrated to the city from various parts of the state and who were seeking to maintain their Aboriginal connections and create new opportunities for their families. From the 1960s, the Council for Aboriginal Women of South Australia played an important politicising role. In 1969, council member Mrs G. Elphick courageously told the ANZAAS Conference in Adelaide that white people spoke about the 'Aboriginal problem' but the 'greatest problem was with the European-not with our own people whom we know and understand'. From the council's membership came the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement and Aboriginal Land Rights Support Group (Gale 1990, 390; Berndt 1971, 103).

Adelaide in 1958 was the site of the inaugural meeting of the first national Aboriginal political organisation, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (precursor of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, FCAATSI), which developed into the independent umbrella organisation that led the national campaign for civil rights. Initially dominated by white men and women from political, union, humanitarian and church backgrounds, the federal council had an Aboriginal membership formed from existing organisations, including the Aborigines Advancement League (Melbourne 1957) and the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF) established through the commitment of Pearl Gibbs, Faith Bandler and Grace Bardsley. Their initiative in collecting 25,988 signatures in support of amending the Australian Constitution provided the impetus for the successful national referendum in 1967 (Taffe 2005).

The white leadership of the FCAA endorsed Aboriginal citizenship and equality and retention of reserve lands, and appealed to international human rights and Indigenous covenants; however, there was growing pressure from Aboriginal members to adopt a platform supporting rights to Aboriginal culture and land and for Aboriginal people to run their own affairs. This was made clear at the 1961 Brisbane meeting in the actions of Queensland members Ruth Wallace (Mapoon), Gladys O'Shane (President of the Cairns League) and Kath Walker (Secretary of the Queensland Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders). The Aboriginal membership was further radicalised by the example of the Freedom Rides of 1965 and the strident student movement. For them, the organisation had become a forum for clarifying their goals and aspirations, which embraced Aboriginal solidarity, independence, land rights and self-determination (Kinnane 2011).

The 1967 referendum, 3 by enabling the federal government to legislate for Aboriginal affairs, was a national breakthrough that eased the stranglehold of the states and ushered in the new policy of Aboriginal self-determination, abandoned for self-management in 1975. The new federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs (1972) had an unprecedented budget to reverse Aboriginal disadvantage and meet demands for 'housing, health, welfare, legal aid, education, employment and land grants' (Gale 1990, 388). A further major initiative was the network of Aboriginal-controlled organisations set up to deliver services to Aboriginal people that developed into the national Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Medical Service. These operated in a new intersecting field of federal and state bureaucracies and Aboriginal frameworks supported by government funding and experienced non-Indigenous professionals (Kinnane 2011).

Women were underrepresented in these new bureaucracies and organisations, and their interests were not always adequately attended to (Hannaford 2003). The National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, with its members elected by local Aboriginal communities and an agenda to advise government, embodied the new drive to national representation and also the domination of new structures by Aboriginal men. Men also dominated the Northern Territory Land Councils and sacred site authorities established following the passing of the 1976 Northern Territory Lands Rights Act. Male leadership was wrongly assumed to be the sole form of political authority, despite there having been no emphasis on patrilineage in earlier official definitions (McGrath 1996). This was a legacy of local power relations and government preference, influenced by anthropological models of Aboriginal men as leaders and custodians of the land that overlooked women's religious and political power and custodial rights to the land.

Nevertheless, the 1970s was a time of new beginnings for Aboriginal women. Freed from the constraints of protectionism and assimilation, they were set to reclaim their cultures and land and regain their rights and power. They also found a new security through access to government benefits previously denied to them and mainstream legal protections for children and families. Access to secondary and tertiary education opened up new employment opportunities. For political activism, there were the radical models of Black Power and the Tent Embassy erected in Canberra in 1972. New media representations of Aboriginal protest and issues shifted public stereotypes, with flow-on effects for Aboriginal women as they took on new cultural leadership roles-for example, poet Oodgeroo Noonucal (formerly Kath Walker) and writer, Ruby Langford Ginibi.

The feminist movement of the 1970s was instrumental in drawing national attention to the gender politics of women's status and the distinctive experiences of women in society, including the special rights of Aboriginal women. The 'epistemological, gendered and ethical revolution' in anthropology at the time led to the revision of Aboriginal women's agency and established the women as social actors in their own right (Toussaint 1999, 3). They also came to understand that the assumed male dominance of Aboriginal society had a political history, and that non-Aboriginal men and women and Aboriginal men had benefited from this (Bell, 2001). Aboriginal women asserted that this had to be revised to stop their continuing exclusion from decision-making processes in the new structures of government and grass-roots Aboriginal organisations.

White middle-class feminist claims of a shared gender identity were soon questioned by Aboriginal women arguing that this mistakenly subsumed Aboriginal racial identity and all its attendant abuses and inequalities (Moreton-Robinson 2000; Fredericks 2004). Influential at the time was the work of Pat O'Shane (1986) and Jackie Huggins (1993). The so-called Bell-Huggins debate had implications for subsequent approaches to leadership issues. Huggins argued that middle-class white women anthropologists had distorted representations of Aboriginal women by failing to acknowledge their subject position as colonisers and oppressors of Aboriginal women (Lake 2007) and claiming, falsely, to be the colonised (Summers 1975). Feminists had also sought to remake Aboriginal women as middle-class white women and to speak on their behalf (O'Shane 1976; Sykes 1984; Huggins 1993; Behrendt 1993; Lake 2007).

Indigenous women in Canada were also finding feminism increasingly irrelevant to their cause (Parmentier 2010). Although they lived in a world where women were considered unequal, they believed that male domination was not universal. For some, gender inequality was alien, and they were concerned that the western idea of gender equality would leave them in a lower position than had historically been the case in their cultures. Nevertheless, while some Indigenous men may have accepted colonisers' interpretations of women's subordinate role, this did not mean that women would abandon them, as they were fellow victims of colonisation (Turpel 1993).

During the 1980s and 1990s, Aboriginal women played increasingly active and public roles as leaders in issues of national importance. In Alice Springs, the nation's press watched on as Aboriginal women were joined by the prime minster's wife, Hazel Hawke, to protest against developers' plans lodged in 1982 to create a recreation lake near the Telegraph Station on the edge of town. The site was a crucial women's religious site but Aboriginal women were not included in initial consultations and the Aboriginal men who were could not divulge any information for traditional reasons. The women managed to block development but it took eight years to find another acceptable site. The unnecessary anguish, delay and expense caused demonstrated that land councils and others could no longer afford to overlook Aboriginal women's political and religious status and custodianship of the land (Gale 1990).

The dedicated leadership of Molly Dyer, daughter of Margaret Tucker (author of If Everyone Cared), achieved changes nationally in Aboriginal child and family welfare. Dyer first brought attention to the plight of Aboriginal children placed with white families in Melbourne and the link between child removal and adult imprisonment. Her tireless efforts to develop culturally appropriate processes to keep Aboriginal children with their families and communities led to the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle, drafted by the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs, which was endorsed by most child welfare departments during the 1980s and incorporated in law in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory (Haebich 2000; Davis 2011).

Helen Corbett began the campaign for justice for John Pat, who died in Roebourne jail in 1983 of massive injuries sustained after his arrest, and this grew into a national protest movement. Corbett organised the Committee to Defend Black Rights and, in 1986, made a lecturing tour around Australia. In the following year, the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee was launched. Both organisations lobbied hard for the appointment of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, conducted between 1987 and 1991, to investigate the deaths of 99 men and women in Australian police, prison and juvenile detention custody (

In the national push for justice for the Stolen Generations 4, Barbara Cummings, herself a removed child, was a key figure. Cummings was an organiser of the Going Home Conference in Darwin in 1996, held following the appointment of the Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families in 1995. Attended by 600 people from around Australia, the conference exposed the systemic nature of Aboriginal child removal and proposed legal action for compensation. Cummings also helped to establish Karu Aboriginal Support Agency and the Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency, both in Darwin. She is the author of Take this Child, the classic history of removals in the Northern Territory ( Jacqui Katona, also of the Stolen Generations, campaigned nationally on the issue. In 1998, she led the international campaign to halt the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory with Mirrar people and environment groups peacefully holding one of the largest blockades in Australian history (Australian Broadcasting Commission 1998).

Women's leadership came to a head during the Hindmarsh Island bridge case of 1995, in which two groups of Aboriginal women clashed over the building of a bridge to the island. Led by Doreen Kartinyeri, the 'proponent group' argued that the island must be protected as a sacred women's site. The 'dissident women' declared that the secret women's tradition of Hindmarsh Island was a recent fabrication. The resulting dispute was a bitter and drawn-out public affair, with each group claiming leadership in the case (Tonkinson 1997; Wilson 1998).

From the 1980s, the federal government began to take a proactive stance in relation to women's leadership. Research projects were set up to identify Aboriginal women's needs and build women-centred processes of consultation and leadership (Women's Business (1984); Our Future, Ourselves (1990); Our Women, Our Future (1999)). In a promising move, Lowitja O'Donaghue was appointed as the first chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1990-96) but proposals for equal representation in the commission were dropped along with the Women's Unit, thus leaving women's issues to the 'social justice' agenda, where women were marginalised as a 'special interest' (Davis 2008). An evaluation in 1995 showed that ATSIC was not effective in meeting women's needs and that women were critical of the male-dominated leadership. They told the 2003 ATSIC Review that their participation in future representative structures was crucial and that lack of their input and participation meant failure of policy for Aboriginal women's issues (Davis 2007).

Following the dismantling of ATSIC in 2005, prominent Aboriginal scholars, including Professors Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Larissa Behrendt, Marcia Langton and Megan Davis, have continued the call for greater representation and to free women's voices from the biases of mainstream patriarchal mechanisms (Davis 2008). Although women had leadership roles in regional governance, it remained difficult to secure election at the national level. Their participation was constrained by 'many structural deficiencies and limitations', including: their isolation and marginalisation as leaders and decision-makers; the influence of beliefs and values on their confidence; the absence of female role models; and a lack of access to training and education. Ignoring these structural barriers, the former Indigenous Affairs Minister, Philip Ruddock, dismissed the fact that only one woman was elected to the commission as simply a matter of voter choice.

Aboriginal women's call for more equal representation appeared to have been heeded in the new century. Significantly, the new National Congress of Australia's First Peoples (2010) had equal gender on the Executive Council and Ethics Committee. In 2011, Megan Davis was elected to the prestigious United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, becoming the first Aboriginal Australian woman to achieve this honour. Now recognising the significance of women's many responsibilities in caring for the wellbeing of their communities, the federal government set up the Indigenous Women's Development Program (IWDP) in 2004 to develop leadership capacity and introduce 'leading-edge thinking and experience' (IWDP 2004). Culturally appropriate training programs for women leaders multiplied across the continent, ensuring a strong cohort of Aboriginal women leaders into the future.


  1. These include the Centre for Aboriginal Studies workshop organised by Jeannie Morrison and Anna Haebich in 2011; the Aboriginal women's forum at the 2011 AIATSIS Conference Connecting Generations; and discussions during the author's 25 years of experience working with Aboriginal organisations. Return to text
  2. Officially titled Royal Commission Appointed to Investigate, Report and Advise upon Matters in Relation to the Condition and Treatment of Aborigines, it was established by the Western Australian government in 1934 and reported in 1935. It was headed by Henry Doyle Moseley. Return to text
  3. Officially known as a referendum for Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal People) 1967. Return to text
  4. The term used to describe the children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by Australian state governments and their agencies under Acts of their respective parliaments between approximately 1869 and the 1970s. Return to text

Archival Resources

Private Collection

  • Lyn Henderson Yates interviewed by Elaine Rabbitt, Broome, Western Australia, 11 October; Private Collection. Details

State Library of Victoria

  • A Guide to the Papers of the Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria), 1951 - 1975, MS 12913; State Library of Victoria. Details

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Berndt, Ronald M, A Question of Choice: An Australian Aboriginal Dilemma, University of Western Australia (UWA) Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, 1974. Details
  • Goodall, Heather, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770 - 1972, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1996. Details
  • Haebich, Anna, For Their Own Good: Aborigines and Government in the Southwest of Western Australia 1900 - 1940, University of Western Australia (UWA) Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, 1988. Details
  • Haebich, Anna, Broken Circles: Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800 - 2000, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, Western Australia, 2000. Details
  • Haebich, Anna, Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950 - 1970, Fremantle Press, Perth, Western Australia, 2008. Details
  • Kidd, Rosalind, The Way We Civilise: Aboriginal Affairs, the Untold Story, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 1997. Details
  • Kinnane, Stephen, Aboriginal Unit Outline, Notre Dame University, Fremantle, Western Australia, 2011. Details
  • Maynard, John, Fight for Liberty and Freedom: The Origins of Australian Aboriginal Activism, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2007. Details
  • Moreton-Robinson, Aileen, Talking up to White Women, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 2000. Details
  • Nannup, Alice, with Marsh, Lauren and Kinnane, Stephen, When the Pelican Laughed, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, Western Australia, 1993. Details
  • O'Shane, Pat, Is There Any Relevance in the Women's Movement for Aboriginal Women? Refractory Girl, no. 12, 1976. Details
  • Pilkington, Doris /Garimara, Nugi, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 1996. Details
  • Summers, Anne, Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1975. Details
  • Taffe, Susan, Black and White Together: FCAATSI: The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders 1958 - 1973, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 2005. Details
  • Toussaint, Sandy, Phyllis Kaberry and Me: Anthropology, History and Aboriginal Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1999. Details
  • Van Toorn, Penny, Writing Never Arrives Naked: Early Aboriginal Cultures of Writing in Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2006. Details
  • Wilson, Dulcie, The Cost of Crossing Bridges, Small Poppies Publications, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details

Book Sections

  • Barwick, Diane Elizabeth, 'And the Lubras are Ladies Now', in Gale, Fay (ed.), Women’s Role in Aboriginal Society, Australian Institute of Australian Studies, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1970. Details
  • Bell, Diane, 'The Word of a Woman: Ngarrindjeri Stories and a Bridge to Hindmarsh Island', in Peggy Brock (ed.), Words and Silence: Aboriginal Women, Politics and Land, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 2001. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'Gladys Nicholls: An Urban Aboriginal Leader in Post-war Victoria', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 64-74. Details
  • Haebich, Anna and Marsh, Lauren, 'Living the Dream', in Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950 - 1970, Fremantle Press, Perth, Western Australia, 2008. Details
  • Jebb, Mary-Anne and Haebich, Anna, 'Across the Great Divide: Gender Relations on Australian Frontiers', in Saunders, Kay and Evans, Raymond (eds), Gender Relations in Australia: Domination and Negotiation, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Sydney, New South Wales, 1992. Details

Conference Papers

  • Aboriginal and Islander Community Resource Agency, 'Us Women Sharing, Walking and Talking Strong', in Indigenous Women’s Conference, 3 - 15 October 1997. Details

Edited Books

  • Grimshaw, Patricia; Nelson, Elizabeth and Smith, Sandra (eds), Letters from Aboriginal Women of Victoria, 1867 - 1926, The University of Melbourne: Department of History, Melbourne, Victoria, 2002. Details

Journal Articles

  • Behrendt, Larissa, 'On Leadership - Inspirations from the Life and Legacy of Dr. Charles Perkins', Journal of Indigenous Policy, vol. 7, 2007, pp. 99-105. Details
  • Davis, Megan, 'The Challenges of Indigenous Women in Liberal Democracies', Indigenous Law Bulletin, vol. 7, no. 1, November 2007. Details
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