Woman Bennett, Mary Montgomerie

Feminist, Human rights activist, Humanitarian and Teacher

Written by Alison Holland, Macquarie University

Born in July 1881, in London, Mary Montgomerie Bennett was the elder daughter of Robert Christison and his wife Mary, née Godsall. She was raised and educated by governesses partly in London and partly on Lammermoor, her father's pastoral station in north-west Queensland. While there she was also taught by Aboriginal women, whom she remembered affectionately as her 'childhood friends' (The Australian Aboriginal As A Human Being). Between 1903-1908 she was a student of the Royal Academy of Arts and lived with her parents at Barwell Park in Lincolnshire. On 18 August 1914 she married naval captain, Charles Douglas Bennett, before he left for war service in the Royal Naval Reserve. When he retired in 1921, they settled in London, where, during the interwar years, she took an active role in the burgeoning humanitarian movement for which the colonial question was a burning issue. Her contributions to the Manchester Guardian earned her a reputation as a champion of the Australian Aborigines.

In 1927, the year her husband died, she published Christison of Lammermoor, a biography of her father as well as Notes on the Dalleburra. The latter was compiled from jottings her father had made on the Aboriginal people whose country he took up in 1863. Before returning to Australia in 1930 she published The Australian Aboriginal As A Human Being. This work argued that the founding of a just relationship between Aborigines and non-Aborigines was a world problem and the most important task of the twentieth century. It was an indictment of Australian policy in the north and centre, sites which had become a source of much humanitarian concern. A powerful human rights treatise, the book identified dispossession, as well as economic and legal inequality, as the foundation of the problem. It also positioned her as a forthright, knowledgeable and experienced defender of the Aborigines' cause.

Following a year-long journey along Australia's north-west coast, she settled on the United Aborigines' Mission at Mt Margaret on the eastern goldfields of Western Australia in 1932. Initially asked to teach craft to the women and girls on the mission she stayed for ten years, gaining a reputation as a progressive educationalist of Aboriginal children at a time when this was not a state or national priority. In particular, she developed a program which implemented the latest methods and state school standards, for which some of her pupils gained awards. She also gained a reputation as a leading critic of government Aboriginal policy. At a time when administrators were looking to solve the Aboriginal problem by segregating 'full-bloods' and biologically absorbing the mixed descent children into the majority population she was demanding their human rights and the abolition of the colour bar. Rights to land, their own family and community life, education and food were required for all Aboriginal people regardless of caste.

While she was deeply concerned about the economic position of Aboriginal people as a result of dispossession, particularly the non-payment of Aboriginal workers, it was the position of Aboriginal women as wives and mothers which she focused on before World War II. Seeing Aboriginal women as the most vulnerable in the process of culture contact she developed a nuanced thesis regarding 'conditions akin to slavery' in which they lived focusing, in particular, on their positions in their own cultures, their sexual exploitation by white men and their lack of rights as mothers as their mixed descent offspring were removed by the state. It was as a result of a controversial paper on the Aboriginal mother written in 1933, which was read at a leading feminist organization in Britain that a major government inquiry into the status and treatment of Aborigines in Western Australia was conducted.

Following the inquiry she became embroiled in a full-scale and very bitter fight with the native affairs administration in Western Australia, which not only rejected her claims but used the moment to institute a policy which profoundly impacted on the human rights of Aboriginal people. While she was not acting alone, the battle which ensued was partly a contest between herself and her ideas for reform and AO Neville, the leading bureaucrat responsible for Aboriginal policy in that state. She was outraged by the eugenic direction of government policy arguing that we would be better able to evaluate it if the breeding out of white people was applied to ourselves. While there were few other women who agreed with her at the time, her interventions were underscored by the long-running feminist campaign to have more women in authoritative positions in Aboriginal affairs. Bennett's defeat was emblematic of the problem of women having no power to effect policy in this area, as was the failure of the feminist campaign itself.

Having suffered from bouts of ill-health she returned to Britain in 1941 for the duration of the war. While pursuing tertiary studies there she reconnected with the humanitarian network, exposing and critiquing Australian conditions and laws, delivering papers, and requesting the support and intervention of organisations like the National Council for Civil Liberties, the League of Coloured People and the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society. Having matriculated from the University of London, in 1947 Bennett returned to Australia where she remained for the rest of her life. In 1957, four years before her death, she wrote Human Rights For Australian Aborigines which utilized the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights to highlight all the ways that Australian policy discriminated against Aboriginal people. After a short stint on a mission in Western Australia she spent her final years at her home in Kalgoorlie where she died in 1961.

Following her death Bennett's personal papers were confiscated by the state. By that stage she had begun to be recognized as a leader by a younger generation of activists who were inspired by the economic and human rights dimensions of her work. In particular, the Federal Council For Aboriginal Advancement adopted ILO Convention 107 (Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Populations) as a template for reform upon her urging. In terms of her human rights advocacy Bennett might best be understood as a leader before her time. Her sense of colonialism's legacy, particularly, the economic and cultural impact of dispossession, occurred some 70 years before the nation-state's recognition. Her defining the Aboriginal question in world terms and her faith in the capacity of international law to effect change in policy and law and deliver justice for Aboriginal people were very advanced for her day. Much of her campaign continues to resonate today.

Bennett's key inspiration were Aboriginal people themselves: her childhood friends, the Aboriginal rights activist Anthony Martin Fernando, the Wongutha on Mt Margaret and the many other Aboriginal men and women with whom she worked and collaborated in the course of her life as a defender of their rights. She was inspired by a range of African American leaders and thinkers including Booker T Washington James Aggrey and Harold Moody. Her ideas on the Aboriginal question were born in the context of a vibrant interwar imperial humanitarianism. Primarily interested in the reform of colonial policy they also had antecedents in the critical theories of empire enunciated by leftist thinkers such as JA Hobson and ED Morel in the late nineteenth century. The latter's work in and on the Congo remained a guiding inspiration.

Published Resources


  • Bennett, Mary, Christison of Lammermoor, Alston Rivers, London, England, 1927. Details
  • Bennett, Mary M, The Australian Aborigine as a Human Being, Alston Rivers, London, England, 1930. Details
  • Paisley, Fiona, The Lone Protestor. AM Fernando in Australia and Europe, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2012. Details

Book Sections

  • Holland, Alison, 'Whatever her race, a woman is not a chattel: Mary Montgomery Bennett', in Anna Cole, Victoria Haskins & Fiona Paisley (ed.), Uncommon Ground: White Women in Aboriginal History, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2005, pp. 129-52. Details

Online Resources