Woman Shaw, Barbara Catherine (1952 - )

Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia
Aboriginal activist

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in 1952, Barbara (Catherine) Shaw grew up in the Mount Nancy Town Camp on the edge of Alice Springs. She spent the bulk of her adult life in Aboriginal community development and engagement. At a national level, she was appointed to the National Women's Consultative Council (now defunct) the follow up organisation to the National Women's Advisory Council, and worked with the National Australian Museum Committee. In the Northern Territory, Shaw made significant contributions to the Central Aboriginal Congress and an Aboriginal investment corporation, Centrecorp, where she was the first chairperson, a position she held for four years. Throughout the 1980s she worked extensively in developing the concept of Women's Councils in organisations such as the Central Land Council and the local Tangentyere council. While her concern has always been to advocate on behalf of all Aboriginal people, her activism on behalf of women was designed to counteract the tendency of white officials and bureaucrats to marginalise Aboriginal women and their areas of concern.

Shaw's parents encouraged her to pay attention to her schooling even though she was, by her own admission, 'a very poor student' (Murawina, p. 121). When a missionary family with whom she had formed a relationship moved to Adelaide, they offered to take Barbara with them as a boarder, so she could finish her schooling. 'It seemed I had been perceived as the little camp kid with great potential', she said (Murawina, p. 121). She completed her secondary schooling, encountering significant culture shock along the way, and went straight into nursing training.

Upon completing her training, Shaw went to work on an Aboriginal settlement in a health clinic. Four years of encountering the same family health problems and seeing no improvement convinced her that she needed to learn more about creating effective public health systems. 'Health Education', she said, 'was the key' (Murawina, p. 122). In 1977 she was accepted into the College for Allied Health Services in Port Moresby, where she studied health systems designed at a grass roots level. Upon graduation, she returned home to work as a nurse with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. She rose through the ranks of that organisation to become its Deputy Director. In addition she has held executive positions on the Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, Tangentyere Council and the Joint Aboriginal Management Information Services. She was involved with the development of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. 'My organizational history may present a picture of me as being a forceful person, but in reality I'm quite timid', she said in the early 1990s. 'It's taken a great effort on my part to be determined and assertive in my own right as an Aboriginal woman' (Murawina, p. 124).

Shaw drew her inspiration from her mother and grandmother, both very tough women whose survival despite hard lives taught her resilience. Visualising and believing in her own strength as an Aboriginal woman was important to her developing her capacity to lead. 'I use this image of myself to encourage other young Aboriginal staff,' she said. Education is key and she encouraged her own staff to pursue it, so that they could move into more senior positions in organisations that influenced outcomes for Aboriginal people. But underlying this, she believed, was that important sense of self she had, because she grew up knowing her country, her family and who she was. 'This is the source of my inner strength and is something that no man or woman, black or white, can ever take from me' (Murawina, p. 125).

Archival Resources

National Archives of Australia

  • Office of the Status of Women - Membership - General - National Women's Consultative Council, 18 June 1984 - 16 October 1985, 7129661; National Archives of Australia. Details

Published Resources


  • Lea, Teresa and the United Nations Association of Australia, Northern Territory Division, Status of Women Committee, Bicentennial N.T. women's project '48-88' : Northern Territory women's register, U.N.A.A. Status of Women Committee (N.T.), Darwin, Northern Territory, 1988. Details

Book Sections

  • 'Barbara Catherine Shaw', in Skyes, Roberta and Edwards, Sandy (eds), Murawina: Australian women of High Achievement, Doubleday, Sydney, New South Wales, 1993, pp. 121 - 125. Details

See also