White Women in the Field: Feminism, Cultural Relativism and Aboriginal Rights, 1920-1937

Article excerpt

During the inter-war years, numerous anglo-Australian activist women argued that Aboriginal policy and administration had to recognise the cultural and social experiences of Aboriginal people living under the constraints of white settlement Campaigning for the reform of Aboriginal policy, writer and educator Mary Montogmery Bennett and activist and government advisor on Aboriginal affairs Constance Ternent Cooke emphasised the importance of studying Aboriginal culture and society, drawing on contemporary cultural theory as a framework for their pro-Aboriginal politics.(1) In her 1930 publication The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being, Bennett explained:

Of their highly specialised specialised social organisation we know little.

It is a

race between the process of extermination and the efforts of a few scientists


obtain records of the Australian natives before they disappear. But the vital

fact has

been definitely established that Aboriginal civilisation was founded on the

ownership of land. It was on this foundation that they built up the

structures of organised

life in a complex and inter-connected whole.(2)

The radical implications of a feminist interpretation of cultural theory have been little acknowledged by historians of Australian race relation and its significance in shaping inter-war Aboriginal policy remains largely unknown.(3) Women activists such as Bennett are often represented as either oppressors of Aboriginal women (alongside white men) or as entrapped by the `folk-logic' of contemporary racial theory. In his account of colonial relations, Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land, Henry Reynolds observes that perceptions of Aboriginal people as `living fossils' of a past age dominated the views of colonists hostile to Aboriginal rights and those humanitarians working for their legitimation. Thus he finds: [e]ven activists', with specific reference to Mary Bennett, `were caught in the same primitivist, `intellectual net'.(4) In this article I argue that women activists' undoubted primitivist admiration for Aboriginal people was only one aspect of a complex feminist reworking of contemporary cultural theory.(5) Their gendered and politicised account of the effects of cultural contact upon Aboriginal women differed dramatically from those offered by the other humanitarians discussed by Reynolds. White women's adaptation of contemporary ideas about race and culture is presented here not as a disappointing blemish on otherwise admirable activism but as an illustration of the ways in which white women's racialism has differed historically from white men's and has differently informed the' response to 'the Aboriginal question' in settler-colonial Australia.(6)

The question of how to represent the pro-Aboriginal campaigns of these white middle-class women within their historical context remains controversial. Queensland Aboriginal historian Jackie Huggins, with Tom Blake, argues that white feminists have denied the hierarchical power relations operating between white women and Aboriginal women (historically epitomised in the mistress/servant relationship).(7) Huggins and Myrna Tonkinson accuse present-day white Australian feminism of re-enacting the history of ethnocentricism, universalism and imperialism in claiming to speak on behalf of all women, while ignoring the specific conditions faced by Aboriginal women. They contend that any claim of `sisterhood' between white women and Aboriginal women is historically discredited by the cruelty, violence and racism experienced by many Aboriginal women at the hands of white women.(8) With this history in mind, Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans have concluded that little evidence exists of white women's `gender affinity across racial lines' towards Aboriginal women.(9) They also state that no white feminist interest in Aboriginal rights existed until after the second world war. …