Academic journal article Hecate

'Only Teachers, Nurses and Wives': Women on Methodist Missions in Arnhem Land

Academic journal article Hecate

'Only Teachers, Nurses and Wives': Women on Methodist Missions in Arnhem Land

Article excerpt

'I don't think we had many women missionaries in North Australia. Only teachers and nurses.' (1)

'On Elcho Island, to tease us, our husbands used to say to us, 'Oh, but you are only a wife!" (2)

'Only' was a pejorative term used to describe the personhood, the lives and the work of women on the Methodist missions in Arnhem Land (which ran from 1916-1975). The term 'only' reflected the gender hierarchy that operated on the missions, which automatically placed women in a subordinate relationship on the basis of gender, not merit. (3) The mission system failed to acknowledge the large participation rate of women in the operation of mission functions and the importance and impact of women's roles. Relegated to the status of 'only', women on Methodist missions in Arnhem Land were free to generate other roles. This paper will argue that women missionaries were responsive to cross cultural relationships and were drawn into close associations with Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women returned the gaze of the missionaries and inverted the position the women missionaries imagined they would occupy. They actively initiated relationships and incorporated women missionaries into their lives. In later years the women missionaries reassessed their work and lives and the effects of missionary intrusion and disruption. Aboriginal women reflected on the 'housegirl' system which operated on the missions and its effect on their lives.

Women on Methodist Missions

Both the numbers and the percents of women workers recorded in mission reports misrepresent the actual number of women workers on Methodist missions in Arnhem Land. On the four major missions along the coast of Arnhem Land: Goulburn Island, Milingimbi, Elcho Island and Yirrkala, three of the 11 missionaries in 1947 were women, 10 of the 24 in 1958, 28 of the 83 in 1968 and 28 of the 94 in 1970. Over this period, 30% of the registered missionaries were women. (4) These records do not include the wives of missionaries, who undertook a wide range of unpaid jobs, most of which would otherwise have been done by paid male or unmarried women missionaries.

The most typical types of employment of women on the missions were in the 'caring' fields of education and health. From the 1950s some teachers and nurses became linguists, developing the first written forms of Indigenous languages from this area of Arnhem Land. As funding increased in the mid 1960s, women also were employed in office/administration work, as kitchen hands/cooks, and as welfare workers. Other jobs typically done by married women included the regular monitoring of the weather station, the radio schedules, the operation of banking facilities for Indigenous people, supervision of craft and domestic workers, assisting in the mission stores, and after school activities. Church duties included Sunday school teaching, girls clubs, flowers, cleaning, and Church music.

I spent a mission 'term' of three years on Methodist missions in Arnhem Land as a mission wife at the end of the mission era from 1968-1971. From their inception, mission functions were severely compromised by lack of funding from church and state. In the mid-1960s, an increase in government funding allowed for the building of proper schools and hospitals and Aboriginal homes. This brought an influx of lay missionaries onto the missions, mostly tradesmen and teachers. The mission became a more industry-based, secular town and church attendances dropped. On Elcho Island, where I lived for most of the time, there was an Aboriginal population of about 1000 people and a missionary population including wives and children of about 100 people. There was a mixture of local inhabitants and those attracted to the mission from nearby areas. There were about eight different tribal groups and approximately 22 local languages spoken. There was some movement on and off missions, but the population was more or less permanent. The mission town was orderly and industrious. …

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