Academic journal article Hecate

Clean, White Girls: Assimilation and Women's Work

Academic journal article Hecate

Clean, White Girls: Assimilation and Women's Work

Article excerpt

Clean, White Girls: Assimilation and Women's Work

Nothing is inherently dirty; dirt expresses a relation to social value and social disorder. Dirt is that which transgresses social boundary.(1)

The cult of domesticity became indispensable to the consolidation of British national identity, and at the centre of the domestic cult stood the simple bar of soap.(2)

Because it belongs to `the female realm of domesticity, soap is figured as beyond history and beyond politics proper,' and `has no social history,' as Anne McClintock points out. To `begin a social history of soap...is to refuse, in part, to accept the erasure of women's domestic value under imperial capitalism'(3) Narratives about the assimilation of indigenous Australian girls this century positioned them as the foremost targets of a social engineering project, enacted and legitimated by domestic training. Under assimilation it was essential to learn the cultural rituals of white society in order to approximate whiteness -- whiteness, while certainly premised on skin colour at the time, was also defined by a conformity to its social rules. These social rules were principally taught as a set of domestic rituals based on specific narratives about the character and duties of white women and their domestic work. In their Australian manifestations, narratives about `cleanliness' were pervasive throughout the assimilationist period and by the 1950s, white women were encouraged as a form of national duty to take on the mantle of role model and educator to a group who had been designated as `in-transition' people. This narrative line as reproduced by policy makers, missions and others, in film and print, will be my main focus.

My analysis of the history of white women's involvement in national and state based policies of social engineering, through their role as domestic educators and as symbols of `acceptable' femininity, acknowledges their importance in creating dominant narratives of constructed racial difference. The Police Wife in Alexis Wright's novel, Plains of Promise, who endeavours to `keep the town clean'(4)by delivering a list of the social crimes of a young Aboriginal girl, or the missionaries' attempts to keep the dormitory clean by shaving heads of Aboriginal inmates in Wayne King's autobiography, Black Hours, are indicators of how Australia imagined racial difference and the civilising mission. While white women were also constrained by narratives of domesticity, as `incorporated' objects of a male colonial endeavour(5) throughout the eighteen and early nineteen hundreds, they were usually `in the men's room' when it came to the spaces allocated to indigenous people.(6) As Jackie Huggins observes, in relation to indigenous people, white women were often positioned as honorary men, called `Sir' or `boss.'(7) Use of the first names of white women by indigenous people was (in most instances) strictly forbidden; Aboriginal domestics and workers, as Marnie Kennedy observes in her autobiography Born a Half-Caste,(8) were called by their first names or generic titles such as `Jackie,' `Gin' or `Black Velvet.' These conventions instituted the racial superiority of all white people and maintained a stable hierarchy of power in work and other interactions.

However, as Ann McGrath points out in Born in the Cattle, sexual politics had nonetheless a large bearing upon how racial stereotypes were formed and enforced. A letter to the Northern Territory Times in 1921, written by a woman calling herself `The Romany Lass,' demanded that white men who `seduced and abducted' Aboriginal women `by villainy' should pay for their offence `against the White Australia policy.'(9) An hierarchy of race divined through degrees of `caste' was supported, if not implemented and defined, by these `domestic' and `feminine' values throughout the assimilationist period in Australia. This is clearly exemplified by the `exemption certificate' form which marked candidates (so-called `half caste' Aboriginal wards of the state) on caste, cleanliness of person and home, and other indicators of public and private status such as occupation and number of children. …

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