Academic journal article Hecate

"Watch the White Women Fade": Aboriginal and White Women in the Northern Territory 1870-1940

Academic journal article Hecate

"Watch the White Women Fade": Aboriginal and White Women in the Northern Territory 1870-1940

Article excerpt

"Watch the White Women Fade": Aboriginal and White Women in the Northern Territory 1870-1940(*)


Some years ago I read in Miriam Dixson's The Real Matilda, in the chapter "Models for Female Identity Formation in a Frontier Land":

Sexual jealousy goes some way towards explaining the cold indifference most of our own respectable women displayed towards the manifest and desperate situation of convict women, and a long way towards explaining the positive hostility they often showed towards Aboriginal women.(1)

More recently young women studying history with me, and wanting to write essays on the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women, have been puzzled by the dearth of good secondary source material on the topic.

I have always felt that Miriam Dixson's comment about the hostility shown to Aboriginal women by white women needed further investigation. The settlement and development of the Northern Territory, comparatively late in the white settlement of Australia, provide a rich field for research. There are many accounts by settler women and women travellers which are available now to be used as a basis for that investigation. Because settlement was so recent, beginning in the late 1860s and continuing till the late 1950s, there are also many oral histories in the Northern Territory Archives which are a valuable resource. In fact, there is so much material that this paper will be based on a selection only of what is available. The stories are representative of the whole.(2)

What are the questions? Dixson's statement that "our own respectable women" often showed positive hostility towards Aboriginal women stimulated the first: how did Aboriginal and white women relate to each other in the Northern Territory? This led to many others.

I found I had to ask: what was a woman? The cultural stereotypes prevailing in frontier/settler society defined appropriate behaviour for white women in such a way that the idea of womanhood became subsumed into the definition of what a white woman was. By implication the traditional activities of black women, such as food gathering, maintenance of law and custom through active participation in ritual and so on, placed them outside that definition. They were primitive, alien, perhaps not human and, except as sexual partners, not women.

How did settler women react when they met Aboriginal women? Did the settler ethos shape their response? In other words did they accept the hegemony of a racist and eurocentric colonial ideology, or did they develop a personal and individual response which led them to relate to Aboriginal women as sisters sharing a common destiny based on gender? Dixson's comments about 19th Century colonial women and Lee Cataldi's poem "kuukuu kardiya and the women who live on the ground" (about more recent events) imply that, historically, white women have stayed firmly within the confines of colonial mores.

Were there exceptions? What difference did it make when white women stayed in the Territory, when they did not "fade / after a few years / after one or two of these seasons..."? Did it make a difference if the white woman was a traveller, a settler's wife, a professional with a job to do? And did their small population numbers have any effect on the way white women responded?

So many questions and, for the period covered by this paper, almost all will have to be answered from the accounts of white women. Some of the white women will, however, have tried to listen to what they have been told by Aboriginal women.

The work of women anthropologists is, on the whole, a source I am not using, not because it is not important but because that body of work contains much that would have led the discussion away from the main points being made here. In a longer piece, covering the same period, I would have to consider in depth, and separately, the work of Phyllis Kaberry, Marie Reay, Catherine Berndt and Olive Pink. …

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