I first met Doreen in 1980 when I gained a grant for her to write her family genealogy. But she had left school at grade 3 and I worked with her for several years to help her gain the necessary skills to do the documentation and research. The launch was a great celebration for the whole community. She has a Hon Doctorate from University of SA for her work.
Dr Fay Gale – a lifetime of work with Aboriginal women
At the Launch of Doreen’s book Ngarrindjeri Nation
I am not sure where to begin to talk about my partnerships with indigenous Australian women. I have had some relationship or other for a large part of my life. Let me offer a few examples.
My two bridesmaids were Aboriginal women when I married in 1957. Those two women, Gladys Long and Linda Vale, were taken from their mothers when they were babies and sent to an off-shore mission in the Northern Territory . At a later date, when the government policy changed from one of removing and isolating children of mixed Aboriginal and European descent, they were sent away from the mission. These two girls came to Adelaide where my parents gave them a home until they were able to find work and accommodation. They were my ‘sisters’ and thus it was quite logical that I should ask them to be my bridesmaids.
I was greatly influenced by the way these girls were treated both in their early years and in the way they were largely ostracised by the general community in Adelaide . I remember travelling home from church one evening with Gladys when I was deeply shocked by the way she was stared at by other passengers and treated in an obscene manner by the conductor. When I commented to her she assured me that she was used to such treatment but it still made her mad.
I was a young graduate teacher at the time, but my experiences with these girls and others whom I met, helped decide me to go back to University to do a PhD in the hope that I might contribute to a greater understanding and tolerance by both official government workers, who so directed their lives, and to the community in general.
I chose as my topic a study of part-Aboriginal people, the term then used for those who were of mixed descent. I soon realised how they were rejected by both the traditional people and the ‘white’ community. They were neither ‘blackfella’ nor ‘ whitefella’. They were indeed on the fringe in every sense. I visited the areas where these ostracised people lived on the edges of towns. I spent many hours with women in these camps talking to them about their situations and the things they most cared about. I got to know some great and incredibly strong women who were so tolerant in the face of such intolerance and who worked to support their families and those in their small communities. I moved around South Australia from Bordertown in the South to Oodnadatta in the north and from the Broken Hill line to the far West Coast and Yalata. I had originally planned to include the Northern Territory but was banned from entry to Aboriginal areas by the then Director of Native Welfare. I had been very critical of the policy of removing part-Aboriginal children from their mothers and had written about the practice and condemned it on ABC radio. Some six years after my outbursts, containing clear research evidence of its failures the policy was officially stopped.
When my first child was born I was living in a country town and I went to a country hospital. It so happened that it was in a town where Aboriginal women from a nearby mission were brought to have their babies. I was shocked to see first hand that even in a government hospital they were treated as second class and accommodated in a separate area. Since I knew one of the women having a baby at the same time I asked to cross the invisible line to the Aboriginal ward. That was not allowed but I could see the baby in the nursery as all babies, ‘back’ and ‘white’ were in the same nursery. The irony and the confusion in official thinking and practice were amazing. It was in hospital too that I realised how deep was this contradiction. I was given a form to fill in to enable me to register for child endowment. The form made it clear that women of Aboriginal descent could not apply as they were wards of the State. Why did their babies cost less to raise? The experience of those few days in hospital made me realise even more closely the discrimination against Aboriginal women at every level. I wrote and protested again over such contradictions.
In 1964 I was invited by C D Rowley to join the project, Aborigines in Australian Society, sponsored by the Social Science Council of Australia. With my two small children I visited Aboriginal women in their homes and camps discussing issues and difficulties. This research eventually led to the publication of Urban Aborigines, volume 8 in the series.
Visiting one of the missions early in my studies I spent time with a few women who asked me many questions about life ‘outside’ and ways they could move out to the city. One woman in particular did leave and move to Adelaide where she became an important leader in the community and helped many other Aboriginal women. Through continuing contact with these women coming to settle in Adelaide I was able to introduce several new comers to other Aboriginal women already resident in Adelaide . Ruby Hammond describes one such introduction in her biography, Flight of an Eagle: The Dreaming of Ruby Hammond by Margaret Forte and published in 1966 after Ruby’s death (page 67). From these informal meetings came the establishment of the Council of Aboriginal Women, the first in Australia .
In 1969 I chaired a session at ANZAAS entirely devoted to Aboriginal women. This symposium consisted mainly of academic women, primarily anthropologists, who gave papers contesting the prevailing views of the secondary status of women in Aboriginal society. I edited and published these papers as Woman’sRole in Aboriginal Society in 1970. It became quite influential in challenging the ignorance concerning Aboriginal women.
As part of the Jubilee Congress of ANZAAS in 1980 I decided to invite as many Aboriginal women as possible to come and speak and share time dealing with their particular issues. It was truly remarkable the amount of funding that was raised to make to it possible for over 50 Aboriginal women from all over Australia to come to Adelaide for the week. In these sessions most of the speakers were Aboriginal women. They were women’s sessions closed to men. Furthermore the women had one day reserved for workshops where only Aboriginal women could attend. The results of the conference were quite startling as I was told later of how the women went back to their communities and worked to set up local women’s councils. I edited and published the material from that conference in We Are Bosses Ourselves: The status and role of Aboriginal women today.