A review of Mission Girls: Aboriginal Women on Catholic Missions in the Kimberley, Western Australia, 1900-1950, by Christine Choo, and Loving Protection?: Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women’s Rights 1919-1939, by Fiona Paisley
By Ros Kidd
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In Mission Girls, Christine Choo develops a historical analysis of Catholic missions in the Kimberley to reverse what she identifies as an invisibility of Aboriginal women in the written record, particularly in their role as agents rather than victims. Her timeframe – 1900 to 1950 – overlaps the interwar period which is the focus of Fiona Paisley’s Loving Protection?, an investigation of activism by key Australian feminists for Aboriginal women’s rights. Much of Paisley’s focus is on Aboriginal women’s experiences under Western Australian legislation.
Established by the contemplative Trappist monks in 1890, the Beagle Bay mission impacted significantly on local Aboriginal lives after the evangelist Pallotine order took control from the early 1900s. The priority of church work ‘in the world’ required a sedentary community under a Catholic regime. By 1907 this ‘refuge’ for mixed race children claimed responsibility for every local child over seven years old, following the arrival of nuns only one year earlier. Through education and regular work, the plan was to produce good Catholic converts who would marry among themselves and produce many children; the unstated ‘breeding’ priority betrayed by the provision of houses so small that children were of necessity transferred into dormitories at an early age.
The Benedictine order started a mission in 1908 on the Drysdale River to the north after a Royal Commission in 1905 had revealed widespread abuse of Aboriginal people by Kimberley pastoralists. Yet monks blamed the scarcity of women and children among groups who occasionally visited the mission on the practice of ‘promised’ marriage, particularly to elderly men, which led to illicit dalliances for which women suffered severe punishment. In extending ‘loving protection’ to women and children, Catholicism would supplant such ‘savagery’.
Removal of children and control of the sexual practices of women, particularly those of mixed descent, was authorised under the 1905 Aborigines Act which designated the chief protector as legal guardian of every child under 16 years of age, delegated regional protectors to relocate people to reserves, and demanded official consent for marriages to whites. Some mothers, voluntarily or by decree, accompanied children transported to the northern missions, and camped in the mission grounds while their children were confined in dormitories. At Beagle Bay children were allowed one weekly visit home; the orphanage in Broome, started by the sisters in 1908 for ‘abandoned’ children, allowed one monthly visit home for those with parents. For these children there was a degree of familial and cultural contact.
In reading extant correspondence Choo identifies a tendency to portray mission women as either collaborators who embraced the Catholic ethic, or resisters, expressed by slow working, escape, defiance and continuation of traditional sexual and social mores. This categorisation fitted within a broader dichotomy of Aboriginal women as either ‘good’ (monogamous, exemplifying ‘civilised’ child rearing and domestic practices) or prostitutes (asserting rights over their own bodies and reproduction) and thereby targeted for institutionalisation, surveillance and control. Choo observes that Aboriginal women were simplistically classified and quantified by gender and race in a European discourse which was oblivious to the women’s self-perceptions expressed through survival skills, the maintenance of familial, social and tribal cohesion, and the transmission of cultural identity.
These conflicting identities transected most starkly in the matter of marriage: control of marriage meant control of reproduction and continuation of race and culture. For white missionaries and officials this could only be assured within a European framework producing ‘Europeanised’ parents and children. Choo draws a neat parallel between the ‘infantilising’ of the mission sisters under the comprehensive controls of the ‘fathers’ and the transmission of passivity to Aboriginal girls and women.
Missions asserted that control over marriages would liberate young girls from ‘promised’ unions, spare them the indignities of polygyny, minimise fighting between males, ensure the security of a faithful husband. But the Native Affairs department suspected missionaries arranged marriages to bribe suitable males to the mission for a lifetime commitment to service. So it refused to delegate to the missions legal authority over marriages, demanding that tribal elders, as well as parents, be party to consent; limited official capacity to monitor the missions undercut these requirements. Even so, Choo found that many women made their own choices between the two systems: some married on the missions but maintained cultural and traditional links through language, song, bush food and medicine; others could refuse or abandon traditional unions to live on the missions, follow Christian rituals, bear large families and live in the Europeanised mode.
Mission Girls is a powerful study of the structures and operations of oppression. While it illuminates the colonialism and paternalism in which our historical narratives and our past and present identity are embedded it goes much further; repudiating the passive invisibility of Aboriginal women in archival records and teasing out the spaces which reveal them as actors who command and configure their own identities.
Fiona Paisley’s Loving Protection also strives to prioritise women’s voices and actions previously subsumed within mainstream (white, male, imperialist) historical narratives. She charts the shifting influence of prominent women activists of the 1920s and 1930s in public debates around Aboriginality and, in particular, around the status and future of Aboriginal women.
Mary Bennett, Bessie Rischbieth, Edith Jones, Constance Cook and Helen Baillie were financially independent and free of family demands. They travelled extensively within Australia and especially to Britain, where they lobbied within the British Commonwealth League and other forums to expose the parlous state of Indigenous women in Australia. They charged that policy failure to protect Aboriginal lives was a failure by Australia to uphold its duties as a modern commonwealth nation and saw federalism as the key to policy reform.
In multiple verbal sorties in the media, to state inquiries and royal commissions as well as internationally, they equated unpaid labour with slavery, they denounced unchecked sexual abuses by ‘wandering’ white men (a neat reversal of labels), and described the withholding of education as ‘monstrous’ and a loss to the nation as a whole. Bennett, a long-term teacher at Western Australia’s Mt Margaret mission, stated in 1931 that the Aboriginal population included inventors, writers and geniuses, waiting to be discovered. Cook was a strong advocate for land rights although, echoing attitudes of the times, she saw this as self-management, rather than sovereignty, of a proposed vast reserved area in central Australia.
Attuned to what they saw as the transitional status of Aboriginal people, the activists endorsed missions as offering ‘loving protection’ but argued women be accorded the right to control their own bodies and marry by choice, beholden neither to assimilationist aims nor to tribal caste. It followed that polygyny and child betrothal were proscribed. They deplored the systematic disregard of child bonding: taking children violated the whole basis of Aboriginal culture and irreparably damaged both mother and child. Indeed Bennett argued that human relationships were often the only thing left to the colonised race and even those were imperilled.
The feminists called for an intensified regulatory framework to secure the rights of women and children, seemingly unaware that interventions into marriage and mothering were the greatest threat to Aboriginal women’s agency. By categorising the plight of Aboriginal women within an emerging world wide ‘problem’ of management of the ‘dark’ races, the activists mistook their internationalist viewpoint as being outside culturally constructed identities. They applied their advocacy of equality of rights between men and women to the pursuit of equality of rights between white and black. But their campaigns were nonetheless, as Paisley points out, informed by white, middle class, pro-establishment attitudes. They were urging reform of the existing system, particularly through federal controls, to ‘liberate’ Aboriginal women as equal players within that same system.
Paisley is cognisant of the fact that feminists ‘spoke for’ Aboriginal women and assumed a neutrality for ‘whiteness’, their gender focus masking its embeddedness in racial superiority. Choo observes that more recent feminist writers are still writing from a position of assumed cultural dominance, quoting Jackie Huggins’ assertion that for many Aboriginal women liberation from racial discrimination remains a far more significant issue than women’s liberation.
Dr Ros Kidd is the author of The Way We Civilise and Black Lives, Government Lies. A specialist in Queensland’s administration of Aboriginal people, she has worked as consultant historian on numerous Native Title claims and official inquiries. Her evidence to the 1996 Human Rights Commission inquiry into underpaid wages was crucial to the decision against the state government which has seen compensation payouts totalling $56 million. Her ongoing project is to support litigation for missing personal savings and misused Trust funds.
Christine Choo’s Mission Girls: Aboriginal Women on Catholic Missions in the Kimberley, Western Australia, 1900-1950 was published by the University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, in 2001;
and Fiona Paisley’s Loving Protection?: Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women’s Rights, 1919-1939 was published by Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, in 2000.