Review of Marilyn Lake’s biography of Faith Bandler, ‘Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist’

by Lyndall Ryan

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In the late 1980s, I screened the film Thanks Girls and Goodbye, about the Women’s Land Army during World War II, to a women’s studies class. They readily identified Faith Bandler as the star. Her stunning visual presence, her charismatic personality and her astute comments about the ambivalent position of women in the Land Army in relation to the other defence services in World War II, made the students hunger for more. Who is this woman who looks like Truganini and has the politics of an advanced feminist, one student demanded? Why don’t we know more about her?

Marilyn Lake’s biography of Faith Bandler fills this gap in feminist knowledge. But the subject is full of contradictions. She is not Aboriginal, but as a woman of colour she has devoted most of her adult life to removing legal discrimination against Aboriginal people. She is not a white woman, but she has led a middle-class life as the wife of an engineer on Sydney’s North Shore. She is not a member of a political party but she has been a political activist for over fifty years. She is Australian born and bred, but has always felt an outsider in mainstream Australia. She is not a historian but she has published four books about her family’s origins and about the struggle to win a ‘Yes’ vote in 1967. Lake deals with these contradictions by constructing her subject’s story as a counter narrative to the white middle-class Australian woman in the second half of the twentieth century.

Faith Bandler was born in 1918 on a banana share farm at Tumbulgum in northern New South Wales, the second youngest of eight children. Her father was a South Sea Islander, who had successfully challenged the deportation provisions of the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901 and her mother was Australian-born of Indian/Scottish descent. While both parents gave Faith pride in her origins, it was not until the death of her father when she was five and the family had moved to Murwillumbah, that she encountered the exclusionary racism of white Australia. She lost her confidence and left high school at the onset of the Depression, to work as a milliner’s assistant. And there her life may have drifted had it not been for the outbreak of World War II. It changed her life.

In 1942 Bandler and her sister went to Sydney to join the Women’s Land Army and worked on farms in New South Wales. After the War, she lived a cosmopolitan life in Kings Cross, where she had a long affair with a Finnish sailor, took music lessons to improve her fine singing voice and learn the importance of a public presence on the stage,
and studied at WEA classes to overcome her lack of education. Her political involvement with the Left enabled her to travel to Europe in 1951 to attend a major cultural youth festival. In this formative period of adulthood, she gained a very sophisticated understanding of herself sexually and politically. In 1952 she married Hans Bandler, a Jewish refugee engineer from Vienna. It proved an enduring partnership, based on shared political beliefs and a great love of classical music and gardening.

In 1956, when their daughter was two years old, Faith used her middle-class security to become a fulltime political activist, determined to eradiate discriminatory laws and practices against Aboriginal peoples. In this project, she was shaped by her political mentors, Pearl Gibbs and Jessie Street. The former, an Aboriginal activist who had organized the Aboriginal Day of Mourning in 1938, saw Faith as the important link between the white elite and Aboriginal people. The latter, a feminist activist from an earlier generation, moulded Faith’s talents as a communicator across race and class, to make her into a first rate public speaker and lobbyist. From these two women, Faith developed her own style of public presentation and persuasion.

Marilyn Lake places Faith Bandler’s life as a political activist into two periods. The first from 1956 to 1973, which Lake calls ‘the challenge of coalition politics’, concerns her involvement in the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF), the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) and the campaign to amend Section 127 of the Australian constitution to enable Aboriginal people to be recognized as citizens of the Australian nation in the same way as other Australians. Lake provides a valuable account of the strengths and weaknesses of coalition politics in this period and the difficulties each organization had in working through gender, racial and cultural differences about discrimination, assimilation and integration. Faith Bandler had to learn not to be offended when she was overlooked for key positions by her own supporters on the grounds that she was a woman or that she was not white. But during the Referendum campaign in 1966 and early 1967 she came into her own. She addressed hundreds of public meetings and used her media skills, dazzling good looks, stylish appearance, commitment to the cause and charismatic personality to change the hearts and minds of white Australians about the role and place of Indigenous people in Australian society. By the time the Referendum was won in May 1967, Faith Bandler had become a major public figure.

By 1970, however, following the emergence of what Lake calls ‘the ambiguities of Black Power’, Faith Bandler was sidelined from the Aboriginal struggle. Being black but not Aboriginal was now a disadvantage. So in 1974 she began a new kind of activism, researching and writing four books: a novel about her father and his experiences as a South Sea Islander kidnapped into slavery in Queensland; another about her brother and his early life in northern New South Wales; and two histories about the struggle for the 1967 referendum. At the same time she conducted a campaign for legal recognition of the South Sea Islanders. This proved more difficult to win than the ‘Yes’ campaign in 1967, in that she not only had to reframe the dominant language of dispossession that was now used to advocate Indigenous rights, she had to challenge the revisionist historians who claimed that the South Sea Islanders were willing indentured labourers rather than slaves and thus did not need special recognition. In the year 2000, the Queensland government offered a measure of official recognition to the South Sea Islanders when it conducted a ‘recognition ceremony’ at Parliament House in Brisbane.

I found this second part of Bandler’s activist life the most interesting section in the book, partly because so little has been written about this period and partly because she fought on two fronts: against Black Power activists and their campaign to exclude her from Indigenous Australia; and against revisionist historians who denied that her father had experienced slavery. Bandler’s engagement with both groups offers important insights about the future of Indigenous reconciliation in Australia.

On one level, Faith Bandler can be represented as a middle-class woman who used her economic resources, political connections and magnetic charm, to bring about important political change. This is the story of the insider. But the reverse of this image is the woman whose racial difference compelled her to work for political change in a country that had tried to racially exclude her own father. This is the story of the outsider. Lake uses both stories to represent Bandler’s life as a counter narrative of the white middle-class Australian woman. In this way, Lake foregrounds the contradictions in Bandler’s life, for example, how she always practiced her politics within the political system, even though she was often marginalized by it. As Lake explains, Bandler’s aim, as a ‘gentle activist’, was to gain the confidence of white Australians so that she could expose their discriminatory practices against Aboriginal peoples and then suggest ways to redress them. In this representation, Faith Bandler is an icon of reconciliation.

As a feminist biography however, this text raises the vexed question of critical distance between biographer and subject. Faith Bandler sought out Marilyn Lake to write her biography. While Lake is an excellent choice – she had just completed Getting Equal. The History of Australian Feminism in the Twentieth Century (Allen & Unwin 1999), and clearly saw the importance of Faith Bandler’s role in the struggle for political change in the post World War II era – she often appears to let important aspects of Bandler’s political experiences slide off the critical screen.

Lake acknowledges that as a feminist historian, she saw the biography as a joint project ‘a product of our ongoing discussions about politics and society, gender and race’ (p.viii). This may be so, but Faith Bandler had already published her own history of the Referendum campaign and two novels about her family, and had thus provided the reader with insights into her character, beliefs and ways of acting politically. I had hoped that Lake’s biography would have interrogated these aspects not only from a feminist perspective, but from a more critical distance. I got the impression however, that Bandler was unwilling to allow Lake do this.

For example, Lake provides some very interesting cases of paternalist behaviour towards Bandler and Pearl Gibbs by particular men in the AAF and FCAAATSI in the 1950s and the 1960s. Was this behaviour common in these kinds of organizations at the time or were they specific to these particular men? How did this paternalism shape Faith Bandler’s political behaviour? I had expected that Lake, a feminist historian sensitive to the intersections of gender and race in this period, would have provided some important insights on these cases. I suspect that Bandler did not want her to do so.

I was also surprised by the absence of an account of Faith Bandler’s involvement in the main feminist organization in Sydney in the 1970s – Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL). Here, she met and influenced a vast number of politically active women who in turn provided her with the emotional support to write her books. What was the relationship between Faith Bandler’s feminism as defined by Jessie Street and the new generation of feminists in the 1970s? Bandler had a sustained correspondence with at least three key women in WEL in this period that could have provided Lake with material to explore Bandler’s responses to second wave feminism. But I get the impression that Bandler did not want Lake to do this.

Despite these concerns, Lake’s strategy of representing her subject within an insider/outsider framework enables her to show how Faith Bandler crossed the boundaries of race and class to become a politically active woman at a time when most white middle-class Australian women were homemakers and bastians of conservatism in the Menzies era. She also shows how Faith Bandler continued her activism in new ways, after being sidelined by Black Power. These are the great strengths of the book.

Above all Lake has produced an engaging biography where the character and personality of Faith Bandler glows on nearly every page. How many Australian women of her generation radiate her special kind of charisma and genuine warmth? My women’s studies students certainly see her as a role model for a better future. Her enormous optimism masked self-doubt and uncertainty. But like all leaders of social change she considered the intended outcomes more important than the process. Marilyn Lake shows how Faith Bandler got emotionally burnt on several occasions but learned to overcome despair and disappointment with an inner strength and belief that Australia could be made a better place. Right now, we could all do with a dose of her optimism.


Lyndall Ryan is Professor of Australian Studies at the University of Newcastle and is currently writing a biography of her mother, Edna Ryan (1904-1997), feminist and labour activist.

Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist by Marilyn Lake was published by Allen and Unwin in 2002.

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