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Uncommon Ground: White Women in Aboriginal History
Anna Cole, Victoria Haskins, Fiona Paisley eds.

Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005.
AUD$ 34.95, Paperback, 279 p., Illustrated, ISBN 0 85575 485 0.


Reviewed by Susan Ballyn


Uncommon Ground: White Women in Aboriginal history is one of those books that I have often felt was missing in the writing about Aboriginal/White relationships. There is plenty to read about interracial relationships from the time of invasion to the present. Work has been produced by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors in many different genres, but for the first time we have a study which approaches the relationships between Aboriginal and White women in the domestic sphere. During the colonial period, and for a long time afterwards, Aboriginal women worked as domestics in white households across Australia, under the tutelage and orders of the White mistress of the house. The study of such relationships adds a new dimension to our understanding of the domestic, personal relationships between these women and the often strong and lasting links that were established.
In the “Preface,” the editors each offer a perspective on how they became involved in writing about both Aboriginal and White women, thereby immersing themselves in Aboriginal history [xiii-xxxi]. The reader is soon made aware of the richness of textual practices that are involved when you have three highly talented editors who have carefully chosen their contributors in pros of their individuality and the objects of their study, often women who have remained very much in the wings of Australian social history. In her discussion of how she came to research women’s studies and in particular Aboriginal history, Anna Cole points out that:

In order not to cast Aboriginal people as passive victims of white authority, this new history needed to recognise the agency of both sides and become a history of interrelationships. My aim was not to attempt to write ‘Aboriginal’ history but rather, from the position of my white subjectivity, to write a history of interaction, of relationship—a history that sought to desegregate the arena of Aboriginal history. [xv]

Unlike Anna Cole, who was born in England and moved with her family to the West Indies, back to Britain and eventually Australia, Victoria Haskins comes at Aboriginal history knowing full well from her childhood in East Kimberly that she was a “’kartiya’ or white: literally ‘one who cannot hear’” [xvi]. What drew Haskins into the field was the discovery that her “paternal great-grandmother had been active in the Aboriginal rights movement of the 1930s” and that as she “ […] began to tell a history that for the first time seemed to be a history that was truly mine to tell, I felt my understanding of the relationship between past and the present shift” [xvi]. Fiona Paisley narrates how she was “deeply impressed” by what she learnt about the Aboriginal Rights movement and given her interest in gender and empire studies she began to work on the role that white women might have played in the Aboriginal Rights struggle. As the centenary of Federation came closer and the stories of the Stolen Generations “entered the public discourse” [xvii], nationhood became a crux issue throughout Australian thinking leading Fiona to formulate that in the twenty-first century “the question of which histories we choose to tell remains one of the most pertinent in the new century” [xvii].

In their presentation of the work, the editors point to the importance that “white women must be recognised as differently positioned in relation to class, and hence to racial hierarchies variously and particularly activated in individual lives” [xxvi]. Regarding the biographical approaches used in the collection the editors observe that the material being used demands “confronting the full range of subjectivities that women have occupied in colonial, and particularly settler colonial, contexts” [xxvi]. The most important statement regarding the need for work such as this to be done is plainly and starkly stated:

In the political climate fostered by the Howard government, where both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal history is being stereotyped and polarised, an approach that seeks to get personal, to break down categorical statements and explore the nuances of lived experience and relationships, is crucial. Understanding the ‘peculiar intimacy’, as Sara Suleri calls it, between colonisers and colonised, without giving away the historical and persisting inequalities in those relationships, is an essential part of post-colonial research, and a prime motivation for this biographical collection. [xxix]

Divided into four parts; “On the home front,” “Shared struggle,” “Public lives,” “‘Knowing’ the Aborigines,” the essays cover a difficult, cross-cultural terrain, indeed a potential minefield if we take into account Fiona Paisley’s statement that each author’s historical approach is, in all probability, running against “many recent studies of white women in the colonies that set out to investigate their opposition to and /or complicity with the brutalising affects of colonialism, an approach problematic for its bifurcation of white women’s agency as either good or bad, as well as for its preclusion of the agency of non-white women and men” [173]. By focusing on the biographical and avoiding the sort of theoretical language that often obscures so much work in this field, these essays read as important studies in the intercultural relations between white and Aboriginal women in the early twentieth century. Many of the women under scrutiny here are not well known while others such as Elisabeth Durak and Daisy Bates have received considerable attention over the years.
However, what is important in this volume is the particular circumstance of each biographical narrative and the revelation of the agency acquired by both White and Aboriginal women, thereby enabling them a role hitherto denied them in history. Similarly important is that the contributors are drawn from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous biographers thereby creating a necessary balance in the engagement with issues such as race, gender and identity in the construction and understanding of Aboriginal history. The history of a nation can not be compartmentalised into race, gender, class but must be depicted as the complex interfacing of all aspects of Australia's history and in particular that of the colonised and coloniser. In bringing together these biographies the editors afford the reader a unique approach to interracial relations among Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, an area almost totally unexplored and in so doing open up a fascinating area within Australian history for further analysis: "To put on record as faithfully as possible" [241] the diverse feminism which existed in colonial Australia and continues to be applicable "to Australian race relations history today" [xxx].



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