8 March 2016 is International Women’s Day. This is an appropriate time to remember that Aboriginal women workers were taking action on women workers’ rights before the emergence of the Suffragette movement in Australia in the 1890s and early years of the 20th Century.
According to research by Dianne Barwick in “Women’s Role in Aboriginal Society”, in the 1870s Aboriginal women working on outback stations developed a “genuine camaraderie” with white working class women on the stations which was a “sadness to the Lord” of the stations who saw it as their “Christian duty” to pay all the women as little as possible. Barwick writes that in 1880 dormitory women at Coranderrk station (above) shocked the manager by conducting their own strike.
Barwick quotes the manager as having written:
“For many weeks past elder girls have positively refused to obey the Matron or work, saying that they would if paid wages – they have prompted the orphan house boys to disregard my instructions and encouraged them to rebel”!
Such strike action is not mentioned much now and few if any of these Aboriginal women feature in the top 100 lists of women in Australia’s history. Anne McGrath’s book “Aboriginal Women Workers in the Northern Territory” says that Aboriginal women workers performed a wider range of jobs than their European counterparts. They mustered cattle, accompanied camel teams, acted as shepherds, worked on road and fence building and in ochre mining. They also cared for animals and worked for saddlers and tanners. Much of this work was for low wages or no wages at all, just food, water and shelter of some basic description.
How far has capitalism in Australia progressed in recognising the leading role of Aboriginal women workers in development of outback Australia today? Recent government policies of both Labor and Liberal governments towards Aboriginal people suggest not very far. Every gain made on the workplace front has come from Aboriginal workers’ struggles themselves.
It is in this context that the Aboriginal women workers strike at Coranderrk station in 1880 is significant on International Women’s Day 2016.
Much of the information in this article comes from the work of Diane Elizabeth Barwick who had a North American background.
Diane Barwick involved herself in the Aboriginal Treaty Committee.
Acknowledging her reservations (`I am by birth and conviction a Canadian’, she wrote in 1983) about involvement in Australian politics, she was also proud to be descended from American Indians through her mother, a fact not evident in her publications.
In 1960, fresh from Canada, she had been shocked to learn that Victorian Kooris were not protected by a treaty. Two decades later, her work for the committee urged that Australians rise, in this respect, to the standards of other British dominions.
Nancy Cato states in Mr Maloga that during the period 1866 to 1872 Daniel Matthews had been planning the establishment of Maloga Mission. Sometime during that period (date unknown) he wrote an article in the Riverine Herald in Echuca titled ‘Plea for Aborigines – Situation Deplorable’:
The deplorable conditions of the Aboriginal tribes around Echuca should excite deep concern and call forth the sympathies of those who possess the smallest part of fellow feeling …
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