Gender relations in Aboriginal society

Gender relations in Aboriginal society

What can we glean from early explorersí accounts?


One result of the rise of the Women's Liberation Movement has been a flowering of theoretical work concerning the origins of women's oppression. This has led to cross-cultural studies including a significant body of work concerned to look at societies before contact with European colonialism. Superficially it would seem that one of the best places to begin an investigation of the Australian Aborigines' society before white settlement would be the observations of the first explorers and settlers. However I will argue that the terms in which nineteenth century European observers understood gender relations in traditional Aboriginal society tell us if not more, then as much about themselves and the society they left behind in Europe as about the Aborigines.

There is a problem with talking of "Aboriginal Society" because there were many cultural differences and languages across the continent. However, the portrayals of the relations between men and women have common threads running through them. So for the purposes of this study these differences will be played down partly because many of the accounts are not so scientific as to accurately document which language group is being commented upon at any one time. (I use the term "language group" rather than "tribe" in view of Eleanor Leacock's warning that the latter is a "colonial concept" and gives rise to misconceptions of a society "territorially defined...and controlled by the authority...of a chief or council"). (1)

The journals and other writings of explorers such as Edward John Eyre, George Grey and Lt. Col. Sir T.L. Mitchell, and of missionaries such as Reverend George Taplin paint a picture of male domination of Aboriginal women. They talk of the women as wretched slaves, physically weakened because they bore the brunt of most of the work, brutally beaten for the most minor offences. Women were often thought to play no role in the spiritual life of the societies and to have no authority in decision making. Their lot was one of child-bearing under the control of older, autocratic men who kept all the young women as their property. (2) These accounts have been taken at face value until quite recently. Diane Barwick even went so far as to argue that Aboriginal women in Victoria gained their emancipation from this allegedly patriarchal, oppressive society under the influence of white settlement. (3)

The work of anthropologists such as Leacock and Karen Sacks challenged the acceptance of much of the early interpretations of societies before European colonisation. (4) They argue that early reports of these societies have to be interpreted with the prejudices which Europeans took with them kept very much in mind. It would be an unusual person at the time of colonisation who would be sufficiently self conscious not to read their own cultural values into what they saw. This is not necessarily a conscious distortion of facts; facts can be read in different ways. Secondly they argue that the impact of colonisation itself made rapid and significant changes to the very fabric of social organisation of societies confronted with the dominance of European settlement.

In Australia, the context in which contact with Aborigines took place could be expected to have coloured the views Europeans held of Aboriginal women and men. Whatever answer is accepted in the debate over the reasons for the settlement of Australia, there are several conclusions which can be drawn. The nature of the convict settlement was calculated to breed brutality. This inevitably took on a racist and sexist colouring; racist because white settlement trampled on the ancient laws and social rules of the Aborigines at the same time as depriving them of their hunting and gathering lands. The destruction of Aboriginal society could only be justified by a belief that they were inferior either as a race or culturally or both. Sexism was extreme because the convict women were seen as "damned whores", the scum of British society, even lower than the male convicts. Again, this was one way to justify the horrific treatment to which they were subjected and their use as prostitutes for army officers and convicts. The so-called "shortage of women" resulted in the capture of women from Pacific Islands - "obtained without difficulty", Lord Sydney reported. (5)

This was a point made by almost everyone who wrote about the proposal to settle Botany Bay -- and black women were thought of as "black velvet" for the taking. Given the drive to expansion involved in plans to supply the navy and the consequent drive to develop the settlement, the racism of the settlers and explorers is of paramount importance in any account of their encounters with Australia's inhabitants. Combined with the sexism they brought with them and the extreme forms it took in the new colony, plus a desire by at least some to justify the settlement, it would be expected that any view of women will be seriously distorted and unlikely to give an accurate account of the relations between them and the men of their society.

Another complicating factor could very well be translations from language poorly understood into English. This is compounded by the desire of people to please the newcomers. People who know they are being studied may be inclined to give answers to inquiries which they think will impress. This is particularly relevant if we accept Henry Reynold's argument;

Most Aborigines used European commodities well before contact and knew at least something about the settlers including the power of their guns and their propensity to use them. Few initial meetings happened in a vacuum. The blacks responded to contact with at least some prior knowledge ... It seems unlikely that overlanding European parties were able to arrive in any new district unannounced. We cannot, therefore, assume that what explorers and pioneers observed was necessarily typical of traditional society. (5)

Anthropologists such as Catherine Berndt, Phyllis Kaberry and Diane Bell have thrown a completely different light on the gender relations in Aboriginal societies. (7) Some of their conclusions, in particular Diane Bell's, may be too categorical given that their studies were conducted after sustained contact with white settlement. Nevertheless, their work must be considered relevant in any assessment of the terms in which Europeans viewed Aboriginal societies. In particular they highlight the difficulty for any male in understanding women's lives and their contribution because they would simply have been excluded from much of women's experience.

A contradiction does not only exist between accounts of nineteenth century observers and twentieth century anthropologists. W. Tench, writing in the first settlement at Botany Bay painted a different picture from that painted in later years. He comments "I never could observe any degree of subordination among them" (the Aborigines). (8) Perhaps this could be dismissed because Tench simply ignored the women - a possibility given that explorers such as Eyre and Mitchell very often mention the "natives", as they called them, without mentioning whether women were present or not. Many of their journals give the impression they hardly ever saw women. And comments such as we saw a "native and his wife". show how secondary women were in their considerations. "The natives" meant by and large male "natives". However, Tench's account of a public flogging of a convict in 1791 indicates women were not all, at least in Botany Bay at this time, as subservient as men like Eyre and Mitchell portrayed them. Tench writes of the Aborigines' "strong abhorrence of the punishment" and the fact that:

The women were particularly affected; Daringa shed tears; and Barangaroo, kindling into anger, snatched a stick, and menaced the executioner. The conduct of these women, on this occasion, was exactly descriptive of their characters. The former was ever meek and feminine; the latter, fierce and unsubmissive.

The difference between 1791 and the nineteenth century accounts cannot be simply put down to the male arrogance of Eyre and Mitchell. We have to assume that Tench saw the world in very similar terms. We have to remember Tench was confronted with a particular incident where the women were prominent. Eyre and Mitchell comment on women at times when they impinge on their narrative for some reason. The general point still stands though, that in the general run-of-the-mill day of exploring and travelling, they simply refer to "the natives" as though they were all male. On the other hand, it might have been the case that in some areas they did rarely see women. This could in part be explained by the response of the Aborigines themselves to contact with whites.

Along the South Coast, where Eyre explored, the Aborigines would have very early on experienced the abduction and rape of women by sealers documented by G.A Robinson in his journal and others. (11)

Grey, on his travels in the North West of Australia, comments that the Aborigines' hostility to his party may be explained by their previous contact with Malays. (12) And Reynolds recounts that Torres St Islanders told a government official in 1882 that when whites were seen, the women were buried in the sand to avoid the ill-treatment they expected. (13)

Where this was the case, the male bias of explorers and other observers would have been exaggerated even further. Their impression of gender relations in Aboriginal society would have been of men as the dominant, outgoing sex and women as retiring, submissive and afraid. In a sense, as far as their journals give this impression, they are in many cases probably relating the facts as they found them, not because this was the condition of women in traditional Aboriginal life, but because Aborigines reacted as best they could to protect their women members from the outrages perpetrated against them by whites. Once this feature of contact emerged, it would have had a dynamic which continued and reinforced the exaggeration of the importance of men over women. The male explorers, if they wished to stay on friendly terms as Eyre and others evidently did, gave gifts to the men. These gifts of tomahawks, knives, flour, sugar, tobacco may seem trivial taken individually. However, as contact increased and the products of white society became more coveted and widespread amongst Aborigines, these gifts could be expected to change the balance of relationships between women and men. For instance, if land was rendered less accessible or productive because of settlement, Aborigines depended more on food from whites. This would undercut the women's ability to provide for themselves and their children independently of the men.

If we look at how Europeans wrote about marriage and sexuality, we can see these influences on their observations by looking at the contradictions involved in their own statements, and also by comparing them with later anthropological studies which attempt to take both the effects of colonial domination and the observers' racism, sexism and other prejudices into account.

The most common view of marriage amongst the Aborigines expressed throughout the observations of the Europeans in the nineteenth century is that women were chattels exchanged amongst the men for their benefit. The relationship is described as one where the woman is a slave, cruelly beaten or speared if she shows any infidelity, often denied her share of the food yet performing the most arduous tasks, working all day, minding the children and carrying all the family's belongings including the man's when they travel. This picture has been the basis for many anthropological studies. The fact that marriages are arranged for girls at a very early age or even before birth seems to be proof of the degraded life of Aboriginal women. E.J. Eyre's statements are typical;

The females, and especially the young ones are kept principally among the old men, who barter away their daughters, sisters or nieces, in exchange for wives for themselves or their sons. Wives are considered the absolute property of the husband, and can be given away, or exchanged, or lent, according to his caprice ... Female children are betrothed usually from early infancy ... (14)

He concluded that "little real affection consequently exists between husbands and wives, a young man values a wife principally for her services as a slave." (15)

Anthropologists such as Diane Bell have tackled this question by trying to establish that marriage is not as closely controlled by men as the earlier writers suggest. This is most likely true. But there is a more fundamental point to be made. This view of the arranged marriages as being to the benefit of men reflects a very strong idea of our own culture, that men have an insatiable sexual drive, and so are undiscriminating about what woman they live with or have relations of any kind with. The fact is, marriages arranged for children mean the male does not have any real choice either. If a girl is betrothed before birth, a male cannot know whether she is someone he will want to form a binding relationship with any more than the girl. Because of male dominance in our society it is very difficult not to view arranged marriages in the way the nineteenth century settlers did, but once we reject the idea, we can begin to see gender relations in a different light. It is timely to remember the hypocrisy involved in much of their writings, given that arranged marriages amongst the upper classes were still common in Europe during much of the last century and marriages were arranged in Australia for male settlers. Diane Barwick comments that half the German Moravian settlers' "wives, allotted by ballot, were strangers when they arrive to be married in Victoria". (16)

Apart from the hypocrisy, once we try to understand the way the Aborigines may have viewed marriage and sexual relations, it is actually possible to glean some facts which appear to contradict the general view. The ideas of male dominance are so strong, they are not seen as contradictions by the writers, but simply incorporated into their general view of women as inferior and sexually as either morally pure or whores, to use Anne Summers' dichotomy. (17) In the same passages quoted above, Eyre actually admits that "in many cases circumstances occur frequently to cause an alteration" to the betrothal arranged. (18) Malinowsky, the respected anthropologist, concluded from his study of the literature from the nineteenth century on Aboriginal societies that betrothal only accounted for about half the actual marriages which took place. The other methods he describes as "elopement" and "capture". The latter assumes the male dominance theory, the idea that women are pawns in men's games. If we assume "capture" was not something imposed by men on unwilling women, then it would be suggested that many marriages were by mutual consent. (19)

Spencer and Gillen recorded in the 1890s that in the Arunta and Ilpirra language groups in Central Australia that "charming" was another way of "acquiring" a wife. They commented that women could use this method to marry the man of their choice. A woman could "of course imagine she has been charmed, and then find a willing aider and abettor in the man whose vanity is flattered by this response to his magic power ..." If other wives objected, it was settled by a fight between them. (20)

Malinowsky makes the point that in Aboriginal society it is likely that marriage was not seen as "a question of private initiative and enterprise", but of "regulated rule, of a well-established order". (21) This is possible, given that the idea of love and romance associated with marriage is a recent concept in Western society. Even where marriage was associated with ideas of chastity, and the belief was strong that sex belonged only in marriage, it was the case for centuries that marriage was not seen as individual choice but a social arrangement. In Aboriginal society, there is sufficient evidence even in the writings of those who abhorred betrothal to suggest that marriage was not generally seen as controlling sexuality. Numerous accounts comment on the "promiscuity" of the Aborigines. Eyre himself says "marriage is not looked upon as any pledge of chastity, indeed no such virtue is recognised". (22) And again, "illicit and almost unlimited intercourse between the sexes" existed. Here, Eyre wants to explain that these habits "are well known to check the progress of population", so he unwittingly exposes the weakness in his arguments about marriage. (23) As an aside, the dysentery and colds he mentioned, and which were contracted from whites, were of more importance than anything the Aborigines did in reducing their numbers.

Therefore European observations of marriage in Aboriginal societies has to be examined in the light of the ideals the former brought with them. Many of the explorers and especially the missionaries saw no better future for the people they found here than to be won to Christianity and incorporated into white society. The fact that the Aborigines lived differently at all was a source of disgust for many of them. But even people like Eyre, who expressed sympathy and quite an understanding of the horrendous effects of European settlement, talked of them as "savages" and could only think of a decent life for women in the terms of the white, middle class Christian background from whence they came.

Diane Bell assembled information from women in Central Australia who could remember the first white men to arrive in the area. She concluded that:

In Aboriginal society, wives were not sold; they were able to exercise a high degree of choice; they fought, they insulted, they remained in their country where their power base was strong. The marriage contract was one between families, it did not entail control over sexuality. (24)

As shown above, the contradictions in written reports seems to back up this conclusion. There are also a couple of different anecdotal examples which indicate that Aboriginal men did not simply have women at their disposal for sex whenever they wanted it, or to be their slaves. Bell quotes from F.J. Gillen's diary kept on his journey with Baldwin Spencer 1901-1902. He wrote about an incident at Barrow Creek when the young Aboriginal men enthusiastically cleaned their clothes to impress the women. (25) Grey reported a similar incident in 1838 on a trip north of Perth. The Aboriginal men he had with him as helpers insisted on decorating their bodies to make an impression on some Aboriginal women they met. (26) In both these reports it is not clear how much contact with whites there had been. But it could be argued it would have been minimal, even at Barrow Creek as late as 1902. But even if it was more substantial than at first thought, it would be difficult to argue convincingly that this kind of behaviour was learnt from contact with white men. Such men would have brought with them the prevailing attitudes in the colony, that women could be easily procured as sex objects and domestic slaves either from the Pacific Islands or from Aboriginal societies. They could be bought or simply stolen. Any idea that they would have influenced Aboriginal men to think they had to make themselves attractive to find a woman companion does not sit well with what we know of Australian white colonial society.

This anecdotal evidence is reinforced by other observations. In the few instances when Europeans observed both men and women dancing in Aboriginal ceremonies, they often commented on the "lewd" nature of the dances. It can be fairly safely assumed they were referring to what they thought of as sexual gestures or actual acts. The initiative did not, however, always come from the men. Eyre talked of dances amongst Aborigines in South Australia in which women used to "excite their [i.e. men's] passions; for many of the native dances are of a grossly licentious character." (27) Spencer and Gillen, doing field work in the 1890s in Central Australia, recorded that in some of the dances which formed part of the initiation ceremonies, women danced in front of the novice. The gestures they used were also seen in other dances and were "always associated with the idea of inviting the men to come to them". (28) Such stories do not uphold a view of Aboriginal men trading powerless women as chattels.

Associated with the image of women as drudges and slaves are numerous descriptions of women carrying the men's possessions as well as their own and the children when travelling. It is most likely true that Aboriginal women had a hard life - this was the lot of their society - although this should not be overstated, as some anthropologists argue that gatherer/hunters actually worked far less than so-called more advanced societies, especially agrarian ones. Nevertheless it has to be remembered the Europeans who wrote down their observations were mostly educated and so middle class. Their ideal view of women was as sex objects who lived a life of idleness, providing their husbands with heirs and keeping the family home in order. Hard work was associated with the disreputable "lower classes". Their horror at the burden the women bore in Aboriginal society has to be assessed in this light. And even here, there are glaring contradictions in what they wrote. While insisting women did all the work, in the next paragraphs they can assume that the Aborigines lived on meat, much of which would have been brought in by men. (29)

It is unlikely, as many observers asserted, that the women carried men's possessions. Catherine Berndt, in her field work in northern South Australia found a fairly strict division between male and female roles. This meant women did not carry things associated with being male; "We carry digging sticks, not spears. We are not men!". (30) The women's digging sticks could have been mistaken for spears by non-Aboriginals. The other aspect of women's lives which was viewed with horror was the fact that they worked throughout pregnancy. Once again, it simply reflects the prejudice of the European middle classes concerning women of their own class. Of course, working class women worked in factories in horrendous conditions, sometimes giving birth beside their machine. These comparisons show how unreliable the observations about the gender relations in Aboriginal society really were.

Europeans almost universally thought of Aboriginal men's treatment of women as cruel, not just in their supposed domination as outlined so far. They saw scars on the women's bodies, and sometimes saw them being speared for not observing tribal law or custom, and interpreted this as an extension of the relations between these "savage" men and "their" women. Yet at least some societies seem to have cut the bodies of both men and women as a sign of maturity and adulthood. And Spencer and Gillen comment:


as a matter of fact, by far the greater number of scars, which are often a prominent feature on a woman's body, are the indications of self-inflicted wounds, and of them she is proud, as they are the visible evidence of the fact that she has properly mourned for her dead. (31)

It does seem that the tradition of spearing someone as an act of revenge was widespread amongst the Aborigines. However, Europeans do not express the same outrage when a man is attacked as when it happens to a woman. This must be attributable to their idealised view of women as helpless, passive objects. In a society where women were regarded as independent contributors to the life of the group, punishment could be doled out to them on a similar footing to men. The fact that women were speared or attacked when they breached traditional laws or customs does not at all prove their subservience as the Europeans thought.

As for the assertion that there is no affection between men and women, and the idea that men took no notice of the children and their needs, there are accounts which suggest otherwise. Spencer and Gillen reported men helping to carry the children when they were tired. (32) Taplin, writing about the Narrinyeri of Point Macleay of South Australia says that when women gave birth the man went to see the child and attend to the mother, carrying firewood, water etc. If children cried, they were passed around and soothed. "The father will frequently nurse it for several hours together." (33)

I have known many instances ... including several cases among the Kurnai, of men carrying their wives about the country when too old or too sick to walk. (34)

Malinowsky, after weighing up what appear to be reliable reports, comes down in favour of good treatment of wives. (35) But in spite of what Malinowsky and other anthropologists might think, the idea persisted amongst Europeans that Aboriginal women were treated mercilessly by the men. Women's physical appearance is repeatedly used as evidence of this situation, not just in relation to scarring. Some of the language used by both lay observers and social scientists reveal their male prejudices; terms such as "old hag" abound in the literature. It is not difficult to see the reasons for this. In Europe, women's "pendulous breasts" after child birth were covered by clothes and among the middle classes disguised by corsets and such underwear. Women's wrinkled appearance is often commented on, but never men's. This disgust at the naked appearance of aging women could account for many misconceptions about the gender relations in Aboriginal societies by Europeans.

They assumed older women were not attractive sexual partners, and that all the men were competing for young sexual partners. This was not necessarily the case. Experience can greatly improve sexual activity and there is no reason to believe that older women, free of the prejudices associated with the stereotypical views of modern western society, had nothing to offer younger men in this regard. Diane Bell says the Aboriginal women she knew in her fieldwork did not think of themselves as unattractive or less desirable because of age, and this was years after living near whites. (36)

The recorded observations of Europeans in the nineteenth century reveal many contradictions. When read in the context of the work done by Leacock and Sacks, it does seem viable to argue that the gender relations in traditional Aboriginal society were understood very much in the terms set by European prejudice and expectations of the time. The ideal of idle women and the juxtaposition of "damned whores and god's police" were embroidered by and entwined with the brutal racism and sexism which characterised the white settlement. Men had every reason to emphasise that Aboriginal women were traded freely amongst Aboriginal men, when they were involved in a society which mostly turned a blind eye to their capture and rape by whites. But even those who were critical of such behaviour could not understand the relations of women and men in terms other than those they learnt in the Old World. This is not something to be surprised at. It simply warns us that their observations cannot be accepted uncritically.


1. Leacock, Eleanor "Women's Status in Egalitarian Society: Implications for Social Evolution" in Current Anthropology, 1978, vol 19 no 2, p.248. This point is substantiated with regard to Australian Aborigines by L.R. Hiatt and M.J. Meggitt in Hogbin, Ian and Hiatt, L.R. (eds) Readings in Australian and Pacific Anthropology Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966.

2. Eyre, Edward John Journals of Expedition of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland From Adelaide to King George's Sound in the Years 1840-41 vols I&II, T & W Boone, London, 1845. Grey, George Journals of Two Expeditions of Discovery in North-West and Western Australia, During the Years 1837,38,39 T&W Boone, London, 1841. Mitchell, Lt.Col. Sir T.L. Journal of an Expedition into the Interior of Tropical Australia, Greenwood Press, New York, 1848 (this edition 1969). Taplin, George et al The Native Tribes of South Australia E.S. Wigg, Adelaide, 1979.

3. Barwick, Diane E. "And the lubras are ladies now'" in Gale, Fay (ed) Woman's Role in Aboriginal Society 2nd edition, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1974.

4. Leacock, Eleanor Burke, Myths of Male Dominance, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1981.

5. Lord Sydney to the Lords Commissioner of the Treasury in Martin, Ged (ed) The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia's Origins, Hale & Ironmonger, Sydney, 1978, p.23.

6. Reynolds, Henry "Aboriginal Contact History: problems and issues" in Journal of Australian Studies 1978, no 3, p.54.

7. Berndt, Catherine H. "Interpretations and facts in Aboriginal Australia" in Dahlberg, Frances (ed) Woman the Gatherer Yale University Press, New Haven, 1981. Berndt, Catherine H. "Digging sticks and spears, or, the two-sex model" in Gale, Fay op. cit. Kaberry, Phyllis M. Aboriginal Woman, Sacred and Profane Routledge, London, 1939. Bell, Diane Daughters of the Dreaming Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1990.

8. Tench, W. "A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay" in Clark, M. Sources of Australian History Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1971, p.95.

9. Eyre, op. cit., vol I p. 366 and vol II p.185.

10. Tench, W. "A Complete Account of the Settlement of Port Jackson in New South Wales" in Clark, M. op.cit., p.97

11. Robinson, G. A. Journal in Daniels, Kay and Murnane, Mary, Australia's Women. A Documentary History University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1989, p.80-82. Robinson, G.A. to John Montagu, 11 Feb 1835 in Historical Records of Australia vol 2A Victorian Govt. Printing Office, Melbourne, 1982, p.12. Wedge, J.H. to Van Diemen's Land Colonial Secretary, 8 Oct, 1836 in ibid.

12. Grey, George op. cit., p. 253-4.

13. Reynolds, Henry The Other Side of the Frontier James Cook University, Townsville, 1981, p.145.

14. Eyre, E.J. op.cit., vol II, p.318.

15. ibid., p.320

16. Barwick, Diane op.cit., p.52.

17. Summers, Anne Damned Whores and God's Police. The Colonization of Women in Australia Penguin, Ringwood, 1977

18. Eyre, E.J. op.cit., p.318

19. Malinowsky, B. The Family Among the Australian Aborigines - A Sociological Study Schocken Books, New York, 1969, p.47.

20. Spencer, Baldwin and Gillen, F.J. The Native Tribes of Central Australia, Anthropological Publications, Oosterhout NB, The Netherlands, 1969, p.556.

21. Malinowsky, op.cit., p.60.
22. Eyre, op.cit., p.320
23. ibid., p.378.
24. Bell, Diane, op.cit., p.100.
25. Bell, ibid., p.58.
26. Grey, George op.cit., p.298-300.
27. Eyre, E.J. op.cit., vol II p.235.
28. Spencer, Baldwin, and Gillen, F.J., op.cit., p.238.
29. Woods, J.D., his introduction to Taplin, George et al, op.cit., p.VIII. This is just one example.
30. Berndt, Catherine H., op.cit., p.72.
31. Spencer and Gillen, op.cit., p. 43-44.
32. Spencer and Gillen, ibid., p.50-51.
33. Taplin, op.cit., p.13. Malinowsky quotes Howitt;
34. Malinowsky, op.cit., p.68
35. Malinowsky, ibid., p.80-8.
36. Bell, Diane, op.cit., p.166

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