This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Constance Mary Ternent Cooke (1882-1967), Aboriginal rights advocate and social reformer, was born on 9
An executive-member (president 1924-27) of South Australia's Women's Non-Party Association, said to be the first women's organization to make the cause of the Aborigines part of its platform, from 1928 Mrs Cooke was convenor of the association's Aborigines' welfare committee. Her determination to work for the interests of Aboriginal people was confirmed on a visit to view first hand what she described as 'the disgraceful condition of the Federal Home for half-caste children at Alice Springs'. In line with its principle to put women on public boards, the W.N.P.A. secured the appointment of two women to the Advisory Council of Aborigines: Ida McKay in 1927 and Constance in 1929. It was through the persistence of the association, and her advocacy, that legislation for the protection of indigenous women and girls was included in the 1939 Aborigines Act.
In 1927 Cooke (sometimes referred to as Ternent-Cooke) was a member of the Australian delegation to the British Commonwealth League's conference in London. From then, as a result of contacts with like-minded people, she was able to advertise overseas the plight of Australia's indigenous people. She represented the Australian Federation of Women Voters at the second Pan-Pacific Women's Conference at Honolulu in 1930. In 1926 she had been a foundation member of the Aborigines Protection League, whose aims included the creation of self-determining 'Native States'. A vice-president of the league for twenty years, by 1939 she was its advocate on 'fully detribalised' Aborigines and 'half-castes'. She believed the emphasis should be on better living conditions and improved economic status with the aim of 'self-development and self-respect'.
Appointed to the newly constituted Aborigines' Protection Board in 1939, with Alice, the wife of Thomas Harvey Johnston, for over twenty years as a board member Cooke stressed the importance of the material welfare of the Aboriginal people. It was officially minuted that the female members consistently urged improvements to both the Colebrook Home for children, Eden Hills, and the Sussex Street Women's Home, North Adelaide. Their warnings were ignored until the homes became 'entirely unsatisfactory'. In 1956 she wrote: 'we are not required to carry out our duty to the original inhabitants of this country in the cheapest way possible . . . Neither have we been charged with the assimilation of the aborigines into our white community within an unreasonable time'. She urged that 'the pastoral portion of the North West Reserve should be used for the sole benefit of our native people' and that pastoral companies should not be allowed to 'open up' the country.
A justice of the peace from 1927, Cooke was appointed M.B.E. in 1964 for her work for Aboriginal protection and welfare. Her other achievements were as commissioner of the State branch of the Girl Guides' Association, transport driver for the Australian Red Cross Society during World War II, first president of the Women Justices' Association of South Australia and member of the special panel of justices for the Children's Court. Photographs revealed her to have been a handsome and fashionably dressed woman. Determined and resourceful, she was afraid neither of expressing her opinions nor of motoring long distances over rough, dirt tracks to Aboriginal camps and missions. Following her husband's death in 1957, she moved to be near family in Sydney. Constance Cooke died on 2 April 1967 at Turramurra, survived by her son and daughter, and was cremated with Anglican rites.
Margaret Macilwain, 'Cooke, Constance Mary Ternent (1882–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cooke-constance-mary-ternent-12855/text23211, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 27 January 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005