Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Colonial Women in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

by Barbara Dawson

woman reading, n.d.

woman reading, n.d.

University of Queensland Library

In the making of Australian history, women have played a valuable part, largely unrecognised until the growth of social history in the 1970s. The Australian Dictionary of Biography has helped fill this gap by presenting over 1000 entries of women from the colonial period (1788-1901) alone.

Indigenous Women 1788-1910

Although only about 20 deal with Aboriginal women, these entries contribute significantly to our shared early history. Cora Gooseberry (c.1777-1852), for example, also known as Kaaroo or Ba-ran-gan, was a wife of Bugaree (d. 1830). After Bungaree’s death she became a Sydney identity with her government-issue blanket around her shoulders, her headscarf and a clay pipe hanging from her mouth. The daughter of Aboriginal leader Moorooboora (Maroubra) (c. 1758-98), she was the holder of cultural knowledge, including ancestral stories and the location of rock art. Early colonists dubbed her the ‘Queen of Sydney to South Head’.

Another iconic Aborigine was Trugernanner (Truganini) (1812?-76), often coined the ‘last Tasmanian’ Indigenous woman. Her ADB entry speaks of the racial violence in colonial history: Trugernanner’s mother had been killed by sailors, her uncle shot by a soldier, her sister abducted by sealers and a young man, who was to have been her husband, murdered by timber-getters. A member of George Robinson’s doomed Flinders Island settlement, she held to her traditional ways and later, at Oyster Bay, turned to her earlier way of life, diving for shellfish and hunting. Small in stature, she was forceful and courageous. Although she held European society in contempt, she adjusted to it on her own terms. Another Aboriginal leader, Tarenorerer [Walyer] (c.1800-31), from northern Tasmania, reacted to the arrival of Europeans into her country by organising armed warfare against them.

Among the Indigenous women who worked to gain Aboriginal rights in a White society were Anna Euphemia Morgan (1874-1935), who articulated demands for justice and equality in an article published in Labor Call (September 1934), and the activist Daisy Bindi (1904?-62). Although firmly located in the twentieth century, Bindi demanded equal pay and took part in a strike to achieve it; she also spoke at meetings of the West Australian branch of the Union of Australian Women, which supported Aborigines.

Nurses, religious workers and missionaries were three of the most common occupation categories for White Australian women in the nineteenth century: Aboriginal women followed this trend. Both nurses, Louisa Briggs (1836-1925) worked at Coranderrk Aboriginal station, Victoria, and Emma Jane Callaghan (1884-1979) assisted women in childbirth, tended the sick and held religious services to bury the dead, near Kempsey, New South Wales. These women also fought for equal rights for Aborigines in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905), who claimed to be the last surviving Tasmanian Aborigine on the death of Trugernanner, worked with her ex-convict husband, a sawyer, at fencing and shingle splitting. The couple also ran a boarding-house in Hobart. Proudly maintaining her Aboriginal identity, she was a convert to Methodism. She held church services in her kitchen until a church was built on land that she had donated. Similarly religious Angelina Noble (1879?-1964), with her Aboriginal clergyman husband James, pioneered missions on the Mitchell and Roper rivers in the Northern Territory. Ellen Atkinson (1894-1965), a community leader, also worked with her Indigenous pastor husband. She played the organ at church services and conducted Sunday School.

Teaching was another popular female occupation. Indigenous women who had had the opportunity for education, and who became teachers, included Lucy Beeton (1829-86), teacher and businesswoman, and Elizabeth Cameron (c.1851-95).

Female artists, painters and sculptors are well represented among the settler society. Aboriginal women were similarly gifted. Two who earned an income from their art were Emma Timbery (c.1842-1916), shellworker, and Agnes Edwards (c.1873-1928), craftworker. Edwards used her traditional skills to make feather flowers and lures for fishermen, as well as reed mats and baskets.

While White women often became community and charity workers, no Indigenous women in the ADB filled this genteel (and ethnocentric) category during the nineteenth century. Gladys Elphick, born in 1904, however, became a community leader in South Australia. A member of the Aborigines Advancement League of South Australia, she was the founding president of the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia and the founder of the Aboriginal Medical Service.

The strength of women in Aboriginal society is seen in the entries of Aboriginal matriarchs. These include Dolly Dalrymple (c.1808-64) and Annie Moysey (1875?-1976). Slipping definitely into the twentieth century is Hetty Perkins (1895?-1979), the mother of Charles Perkins, the first Indigenous Australian graduate of the University of Sydney. Another Aboriginal elder, Alngindabu [Lucy McGuinness] (1874?-1961), found tin ore in the Northern Territory at what became the Lucy Mine, where she and her family lived.

With an Australian colonial economy that rode on the sheep’s back, many pastoralists have found their place in the ADB. Some were European women, farming in their own right. Anne Drysdale (1792-1853) and Caroline Newcomb (1812-74) were women squatters. Janet Biddlecombe (1866-1954) assumed the management role on her father’s property, Golf Hill, first from her brother and, later, with her husband, to establish a pre-eminent Hereford stud. Laura Duncan (1875-1955) took over farm management by necessity after widowhood. Other White women, such as Emma Mary Withnell (1842-1928) and Phoebe Elizabeth Farrer (1868-1960) laboured successfully alongside their husbands. Agnes Buntine (c.1822-96) supplemented the farm income by going out to work as a bullocky.

Indigenous female landholders in the colonial period are rare but Maria Lock (c.1805-78) was a well educated and highly intelligent Aboriginal woman who, with her convict husband (who was assigned to her), owned land at Liverpool and Blacktown, New South Wales. She had gained land grants after she petitioned Governor Darling for the recognition of her legal rights.

Colonial Women Who Wrote About Aborigines

The relationship between pastoral women, Aborigines and writers can be explored in various ways. As women on inland properties were isolated from other British women, they often turned to Aborigines for companionship. Many of them wrote of their experiences. While most maintained the Imperial attitude of racial superiority, these women also recorded their impressions of their strong, compassionate, helpful and fun-loving Black sisters.

Catherine Eliza Somerville Stow (1856-1940), who wrote as K. Langloh Parker, and Alice Duncan-Kemp (1901-88) both befriended Aborigines on outback pastoral stations and enjoyed going on bush walks and food foraging trips with the women and children. Katie Parker, whom an Aboriginal girl had saved from the Darling River when two of Katie’s sisters drowned, recorded Aboriginal myths and legends told to her by the elders. Duncan-Kemp who, like Parker, respected Indigenous culture and traditions, believed that Aborigines were the true owners of the land, and also acknowledged that pastoralists could not have established themselves without the Aborigines’ advice and labour.

Three women who felt passionately for the plight of Aborigines in rural colonial Australia were Eliza Hamilton Dunlop (1796-1880), Christina Smith (1809-93) and Mary Montgomerie Bennett (1881-1961). Dunlop, the wife of the protector of Aborigines at Wollombi, New South Wales, was outraged by the Myall Creek massacre in 1838 and wrote a lament, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’. She also wrote more widely on Indigenous themes, collected vocabularies and published her English translations of the poems of Wullati. Smith, a teacher and missionary in south-eastern South Australia, grieved for the Aboriginal people as victims of European aggression, disease and land depredation. She nurtured Aboriginal orphans and recorded the customs, legends and social relationships of the local Booandik people. Bennett, a strong advocate of rights for Aborigines, particularly the women, wrote a biography of her father Christison of Lammermoor, set in northern Queensland, in which she expressed a deep understanding of Aborigines, their culture and society.

Some other rural women in the ADB recorded their individual experiences with Aboriginal women or children. Katherine Kirkland (1808-92), who published early in the nineteenth century, wrote in veiled prose of interracial friendship. Kirkland revealed her identity only to the extent that she was ‘A Lady’. She was proud to announce that in 1839 she had been the ‘first white woman who had ever been so far up the country’ when she settled in the area around Trawalla, 35 km (20 m.) west of Ballarat, in the Western District of present-day Victoria. Jeannie Gunn (1870-1961), on the other hand, wrote openly and affectionately about Aboriginal people in The Little Black Princess (1905) and We of the Never-Never (1908). Mary McConnel, although in the ADB as the wife of David McConnel, also represented Aboriginal women sensitively in her Memories of Days Long Gone By (1905).

Less sympathetic to Aborigines were Annie Maria Dawbin (1816-1905), formerly Baxter, and Caroline Louisa Atkinson, naturalist and writer (1834-72). In contrast to Katherine Kirkland, Annie Baxter Dawbin (who lived at about the same time and relatively close to the Kirklands, at Yambuck, near Port Fairy from 1844) held antagonistic views of the local Aborigines and even herself took part in violent reprisals against them. Historians have identified the present-day Western District of Victoria as one of the worst areas for racial conflict during the late 1830s and early 1840s. Another pertinent contrast between Kirkland and Dawbin is that they published their reminiscences thirty years apart: Kirkland, one year after her return to Britain in 1841, in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, Vol. XI, 18 January-19 July 1842, and Dawbin, in reconstructed prose, in 1873.

Louisa Atkinson observed Indigenous people in the country around Berrima, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, where she was born. In Louisa Atkinson: The Distant Sound of Native Voices, Elizabeth Lawson suggests that Atkinson wrote in a conventional way with arrogance, complacency and prejudice, but also with ‘particular sympathies, awareness and sudden illuminations of perception’, when referring to Aborigines. Atkinson’s observations add to the somewhat limited historiography of Australian Aborigines of the nineteenth century.

Daisy May Bates (1863-1951) takes her place in the ADB as a controversial and eccentric figure who lived amongst Indigenous groups in outback Western and South Australia. Bates’s character presents an enigmatic dichotomy of both sympathy and Imperial attitudes of racial superiority towards Aborigines. Remembered for her (misplaced) prophesy that Australia’s Indigenous people would die away, and that White Australians should do their best to ease their passing, Bates was an anthropologist as well as a welfare worker. She collected vocabularies and recorded data on Indigenous language, myths, religion and kinship laws.

The experiences with Aborigines of Eliza Anne Fraser (c.1798-1858?) has become the stuff of legend, reiterated and reconstructed in prose, paintings, music and film, well into the twentieth century. Shipwrecked on the Stirling Castle off the coast of present-day Queensland in 1836, Eliza wrote two brief reports of her ordeal that included five and a half weeks of living with the Ka’bi of (now) Fraser Island, before being ‘rescued’. Eliza’s story incorporates elements both of the nineteenth-century rendition (particularly in the literary genre of captivity narratives) that Aborigines were cannabalistic savages, together with her own first-hand account that the Indigenous people welcomed, accommodated and cared for people who entered their country. Exaggerated secondary versions of Eliza’s ‘saga’ misrepresented Aboriginal behaviour and culture, and served to continue the myth of Indigenous barbarity into the late twentieth century.

The ADB entries of these women, with their close observation of Aboriginal people, along with the entries of Aboriginal women themselves, open the door to a rich source for historical investigation.

Further Reading

Bates, Daisy, The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime Spent Among the Natives of Australia, London, 1938;

Baxter, Mrs Andrew, Memories of the Past: A Lady in Australia, Melbourne, 1873;

Bennett, M. M., Christison of Lammermoor, London, 1927;

Bennett, M. M., The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being, London, 1930;

Brown, Elaine, Cooloola Coast: Noosa to Fraser Island, Brisbane, 2000;

Clarke, Patricia, Pioneer Writer: The Life of Louisa Atkinson, Sydney, 1990; Curtis, John, Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle, London, 1838;

Dawson, Barbara, ‘Sisters under the skin? Friendship: Crossing the racial gulf’, in Crossings, vol. 7.3, University of Queensland, December 2002, e-journal: http://asc.uq.edu.au/crossings;

Dawson, Barbara, ‘In the Eye of the Beholder: Representations of Australian Aborigines in the Published Works of Colonial Women Writers’, PhD Thesis, Department of History, RSSS, ANU, 2007;

Dawson, Barbara, ‘Four Intrepid Scotswomen: Travellers to the Australian Colonies and their Representations of Aborigines’, in History Scotland, vol 9, no 4, July/August 2009, pp 18-26;

Duncan-Kemp, A. M., Our Sandhill Country, Sydney, 1933;

Frost, Lucy, A Face in the Glass: The Journal and Life of Annie Baxter Dawbin, Melbourne, 1992;

Gunn, Mrs Aeneas, The Little Black Princess: A True Tale of Life in the Never-Never Land, London and Melbourne, 1905;

Gunn, Mrs Aeneas, We of the Never-Never, Twentieth edition, London, 1907;

Kirkland, Katherine, ‘Life in the Bush by a Lady’, in Chambers’s Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts, vol 1, no 8, Edinburgh, 1845;

Lawson, Elizabeth, Louisa Atkinson: The Distant Sound of Native Voices, Canberra, 1989;

Lawson, Elizabeth, The Natural Art of Louisa Atkinson, Sydney, c.1995;

Lawson, Elizabeth (ed), Gertrude the Emigrant: A Tale of Colonial Life, Canberra, 1998;

McConnel, Mary, Memories of Days Long Gone By. By the Wife of an Australian Pioneer, Brisbane?, 1905;

Muir, Marcie, My Bush Book: K. Langloh Parker’s 1890s Story of Outback Station Life, Adelaide, 1982;

Narrative of the Capture, Sufferings, and Miraculous Escape of Mrs Eliza Fraser, New York, 1837;

Parker, K. Langloh, Australian Legendary Tales, London and Melbourne, 1896;

Parker, K. Langloh, More Australian Legendary Tales, London and Melbourne, 1898;

Parker, K. Langloh, The Euahlayi Tribe: A Study of Aboriginal Life in Australia, London, 1905;

Schaffer, Kay, In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories, Melbourne, 1995;

Smith, Mrs James, The Booandik Tribe of South Australian Aborigines, Adelaide, 1880.

Further Research on Colonial Women in the ADB

The traditional nineteenth-century female occupations of teaching and nursing, and missionary, religious, community and charity work have many representatives in the ADB. Women following cultural pursuits are also found there. These include the authors Ada Cambridge (1844-1926), Ethel Turner (1870-1958), Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958), and Miles Franklin (1879-1954). Perhaps less well known is Charlotte Barton (1796-1867), who wrote the first children’s book to be published in Australia.

Journalists, singers, for example, Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), musicians, composers, painters and sculptors are also included. Actresses feature as well, although they enter the ADB as women who were born towards the end of the nineteenth century.

While there are no female politicians in the colonial period--Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) came ‘close’, being in 1897 the first female political candidate--some women born in the late nineteenth century contributed to the political life of the twentieth century. These include Mary Quirk (1880-1952), Fanny Brownbill (1890-1948) and Dame Ivy Wedgwood (1896-1975). Among the earliest trade unionists (active in the nineteenth century) in the ADB are Helen Robertson (1838-1947), Christiane Zadow (1846-96) and Annie Stanley (1865-1940).

Nineteenth-century botanists included are Georgiana Molloy (1805-43), Louisa Atkinson and Sarah Hynes (1859-1938). Amalie Dietrich (1821-91) was a naturalist, who collected plants, coral, shells and animals. Elizabeth Gould (1804-41) can be seen to have crossed two disciplines in her work as a natural history artist. She executed about 600 drawings for her ornithologist husband’s publications, before her premature death after the birth of her sixth child. Lilian Cooper (1861-1947), medical practitioner, and Florence Martin (1867-1957), a physicist, both worked in their professions during the nineteenth century. Women born towards the end of that century, however, had a greater opportunity to become specialist medical practitioners or medical scientists, or to enter the professions of veterinary science, psychology, zoology, geology, anthropology and dentistry. Women wishing to become a lawyer or an architect were similarly advantaged by the progress of time.

Colonial sportswomen are comparatively rare in the ADB. Cyclist Sarah Maddock (1860-1955), racing motorist Nina Jones (1882-1966), golfer Leonora Wray (1886-1979) and swimmer Annette Kellerman (1886-1975) are among the small group. Their long lives attest to their good health! Although operating in the twentieth, rather than the nineteenth century, Gertrude McLeod (1891-1971) was a golf administrator.

Feminists, however, are well represented in the ADB: Catherine Spence, Rose Scott (1847-1925), Vida Goldstein (1869-1949), Bessie Rischbieth (1874-1967) and Jessie Street (1889-1970) are some in this category. Caroline Dexter (1819-84) is an early entry of a feminist, who ‘startled society by opening an Institute of Hygiene and promulgating such novelties as divided skirts and abolition of corsets’. An analysis of ADB entries could be an appropriate starting point for a study of the progression of feminist thought and action in the development of feminism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In a reflection of Australia’s democratic and utilitarian ethos, all classes of nineteenth-century women are represented in the ADB. Among the convicts who succeeded in colonial society are Molly Morgan (1762-1835, convict and landowner), Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819, convict and pioneer), Mary Reibey (1777-1855, business woman and trader) and Maria Lord (c.1780-1859, convict and entrepreneur). Middle-class women are by far the most widely found. Those of the vice-regal class include governors’ wives Elizabeth Macquarie (1778-1835), Jane Franklin (1791-1875), Mary Broome (1831-1911), Diamantina Bowen (1833-93) and Audrey Tennyson (1854-1916).

Idiosyncratic ADB entries worthy of investigation include a recluse and eccentric (Eliza Donnithorne, 1826?-86), an explorer (Emily Barnett, born Robinson, formerly Creaghe, 1860-1944), Mary Watson (1860-81), heroine, and Mary Roberts (1841-1921), a zoo-owner. Marion (Bill) Edwards (1874-1956), a transsexual barman, pony trainer and bookmaker, is the only colonial entry that deals directly with female sexuality: suggestion of Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson’s homosexuality is refuted in her entry. In a class of her own is Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965), cosmetics manufacturer, who established her business in Melbourne before moving to London, Paris and, then, the United States of America.

Future biographers, or those interested in Australian colonial society, will find fertile ground for research from reading the profiles of these, and of other women, found in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Citation details

Barbara Dawson, 'Colonial Women in the Australian Dictionary of Biography', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/essay/4/text26712, originally published 30 August 2012, accessed 23 October 2017.

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