• Celebrating First Nations' Women (NITV/Bridget Acreman )Source: NITV/Bridget Acreman
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who changed the nation, worthy of being on honoured on our country's currency.
Sophie Verass

10 Jul 2018 - 1:44 PM  UPDATED 7 Nov 2020 - 11:33 AM

Disclaimer: This article contains images of people who have died

When acclaimed artist Gordon Andrews designed Australia's vibrant series of new decimal banknotes in 1959, he wanted to break traditions of stiff patriarchal Prime Ministers or Australiana cliches, and instead, focus on the arts, the environment and architecture. In doing so, he made sure to give prominence women and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

However, only one Indigenous woman appears on Australia's banknotes.

Where, you say? Peer closely at the left-hand corner of the David Uniapon side of the $50 dollar note, and you see can see two very small figures standing in front of a church. These are Milerum "Clarence" Long and his wife, Polly Beck. There is not a lot of public information about Polly. However, Milerum is widely recognised for being the last initiated man of the Ngarrindjeri nation. The two are the great-grandparents of AFL legend, Michael O'Loughlin. 

But in 2018, Polly's (and Milerum) image became no longer be circulated, with the fourth designed series of notes opting for a cleaner background.  

The main portraits of course remain and continue to be reserved for figures who have shaped Australia's history.

With the introduction of convenient pay-pass, tap-and-go and wallets on smartphones, physical currency may be increasingly falling out of circulation, but its prominence remains an accessible educational piece of history to remember some of this country's best and brightest. In that spirit, we imagine what our colourful currency could look like had the prominence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, been given.   


Pearl Gibbs

Pearl (Gambanyi) Gibbs (1901-1983) was an Aboriginal rights activist, largely involved in the Australian Aborigines' League in the 1930s.

Pearl began her activism in the early 20th Century when she moved to Sydney from country NSW to work as a domestic servant, as so many young Aboriginal women and girls did in the shameful Stolen Generation years. During this time, she met other Aboriginal women in the industry who had been forcibly removed from their homes and indentured by the Aborigines Protection Board as household staff. She negotiated with the Board for better working conditions.    

In 1930, Pearl ran a camp to support unemployed Aboriginal workers in La Perouse, and in 1933, she organised a strike for better conditions for Aboriginal pea-pickers.

Later she joined leading activists, William Ferguson and Jack Patten and began work with the Aborigines Progressive Association where she would largely focus on the plight of Aboriginal girls and women. In 1938, Pearl was central in organising the Day of Mourning protests, which at the time was the most significant Aboriginal civil rights demonstration in Australia.

In 1941, Pearl made the first radio broadcast by an Aboriginal woman on 2WL Wollongong, speaking about Aboriginal civil rights and women's issues. 

In the 1950s, she co-founded the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship,  an organisation to facilitate cooperation between Indigenous political groups and non-Indigenous allies, with Faith Bandler. 

She sat on the board of the Aborigines Welfare Board, attempting to change the legal restrictions and oppression upon Aboriginal people. However, Pearl found she held little power, especially when much of the decision-making took place in hotel bars, which prohibited both, Aboriginal people and women. 

In her older adult life, Pearl established a hostel for regional and remote Aboriginal people who came to Dubbo hospital for medical treatment.

Pearl died in 1983 with over 50 years of activism and community work for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and simultaneously, all Australians in the scope of a more just society.     


Dr Evelyn Scott AO

Evelyn Scott (1935 - 2017), born and raised in Far North Queensland, was a lifelong advocate and activist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights. 

She was a key campaigner in the history-making 1967 Constitutional Referendum, which gave the Indigenous people the same rights as other Australians and the event remains the most successful referendum in Australian history. 

In 1973, Dr Scott became the first general secretary of the Indigenous-controlled Federal Council for the Advancement for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), an organisation pushing for Indigenous self-determination. 

Arguably, some of her most important work was the Chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation from 1997-2000, when the Bringing Them Home Report was established and called for a formal apology to the Stolen Generations. Her time on this project ended with the historic Corroboree 2000 Bridge Walk, where a quarter of million people marched across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of the Apology. It was the largest public demonstration in Sydney since the Bicentenary Rally in the 1988.     

In 2003, Dr Scott was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia. 


Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Anmatyerre woman from the Utopia community (which lies about 250km northeast of Alice Springs), Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996) is one of Australia's most prominent and successful contemporary artists, whose work redefined Indigenous Art.

Her energetic paintings reflect her Country's central desert landscape, cycles of seasons, shapes of plants, flowers seeds and the spiritual force of Mother Earth. Her work is known for being lively, vibrant and almost animated despite being two dimensional. Kngwarreye portrays particular subjects in unique and abstract ways.   

Emily began as a skilled batik artist, working on silk and founded the Utopia Women's Batik Group in the 1970s. Later in late-1980s, members of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) brought acrylic paints into Utopia which eventuated into a small exhibition, and Emily's work immediately gained interest. 

Despite being an elderly woman in her 80s, Emily continued painting and over the following seven years of her life. She created more than 4,000 individual paintings during her lifetime and gained national and international recognition. Emily was the first Aboriginal artist to exceed a public sale of more than one million dollars.   

Emily's work is featured in all Australian state galleries and some of most reputable private collections in Australia. Her work continues to exhibited regularly in collections around the world. 


Cathy Freeman

As this years' 20 year anniversary since the Sydney 2000 Olympics demonstrated, Kuku Yalanji and Birri Gubba woman, Cathy Freeman (1973-) is not only one of Australia's most famous athletes, but also the most inspiring. 

At 16-years-old, the sprinter rose to fame as the first Aboriginal woman to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal in the 4 x 100m relay. The following Games in Canada in 1994, saw her breakthrough, winning gold in both 200m and the 400m. After coming first in the 400m, Cathy sparked major controversy when she took a lap of honour holding the Aboriginal flag. The Australian team's chef de mission, Arthur Tunstall criticised the display, saying that athletes must compete under the one (Australian) flag and banned the use of the Aboriginal flag for the rest of the Games. Her stand continues to be remembered as one of the most significant moments in Australian sporting history. 

In Sydney 2000, she received her first Olympic Gold medal, winning a 400m race that captured the nation. 

Throughout Cathy's she has been a beacon of Indigenous excellence and championed equal access and opportunities, anti-racism and simply, defiantly celebrated Black Australia. Beyond her athletics career, she is the founder of the Cathy Freeman Foundation, an organisation aiming to close the education gap and help Indigenous children succeed in school.


Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue 

Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue (1932-), a Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara woman from Indulkana, South Australia and has made a name for herself for her outstanding contribution and involvement to health, community development, social justice and the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement.

Her passion and activism for Aboriginal rights began young when she applied to complete her nursing training at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and was denied the opportunity because she was Aboriginal. Eventually, after O'Donoghue fought the decision she became the first-ever Aboriginal trainee nurse in South Australia. 

In 1967, when the Federal Office of Aboriginal Affairs was established, Dr O'Donoghue worked in administration and implemented policies on Aboriginal welfare. In 1975, she became the first female director and lead the South Australian department.

Her efforts and commitment to bridging the gap between First Nations people and non-Indigenous people was recognised in 1976 when O'Donoghue became the first Aboriginal woman to be awarded an Order of Australia (OA). A few years later, in 1983 she was honoured a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1984 she was named Australian of the Year.

In 1993, after becoming a member of the Australian Republic Advisory Committee she became an important figure in drafting the Native Title legislation for the Mabo Case. Today, O'Donoghue’s impact and contribution to Indigenous affairs continues to be recognised by the Australian community. More recently, the Australian National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research was named the Lowitja Institute in honour of Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue work.

Graphic Design by Bridget Acreman

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