It is no secret where we —Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women— are placed on the scale of relevance and importance in this country. We are last, always.
We are also tireless in our pursuit of rights and betterment for our people, which is why individual achievements are rarely important and why we are often overlooked and don’t receive credit where credit is due. There are countless examples of this and we bring you five cases of incredible Indigenous women achieving great things and not getting near enough credit for their achievement.
When we hear about the ‘first Aboriginal to graduate from University’ many of us think of Charlie Perkins. He is after all, the one to be credited with this achievement as he graduated from Sydney University in May of 1966 but it was not Charlie who was the first Indigenous graduate. He was not even the second.
The very first recorded Aboriginal person to graduate from University was Margaret Williams-Weir, a Bundjalung woman, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1959 with a diploma in Physical Education. Williams-weir went on to do a Bachelor of Education, completed a Masters and finally, a PhD.
However the first Indigenous person to graduate with a full Bachelor's degree was Margaret Valadian, also in 1966, but prior to Perkins. She graduated with a Bachelor of Social Studies from the University of Queensland and went on to post graduate studies while working in Indigenous Organisations agitating for the advancement of Indigenous people.
She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) on 26 January 1986 and Civil Member of the Order of the British Empire on 12 June 1976 for services to the Indigenous Community not only in the organisations she served but through her advocacy for the education of Indigenous children.
Adnyamathanha woman, athlete and nurse, Faith Thomas (nee Coulthard) was the first was the first of six Aboriginal nurses in South Australia to complete training in 1954, she was the first Aboriginal woman to represent Australia in any national sport, and the first Aboriginal woman picked for any national sports team when she bowled for Australia in 1958. She was introduced to cricket by a colleague at Royal Adelaide Hospital and fell in love with the sport, shortly qualifying for State in 1956 and National in 1958 when she was selected to be the opening bowler in the 1958 Melbourne Test of the Ashes.
And just like sporting mums-to-be, Serena Williams who triumphed the Australian Open in her first trimester, and US track star Alysia Montaño who ran the 800m championships while 34 weeks pregnant, Faith Thomas too competed while pregnant. In 1960, Thomas was eight months pregnant with her son when she played her final game of cricket for Australia.
Thomas was born in the Nepabunna Aboriginal mission in South Australia in 1933. Her mother, Ivy, was a traditional Adnyamathana woman from the Flinders Ranges, and her father, a German migrant. She grew up at the Colebrook Aboriginal Children’s Mission near South Australia’s Flinders Ranges and she credits her explosive right-arm fast bowling ability to her upbringing in Colebrook, where she and the other children learnt to make their own cricket bats from wood from the nearby dump to hit the round stones from the creek they used as balls.
She went on to continue her nursing and help people but her passion to capitalise upon the path she paved was never lost as she advocated for sporting opportunities for young Indigenous athletes her whole life. Despite being perhaps the most critical figure in Australian cricket history, she is not a household name such as the likes of Border, Ponting or Clarke.
When you think about feminism, unless you are Indigenous, the names that come to mind are Steinem, Ginsburg, Greer but rarely will you hear about the trailblazing work of Geonpul woman, Aileen Moreton-Robinson who is an academic, feminist, author and activist for Indigenous rights.
Throughout NAIDOC Week 2018, the thematic conversations have lead to the discussion of intersectional feminism and perhaps the most prolific work in this space is that or Moreton-Robinson who wrote Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (2000). In this book, Moreton-Robinson has the much needed conversation about the whiteness of feminism and provides a unique cultural standpoint and a compelling analysis of the effect on Indigenous women.
Through an extensive range of articles by non-white scholars and activists, she demonstrates the ways whiteness dominates from a position of power and privilege as an invisible and unchallenged practice. She has paved the path for emerging black feminists to continue this conversation and continue to shine a light on intersectional feminism.
Marion Leane Smith
Born in Liverpool, NSW in 1891 Dharug woman, Marion Leane Smith, was the first and the only identified Aboriginal Australian woman to serve in the First World War. When she was two years old, her parents moved to Canada during a time where it was commonly known that ‘half-caste’ children were removed from parents and so Smith was raised in Canada.
As a young woman, Marion Smith trained as a nurse at New England Hospital, Massachusetts US and after graduating, joined the Victoria Order of Nurses in Montreal in 1913. When she was 26, she volunteered for the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and was thereafter was placed on the No. 41 Ambulance train in 1941 in France. When her post completed in September 1918, she served in Italy with Britain’s Italian Expeditionary Force after she requested an extension and remained in the UK thereafter until the war ended working as a nurse.
She continued to work as a nurse with distinguished service for a further 21 years and at the outset of World War II, was heading up the Red Cross as Commandant and the Nurses’ Council, in which she was tasked with bringing the Red Cross to Trinidad and received a Distinguished War Service Medal for this role. She died age 66, leaving behind a legacy as a trained nurse, a distinguished war service veteran, a community leader, a wife, mother and the only known Aboriginal Australian woman to serve in World War I to date.
In a country so tied to its military history, the untold story of Leane Smith's fascinating legacy speaks volumes about the importance placed on Indigenous excellence.
When you look back at the iconic photos and documents of the first National Day of Mourning it was the men who took centre stage heading up the organisations pushing to protest. However, amidst these pioneering men, were staunch trailblazing women, often with children on their hips driving the agenda for protest also.
One such woman was Torres Strait Islander, Dulcie Flower, who first became involved in the work for Indigenous advancement in Cairns where she was born and grew up. In the 1950s, after moving to Sydney, Flower joined the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) where she met Bert Groves and began to think seriously about the issues which confronted Indigenous Australians.
She was present for the Day of Mourning and was instrumental in establishing Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service where she worked for many years as a nurse.
We have some extraordinary Indigenous women, now and throughout history and the fact that so many never receive credit for their extraordinary feats is testament to the colonial values brought to this country which meant so many Indigenous women were relegated to the footnotes.
This week we leverage our women and their achievements.
Natalie Cromb is a Gamilaraay woman, mother, legal professional, writer and advocate for mob. Follow Natalie @