Women in Aboriginal Societies

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Women in Aboriginal Societies


By: Taylor Medford

Date: November 4, 2004

Source: Taylor, Medford. Northern Territory, Australia. National Geographic/Getty, 2004.

About the Photographer: Medford Taylor has photo graphed the natural world for publications such as National Geographic and Fodor's travel guides.


Aboriginal people arrived in Australia between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago, where they created a thriving and diverse society. By the time European colonization began in the late 1700s, there were over 270 languages and 600 dialects among the estimated 300,000 to one million Aborigines.

In traditional Aboriginal society, both men and women had well defined cultural and religious roles that were disrupted by colonization. Many Aboriginal people were killed by new diseases or as a result of fighting as the British forced them from their traditional lands. Today, the majority of Aboriginals live on the periphery of modern Australian society, making up just over two percent of the country's approximately 19.5 million people. By the end of the twentieth century, only twenty of the original Aboriginal languages were still spoken. High rates of unemployment, crime, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and other ills plague the indigenous culture, which continue to exist in a reduced form.

Women in traditional Aboriginal culture were respected for their role as life givers. They often carried out healing ceremonies and dances and told stories to carry on social traditions. Women generally looked after children, cooked, and took on the role of gatherers, collecting vegetables, eggs, shellfish, and small animals. In many cases, they were the primary providers of food, since chances were great that men who went hunting would be unsuccessful. Women also made hand tools and clothing.

Aboriginal culture centers around Ancestral Spirit Beings, who are believed to be the origin of all existence and guides that tell Aboriginals how to live their lives. Connection with the Ancestral Spirits, or "dreaming," comes through the land, water, animals, and other aspects of the natural world. Dreaming stories are said to help people in the past, present, and in some cases the future. Access to sacred locations and participation in traditional ceremonies is often restricted to those who have the prerequisite levels of spiritual knowledge. Although both men and women have special secret ceremonies and duties, women are generally less involved in ceremonies than men and are often controlled by threats that they will not be allowed to participate in ceremonies.



See primary source image.


As European settlers came to Australia, Aboriginal people were pushed off their traditional lands, which compromised their ability to be hunter-gathers and limited their access to sacred sites. This disrupted the entire social and religious structure of many Aboriginal clans. Both women and men began to work for Europeans in the early 1800s, relying on labor for wages and food. The patriarchal society that Europeans brought to Australia diminished the prominent role Aboriginal women traditionally held, and they began to lose rights as they became second-class citizens even to Aboriginal men.

Since Australia began as a British penal colony, there was a disproportionate ratio of men to women. This led to a somewhat high rate of sexual interaction between Aboriginal women and white men. Many Europeans considered this wrong, and in the late 1800s and 1900s they enacted rules and regulations to limit such relationships and encourage more white women to move to parts of Australia where their numbers were low, particularly in the Northern Territory.

Change in cultural norms has led to increased violence in Aboriginal communities, with women particularly victimized. Aboriginal women are more likely than non-Aboriginal women to be victims of homicide, rape, and assault. In addition, cultural taboos dissuade them from bringing such problems to light in their communities. The Australian government and national organizations have worked to improve conditions for Aboriginal people, particularly women.



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Hannah, Mark. "Aboriginal Workers in the Australian Agricultural Company, 1824–1857." History Cooperative No. 82 (2002). 〈http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/lab/82/hannah.html〉 (accessed March 15, 2006).

Web sites

Andrews, Penelope. University of Toronto Bora Laskin Law Library: Women's Human Rights Resources Programme. "Violence against Aboriginal Women in Australia: Possibilites for Redress within the International Human Rights Framework." 〈http://www.law-lib.utoronto.ca/Diana/fulltext/andr.htm〉 "accessed March 15, 2006".

Australian Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission. "Racial Discrimination." 〈http://www.hreoc.gov.au/racial_discrimination/index.html〉 (accessed March 15, 2006).

Australia's Centenary of Federation: Birth of the Nation, Growth of the Commonwealth. "Aboriginal Australia: The Unfinished Business—Institutions." 〈http://www.abc.net.au/federation/fedstory/ep4/ep4_institutions.htm〉 (accessed March 15, 2006).

Bloodworth, Sandra. Australian National University/ "Gender Relations in Aboriginal Society. What Can We Glean from Early Explorers' Accounts?" 〈http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/gender.htm〉 (accessed March 15, 2006).

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Women in Aboriginal Societies