“No department in the world can take the place of a child’s mother.”
Mary Montgomerie Bennett’s vocal agitation in the early 1930s regarding the mistreatment and abuse of Indigenous women and children in Western Australia became the catalyst for a Royal Commission. Perth magistrate H.D. Moseley was instructed to investigate the treatment and administration of Aboriginal people in Western Australia.
Bennett’s main concerns were what she called the ‘white slave traffic in black women’, where pastoralists were sexually exploiting Aboriginal women and neglecting their half-caste children, as well as the official practice of removing children from their families.
“What Australia’s Aboriginal half-caste daughters need is their own mothers who love them, and their own homes, and teaching, until such time as they shall have attained legal and economic and political freedom, and meet white people on terms of equality”
Mary’s vehemence backfired, and the Commission gave the Chief Protector of Aborigines, A.O. Neville even more powers to implement protectionist policies. The missions lost much of their independence and were required to follow government policy.
Traditional polygamy had existed for centuries in many Aboriginal tribes, and was generally condemned by missionaries. Although the practice had declined in many areas, Bennett’s concern was that white men were reviving and exploiting the practice for the purpose of prostitution, and were buying or trading ‘surplus wives’. This left the women with no legal standing, and therefore particularly liable to have their children taken away.
Mary’s belief in the humanity of Indigenous people was formed during her childhood on her family’s Queensland property Lammermoor. Her father was particularly concerned about the welfare of the Aborigines who lived and worked on his land. This is apparently typical of many Scottish settlers who adhered to Protestant evangelical and humanitarian views. As a young woman, Mary lived in London, studied at the Royal Academy of Arts and married Charles Bennett in 1914. After his death in 1927, she returned to Australia and began work as a teacher in 1932 at Mt Margaret Mission near Laverton, WA, which was run by the United Aborigines Mission. She taught in English and never learned any of the local language. As well as teaching the school children, she taught weaving and handicrafts to the women. One of the mission’s aims was to give people the means of financial independence so that families could remain together.
Mary’s views were not only based on early 20th century feminism, but also her belief that Aboriginal people were citizens of the British Commonwealth and should therefore be accorded all associated rights. She pointed out that they had no representation in parliament, no land ownership and could not exercise guardianship of their children. Her views had a significant impact on the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, as she was able to explain the Aboriginal lifestyle to Europeans in a way they could understand. Greatly influenced by African-American leaders, she wrote ‘Human Rights for Australian Aborigines’ in 1957 which was based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“The state departments deal with the native community in the mass, but human beings suffer individually. They suffer the oppression and frustration of discriminatory laws which infringe more than one human right…”
Long before the phrase was coined, Mary was fighting toxic masculinity and arguing that far from being superior, white patriarchy was just as bad if not worse than Aboriginal patriarchy. Literature, poetry and folklore often glamourized the ‘outback’ and the Clancy of the Overflow figures having man vs. wild adventures in the rugged landscape. In fact, Banjo Paterson’s poem Saltbush Bill on the Patriarchs even makes a joke of polygamy:
He gave him stock, and offered him his daughter’s hand in troth,
And Jacob first he married one, and then he married both,
You see, they weren’t particular about a wife or so –
No more were we up Queensland way a score of years ago…
Mary saw past these humorous or romanticised depictions of life in the outback. She saw firsthand how vulnerable Aboriginal women were, and knew that frontier conditions across the whole continent were dangerous for them precisely because of the squatters, farmers and itinerant drovers.
“Continuing…the native customs which the squatters chose to support were those which concerned the “property status” of women and young people under the patriarchal system, which the squatters had commercialised, bartering with the old native men for the old men’s surplus property in wives”
Mary’s testimony before the Commission, as reported by the Western Mail on 22nd March 1934, also reveals what she believed Indigenous people were capable of – becoming “magnificent potential citizens whom Australia could not afford to destroy…[they] had the capacity and the industry to achieve anything which the white could achieve…”
Mary was involved with lobby groups such as the Women’s Services Guilds of Western Australia, whose aim was to improve the status and welfare of women and children, and the British Commonwealth League, which promoted equality for women in legal, citizenship and economic issues. She also persuaded the Country Women’s Association to become interested in her cause.
She participated in the 1938 Aboriginal Day of Mourning at the Sydney Sesquicentennial Celebrations, and matriculated at the University of London in 1944. Her later years were spent in Kalgoorlie where she died in 1961.
During the ten years she spent at Mt Margaret she introduced educational methods considered progressive, including the implementation of state school standards. She described her pupils in affectionate terms: ‘cleverer, finer, more affectionate, responsive children cannot be found anywhere.’
Mary is now considered a pioneer in the field of Aboriginal women’s rights, and is honoured with a biennial prize awarded by the Australian Women’s History Network.
Boris, Eileen & Janssens, Angelique (eds). Complicating categories: gender, class, race and ethnicity. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
G. C. Bolton and H. J. Gibbney, ‘Bennett, Mary Montgomerie (1881–1961)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-mary-montgomerie-5212/text8773.
Holland, Alison. Mary Montgomerie Bennett. The Encyclopaedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia. Retrieved from http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0187b.htm
Holland, Alison. A Scottish Inheritance? Mary Bennett, the Aboriginal Cause and the Legacies of the Past. Journal of the Sydney Society for Scottish History, vol. 16, 2016. Retrieved from https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/JSSSH/article/view/11279
Holland, Alison. Feminism, colonialism and Aboriginal workers: an anti-slavery crusade. Labour History, no. 69, 1995.
“Mrs Bennett’s Evidence” Western Mail, 22nd March 1934.
National Museum of Australia. Collaborating for Indigenous Rights. Retrieved from http://indigenousrights.net.au/people/pagination/mary_bennett
O’Malley, Pat. Gentle genocide: the government of Aboriginal peoples in central Australia. Social Justice, vol. 21, no. 4, 1994.
Paisley, Fiona. Race and Remembrance: Contesting Aboriginal Child Removal in the Inter-War Years. Australian Humanities Review 1997. Retrieved from http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-November-1997/paisley.html
Wynne, Emma. The inspiring story of Mary Bennett and the struggle for Aboriginal rights in the Goldfields. ABC Goldfields, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/09/09/3314188.htm