by Jessie Tu

As we commemorate National Sorry Day, we reflect on the thousands of First Nations women who have changed the course of history in Australia; shaping inclusive policy, championing reform and setting a new, much-needed agenda. Here are five such women we all owe thanks to:

Pearl Gibbs | The woman who planted the seed for the 1967 referendum 

Pearl Gibbs is a renowned Indigenous activist whose work and contribution spanned decades, stretching from the 1930s all the way to the 1970s. As a member of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association, Gibbs fought for the abolition of the Aboriginal Protection Board (which controlled the labour of Aboriginal people) and for the rights of Aboriginal people to exercise control over their own affairs. There, she was also a key instigator, campaigning for the full citizenship rights for Aboriginal People.

Throughout her life, working across many different towns and cities, she fought especially hard for the rights of women and girls removed from their families. 

Gibbs grew up in Yass, NSW, where she was surrounded by Aboriginal families and white workers in railway settlers’ camps. She wasn’t allowed to go to school because in those areas, there was a “no Blacks were allowed” policy. 

As an adult, in Nowra, she picked peas with other Aboriginal women and helped organise stop work meetings to demand basic working conditions for women. She was also behind a boycott of one cinema which was at the time, segregating Aboriginal people from white people. 

The Aboriginal Protection Board had a feature where there was indentured servitude of Aboriginal women and girls — where wages were stolen, food rations were inadequate, and sexual assaults were faced by Aboriginal women from their white employees.

Gibbs became involved in many women’s organisations and was on the management committee of the Union of Australian Women.

Later in life, she set up the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship (AAF) to broaden support for Aboriginal Rights. In 1957, the Fellowship convened a rally to launch a national petition for constitutional change. Gibbs organised over 500 Aboriginal people to take part. Ten years later, the referendum won citizenship for Aboriginal people with a 90.7 percent majority to ‘Yes’. 

Later that year, she established a hostel for rural Aboriginal people to receive hospital treatments in Dubbo. 

Professor Megan Davis | The architect of The Uluru Statement

In May 2017, UNSW Law Professor Megan Davis oversaw the four-day regional dialogues behind the Uluru Statement and a delegate at the First Nations National Constitutional Convention which took place at the foot of Uluru in Central Australia on the lands of the Aṉangu people.

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The Uluru Statement affirms the sovereignty and sustained connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the land and expresses the social difficulties faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as well as the structural impediments to the empowerment of First Nations Peoples.

It also had two main objectives: as agreed to by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders at the Convention. Firstly, to establish a First Nations Voice — a representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and secondly, to establish a Makarrata Commission — to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’.

Professor Davis, a proud Cobble Cobble woman from the Barrungam nation in South-West Queensland, has had an illustrious career so far. She has been Acting Commissioner of the NSW Land and Environment Court and Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous.

Now, she is a Professor of Law at UNSW and a renowned constitutional lawyer, scholar, and public law expert. Earlier this year, she was appointed the Balnaves Chair in Constitutional Law. 

Last month, commemorating four years since the Uluru Statement, she told The Big Smoke,“Now is the time to walk together and address the unfinished business of this nation.” 

“It’s time to start the work to hold a referendum on enshrining a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution,” she said. “Recognition is actually a really complex legal and political term because it can mean multiple things — it can mean symbolism, but it also means substantive, concrete reform.”

“In the ten years since the process of eliciting what constitutional recognition might mean in terms of the actual amendment of the Australian Constitution’s text to recognise First Nations people, there had been multiple committees, reviews and councils, but not enough action.”

Linda Burney | The first Indigenous woman elected to the Lower House

In 2003 former school teacher and board member of the NSW Board of Studies, Linda Burney became the first Aboriginal person to serve in the NSW Parliament. 

Burney grew up in Whitton, a small town in south-west NSW and went on to study teaching at Charles Sturt University, becoming the first Aboriginal student to graduate with a Diploma in Teaching. 

In 2016, she won the seat of Barton in the federal election and became the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the House of Representatives.

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Currently, as the Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services, and the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, she has been vocal about Aboriginal rights. 

Last month, she spoke to the ABC about the Aboriginal deaths in custody, calling them a national emergency.

“Royal Commission had not been implemented, and part of it was due to systemic racism, and part of it was about not the appropriate medical attention being provided to Aboriginal prisoners,” she said.

She has also been a leader in advocating for women’s rights. Last December, she teamed up with Shadow Minister for Women Julie Collins to move a notice of intention to present a Bill which seeks to provide ten days of paid domestic violence leave.

“Ten days paid leave gives people a chance to, if they’re leaving the relationship, to re-establish themselves in another place. There is enormous trauma that accompanies this, and it is a very, very scary and difficult time in people’s lives,” she said.

“If there are children involved, it may mean you have to relocate them and get them into a new school. There is an array of appointments and commitments you have, and you need one or two-days’ space to think about what you have to do. If they’re not leaving the relationship and staying in the home, they have to be able to make their home safe.”

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG | “The most outstanding Aboriginal leader of the contemporary era”

As a young girl, growing up in the remote Aboriginal community of Indulkan, Lowitja O’Donoghue was sent into domestic service on a sheep station in Granite Downs. 

Years later, working as an Aboriginal welfare officer in Coober Pedy, she spent nights trying to fall asleep in creek-beds and killed kangaroos for her clients. As a young adult, she took herself to nursing school and in 1959, became the first Aboriginal nursing sister in South Australia. 

She has dedicated her life to improving the welfare of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and twice, won Australian of the Year. As the former head of the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, she became the first Aboriginal woman to be inducted into the Order of Australia and is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. 

As chair of The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, O’Donoghue conducted negotiations that lead to the Keating government’s native title legislation following the High Court’s Mabo judgment. 

In 2018, Noel Pearson described O’Donoghue, a friend, as “the most outstanding Aboriginal leader of the contemporary era.” Stuart Rintoul released a biography of her Lowitja” which came out last year to critical acclaim. 

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Joyce Clague | Activism is a lifelong pursuit

In the mid 1950s, Joyce Mercy was only a teenager, but she had grit, will and fortitude. She knew what she wanted to do. She went to Sydney to study nursing. There, she met and became friends with leading members of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship and became a member of the Aborigines Progressive Association.

This was far away from her place of birth at the Aboriginal Reserve on Ulgundahi Island in the Clarence River in NSW. In fact, in 1960, at the age of 22, Clague had a profile written about her in Australian Woman’s Weekly magazine, which highlighted her as “a modest but ambitious young girl from the bush.” 

Today, she is a Yaegl elder and has been actively campaigning for Aboriginal civil rights since before Australia’s landmark 1967 referendum. 

As the first Indigenous person to represent Australia at the United Nations in India in 1966, she raised First Nations issues onto the world stage, such as impoverished living conditions and racism. Throughout the next decade, she travelled across Europe, the United States and Africa as the Commissioner of the World Council of Churches program to speak out against the dangers of racism.

In 2018, she told the ABC she was as passionate and as active as ever when it comes to fighting for Aboriginal rights.

“You gotta have the fire in your belly, it’s important,” she said. “If I didn’t have that fire in my belly I wouldn’t have got things done.”


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