Shirley Andrews
AUSTRALIA

Count us together. Make us one people!

Fighting for the right of the native peoples in Australia

Towards the end of the 18th century, when the British captain James Cook reached the shores of Australia, several hundred thousand Aborigines were living there. Several dozen years later, a great colonization of the eastern coast began and the native inhabitants were forced to move inland.

From the moment when people realised that the Aboriginal population is in danger of extinction – in the early 20th century the total number of Aborigines was estimated at ca 67,000 – two different ways of protecting them emerged. The gentle apartheid promoted separating the native people from the white settlers and leaving them to their own devices. The assimilation was supposed to aid the process of “civilizing” the natives.

The first Aboriginal settlements were the outcome of the missionary activity of Lutheran ministers from Prussia. Further settlements were created already within the state administration programmes. By settling, the nomadic people lost their ability to function independently, and became reliant on the effects of charitable action.

The policy of compulsory assimilation was introduced in 1909. It proclaimed that pure-blood Aborigines are not adjusted to life as a European civilization. Mixing of races was deemed as a solution to this problem. Children were removed from their biological parents; they were placed in orphanages or in foster homes. They often became victims of violence of sexual molestation. The policy was in force until 1970. It affected between 50,000 and 200,000 children, most of them of mixed origin.

Disconnected from their roots, often brought up to be a cheap workforce, the Aborigines were slowly losing their identity. The method of forced assimilation resulted in widespread depression and vanishing of entire tribes.

The Australian society and subsequent governments did not acknowledge the problem until the 1960s, when the so-called voluntary assimilation was introduced. From 1967, the native inhabitants of Australia have been considered as outright citizens of the country. Until today, their economic situation remains far worse than the rest of the society; the levels of unemployment and alcoholism are much higher, too.

She bragged about being the first woman in Melbourne to board a tram stockingless. Shirley Andrews was born in 1915. At that time, the native people of Australia were classified as “creatures” of a lower class in The Book of Wildlife. Simultaneously, they were subjected to a compulsory assimilation. Andrews fought for their rights, and she did so – as she often stressed herself – out of empathy acquired through being a woman in the patriarchal society.

Brought up by her mother and grandmother – the father perished in the First World War – Shirley entered the university in Melbourne. A science department scholarship holder, during her studies she worked at the school of veterinary medicine. A member of the Movement Against War and Facism, she become engaged in the left-wing activism and ultimately, towards the end of the Second World War, joined the Australian Communist Party. She simultaneously took ballet lessons, being a passionate dancer, and with time she became one of the leading scholars of the white settlers’ traditional dances.

She called herself an emancipated woman, and later a feminist. In the 1950s the career development depended largely on sex.

In Australian papers, job advertisements were divided into columns – one for men, the other one for women. Andrews used to skim through both columns, and later applied signing her letters with initials.

Shirley Andrews. Photo: Courtesy Sue Taffe

She was hired as a biochemist at the Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital. There, she conducted research on, among other things, the use of lithium in treating depression.

She was 37 when appointed a chairperson of the Council for Aboriginal Rights. The organization aimed at lifting the racist state legislation, seeking solutions on the government level.

Andrews fought inequality by pointing out the lack of logic and highlighting damages it inflicted on a society. She wrote letters, articles, gave interviews, held thousands of meeting all over the country.

Her campaign, which lasted for almost two decades, resulted in establishing the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement and calling a historic referendum in 1967.

The campaign for a YES vote on the Aboriginal question. Photo: Audiovisual Archive, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

“Count us together. Make us one people” was one of her slogans. On 27 May 1967, citizens of Australia voted for including the Aboriginal people in the total population during the national census. Two articles deemed harmful to the native population of the continent were removed from the Australian constitution. Many years of valiant efforts of hundreds of activists finally bore fruit – over 90% of eligible voters supported the proposed changes.

Victory celebration, Tranby College, Sydney, June 1967. Photo: Bauer Media Pty Limited

Shirley Andrews preferred a “backroom” action. Her friends recall that she was too modest to run for a leadership. She became a leader through hard work and deep conviction that she could be more efficient in her action than the majority of people.

Fighting for the right of the native peoples in Australia

Towards the end of the 18th century, when the British captain James Cook reached the shores of Australia, several hundred thousand Aborigines were living there. Several dozen years later, a great colonization of the eastern coast began and the native inhabitants were forced to move inland.

From the moment when people realised that the Aboriginal population is in danger of extinction – in the early 20th century the total number of Aborigines was estimated at ca 67,000 – two different ways of protecting them emerged. The gentle apartheid promoted separating the native people from the white settlers and leaving them to their own devices. The assimilation was supposed to aid the process of “civilizing” the natives.

The first Aboriginal settlements were the outcome of the missionary activity of Lutheran ministers from Prussia. Further settlements were created already within the state administration programmes. By settling, the nomadic people lost their ability to function independently, and became reliant on the effects of charitable action.

The policy of compulsory assimilation was introduced in 1909. It proclaimed that pure-blood Aborigines are not adjusted to life as a European civilization. Mixing of races was deemed as a solution to this problem. Children were removed from their biological parents; they were placed in orphanages or in foster homes. They often became victims of violence of sexual molestation. The policy was in force until 1970. It affected between 50,000 and 200,000 children, most of them of mixed origin.

Disconnected from their roots, often brought up to be a cheap workforce, the Aborigines were slowly losing their identity. The method of forced assimilation resulted in widespread depression and vanishing of entire tribes.

The Australian society and subsequent governments did not acknowledge the problem until the 1960s, when the so-called voluntary assimilation was introduced. From 1967, the native inhabitants of Australia have been considered as outright citizens of the country. Until today, their economic situation remains far worse than the rest of the society; the levels of unemployment and alcoholism are much higher, too.