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One Bright Spot.

One Bright Spot, by Victoria Haskins. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Victoria Haskins' One Bright Spot sheds light on an area of Aboriginal and white history that is increasingly scrutinised by historians--the relationships between Indigenous women and white women during the early decades of the twentieth century. During this period the various states, through the administrative powers of their Aboriginal Protection Boards, exercised increasing control over every aspect of Aboriginal women's lives. Haskins studies the complex relationship between state apparatus, the white women who were often complicit with the states' control of Aboriginal women, and some of the experiences of the Aboriginal women themselves, through the personal history of her great-grandmother, Joan Kingsley-Strack.

In the introduction Haskins sketches some of her own background and interest in the history of Indigenous and white relations, as a prelude to the remarkable discovery she made within her great-grandmother's papers. Joan Kingsley-Strack was one of many urban and rural white women who benefited from the labour of young Aboriginal women forcibly sequestered into domestic service through the apprenticeship scheme of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board, and she eventually became active in the struggle to dismantle the Board and grant rights to Aboriginal people. Kingsley-Strack's diaries, papers, and transcripts of conversations with her Aboriginal employees form the core of Haskins' extensive research, and give us a rare glimpse into the individual stories, intimacies and tensions of living closely together as employer and employee that constituted the wider program of the Board's child removal and apprenticeship policies.

The book is organised around sections named for Mary, Alma, Del, and Jane, pseudonyms of the young Aboriginal women who worked for Kingsley-Strack between 1920 and 1942. Another part centres on Kingsley-Strack's relationship with Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs and her period of involvement with the Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship. Through her relationships with these women, Kingsley-Strack gradually became aware of the cruel practices of child removal and enforced servitude practiced by the Board, and involved herself in agitating for Aboriginal rights.

Throughout the book Haskins undertakes the difficult task of tracing the complex and shifting motives which drove Kingsley-Strack's actions. She resists romanticising or damning her great-grandmother and her responses to the often distressing experiences and life stories of her Indigenous employees. Instead she carefully outlines both the personal sacrifices and trials Kingsley-Strack endured in resisting the Board's control of her servants, and her maternalistic and often patronising attitude to Aboriginal people--an attitude which was most challenged in her relationship with Pearl Gibbs but was often reinforced during her dealings with white women's reform groups.

Tracing Kingsley-Strack's experiences with these Indigenous women, her growing opposition to state policy and her eventual support of the Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship, Haskins looks at the way imbalances of power fundamentally structured the experiences of indigenous and white women within these relationships. However she also highlights the intervention of the state through the NSW Aborigines Protection Board as crucial in maintaining and perpetuating these inequalities. As Haskins points out of Kingsley-Strack and her first employee, Mary: 'The two women would not have laid eyes on each other ... were it not for the existence of this unseen third party' (p. 27). At various points in the book, Haskins highlights her acute awareness of how these past relationships of power continue to benefit some and disadvantage others in the present. As she states:
   I have sat and drunk tea and talked to people who were complete
   strangers to me, and I to them, about the most painful and private
   experiences of their mothers, grandmothers and aunts. For no
   other reason than being the descendant of a white woman who
   was given control and custody of four Aboriginal women under a
   genocidal and oppressive government policy, I not only found I
   was the "keeper" of their stories, but that I had a significant
   degree of control over their re-telling (p. 11).


This awareness and approach re-emerges in a recent collection of essays co-edited by Haskins with Fiona Paisley and Anna Cole, which centres on a number of white women historically involved in Aboriginal people's lives. (2) Both books are part of a growing scholarship examining the intersections of gender and race in Australia's past, with the works of Fiona Paisley and Alison Holland looking at the historical involvement of white feminists in public policy and debates regarding Indigenous people, and the work of historians such as Jackie Huggins, Jennifer Sabbioni, Joanne Scott, Raymond Evans and Inara Walden, focusing on the experiences and perspectives of the Aboriginal women who worked as domestic servants. (3)

Although Haskin's writing style is clear and powerful, the book is dense and complex--she interweaves a number of narratives, including the life story of Kingsley-Strack and her connections to various groups within the elite society in which she circulated; the author's own personal reflections on the history of the Stolen Generations; and the traced histories of the four servants and their descendants. The result is a richly detailed portrait of a network of people and places tied together through the interlocking frameworks of race and class. At times, however, this detracts from the flow of the central story, and the references to numerous people and groups come so thick and fast it can make for an exhausting read. The book may thus prove somewhat confusing for those unfamiliar with the history of Indigenous child removal or the apprenticeship scheme, whom Haskins seems to be targeting with her clear writing style and minimal use of endnotes. Nevertheless it is a passionate and innovative contribution to this area of historical study, written in a compelling and self-reflective style that will appeal to many different readers.

(2) Anna Cole, Victoria Haskins, and Fiona Paisley, eds, Uncommon Ground: White Women in Aboriginal History (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005).

(3) Alison Holland, 'Wives and Mothers Like Ourselves? Exploring White Women's Intervention in the Politics of Race, 1920s-1940s', Australian Historical Studies, no. 117 (2001); Jackie Huggins, 'White Aprons, Black Hands: Aboriginal Women Domestic Servants in Queensland', Labour History, no. 69 (1995); Fiona Paisley, Loving Protection? Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women's Rights, 1919-1939 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000); Jennifer Sabbioni, 'I Hate Working for White People', Hecate 19, no. 2 (1993); Joanne Scott and Raymond Evans, 'The Moulding of Menials: The Making of the Aboriginal Female Domestic Servant in Early Twentieth Century Queensland', Hecate 22, no. 1 (1996); Inara Walden, 'That Was Slavery Days': Aboriginal Domestic Servants in New South Wales in the Twentieth Century', Labour History 69 (1995).

Eleanor Finger

University of Melbourne
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Author:Finger, Eleanor
Publication:Melbourne Historical Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1083
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