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  • Domestic Service and Frontier Feminism:The Call for a Woman Visitor to "Half-Caste" Girls and Women in Domestic Service, Adelaide, 1925–1928
  • Victoria Haskins (bio)

The home has a historical significance as a space for white women's intervention in and negotiation with colonization, a significance that is both symbolic and literal. One of the first feminist campaigns for Aboriginal reform was for the appointment of a woman to go into the private homes of privileged urban women to visit and inspect the conditions of mixed-descent Aboriginal girls and young women brought to work as domestic servants from central Australia to the South Australian capital, Adelaide. Launched in 1925 by the Women's Non-Party Association of South Australia (WNPA),1 such an official appointment was secured two years later, but the campaign for a Woman Visitor was quickly forgotten. The struggle by white women for power on the domestic frontier preceded the struggle that followed on the frontier proper, and that later struggle would subsume its memory.

Thus for historians of the interwar feminist campaigns for Aboriginal reform, the Visitor campaign does not feature, even as a footnote; the later activities of the WNPA president, Constance Cooke, who agitated on national and international stages in the 1930s for the appointment of Women Protectors of Aborigines in central Australia, dominate our understanding of this past. "Frontier feminism"—to use Marilyn Lake's compelling term2 —captured the imagination of white women then and since in a way no "domestic" campaign ever could. The remote central and northern desert regions of white pastoral expansion in Australia had long been considered a man's domain, and in many respects still are: a contact zone when masculine brutality unrestrained by the "civilizing" influence of respectable white women wreaked and continues to wreak havoc upon Aboriginal women and children. Domesticating the frontier was a challenge that white women, newly conscious of their roles as white national citizens, could hardly resist. In the 1920s, as Lake shows, a number of feminist activists had shifted their focus from white women's degradation here at the hands of "marauding white men" to that endured by Aboriginal [End Page 124] women.3 Fiona Paisley observed that urban Australian women activists, determined to speak alongside white men as citizens, defined the frontier in the 1920s and 1930s as "a political and social space in which to enact their own responsibilities as white women."4 The interwar campaign by Australian women activists to install women in positions of authority to "protect" Aboriginal women from white men's sexual predations in the Australian outback has been analyzed by Alison Holland. Describing it as a push for "the feminisation of 'native' administrations" by which feminist activists sought "the expansion and consolidation of their own roles in public life," Holland points to the Woman Protector campaign's almost universal appeal for urban white women as a way of self-actualization in this period.5 In all these studies, one gets a sense of how the open horizons of the central Australian frontier beckoned to white women as a symbolic and actual place to assert their public presence and power in the interwar period, in distinct contrast to the confining "domestic sphere" allotted to them traditionally. The studies themselves reflect that predilection.

Yet, in modernizing white settler societies like Australia and the United States, it was the domestic sphere that would come to constitute a key site of strategic manipulations by the state, in the process revealing domestic work to be (like sexuality) "an especially dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, settler and native, an administration and a population."6 Domestic service can be understood as a transitional point for Indigenous girls, the urban household a liminal space into which these girls were inserted by the state and from which they were, it was hoped, to step into oblivion. Here, Aboriginal women of reproductive years were to be supervised, contained, and disciplined, as the state sought to effect the disappearance of a race. Even as the disruptive hybrid woman was to be "absorbed" in the home, it was also a site that spoke to colonial concerns and...