Sunday, July 31, 2011

Faith Bandler

Today's Awesome Woman is FAITH BANDLER, an Australian activist who has lived an iconoclastic life and has been a lifelong civil- and women's-rights leader.

In a review of Marilyn Lake’s biography of Faith Bandler, Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist, Lyndall Ryan writes:
...the subject is full of contradictions. She is not Aboriginal, but as a woman of colour she has devoted most of her adult life to removing legal discrimination against Aboriginal people. She is not a white woman, but she has led a middle-class life as the wife of an engineer on Sydney’s North Shore. She is not a member of a political party but she has been a political activist for over fifty years. She is Australian born and bred, but has always felt an outsider in mainstream Australia. She is not a historian but she has published four books about her family’s origins and about the struggle to win a ‘Yes’ vote in 1967. 
Bandler was born on September 27, 1918 on a banana farm in New South Wales, to a father who had been "blackbirded" (kidnapped and forced into slave labor) in 1883 from his native island an island in what was known as the New Hebrides, and an Australian-born mother of Indian and Scottish descent. During the Depression she left high school and went to work as a milliner. But when World War II brought the opportunity for women to serve in the Women's Land Army, she gained a consciousness of the inequities dealt to the Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal women who earned a fraction of what other women were paid.

Ryan continues to list Bandler's very unusual (for a woman of color in Australia) relationships, travels and pursuits:

After the War, she lived a cosmopolitan life in Kings Cross, where she had a long affair with a Finnish sailor, took music lessons to improve her fine singing voice and learn the importance of a public presence on the stage, and studied at WEA classes to overcome her lack of education. Her political involvement with the Left enabled her to travel to Europe in 1951 to attend a major cultural youth festival. In this formative period of adulthood, she gained a very sophisticated understanding of herself sexually and politically. In 1952 she married Hans Bandler, a Jewish refugee engineer from Vienna. It proved an enduring partnership, based on shared political beliefs and a great love of classical music and gardening.
In 1956, when their daughter was two years old, Faith used her middle-class security to become a fulltime political activist, determined to eradicate discriminatory laws and practices against Aboriginal peoples.
 From 1956 to the early 1970s, Bandler was a major influence, spokesperson and figurehead in the fight to gain full citizenship rights for the Aboriginal people. As general secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders , Bandler led the campaign for a constitutional referendum to remove discriminatory provisions from the Constitution of Australia. In 1967, after the federal government had agreed to hold a referendum on the Aboriginal question, Bandler was appointed New South Wales campaign director, a position she fulfilled with energy, skill and enthusiasm. By the time the Referendum was won in May 1967, Faith Bandler had become a major public figure.

As the Black Power movement developed into the early 70s, being black but not Aboriginal was now a disadvantage, and Bandler "retired" from the Aboriginal struggle to begin researching, writing about and campaigning for the rights of South Sea Islander Australians. This was an even more challenging political feat, since she not only was fighting to overturn the false historians who claimed that "blackbirded" Islanders were in fact voluntary indentured servants, but she was also ostracized by the Aboriginal Rights community who had become influenced by a separatist Black Power ideology. Finally, in the year 2000, the Queensland government offered a measure of official recognition to the South Sea Islanders when it conducted a ‘recognition ceremony’ at Parliament House in Brisbane -- largely due to Bandler's research, writing and publicizing of the cause.

Bandler has also written and co-authored many books, including two histories of the 1967 referendum, an account of her brother's life in New South Wales, and a novel about her father's experience of blackbirding in Queensland.

In 1975, she traveled to Ambryn Island, the land of her father's birth from which he had been kidnapped 92 years prior. In 2009, she was appointed as a Companion of the Order of Australia (a sort of Australian "knighthood").

In interviews about her personal evolution as a political activist, Faith Bandler expresses a deep gratitude and strong consciousness of the influence of other women who served as her mentors and motivators.


National Museum of Australia

Australian Humanities Review (Lyndall Ryan's review of Marilyn Lake's book)

Australian Biography (Australian government site)

Further links available at:

AWU post & comments at