Hearth and country: The bases of women's power in an Aboriginal community on Cape York Peninsula

Jolly, Lesley (1997). Hearth and country: The bases of women's power in an Aboriginal community on Cape York Peninsula PhD Thesis, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland.

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Author Jolly, Lesley
Thesis Title Hearth and country: The bases of women's power in an Aboriginal community on Cape York Peninsula
School, Centre or Institute School of Social Science
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1997
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Supervisor -
Total pages 324
Language eng
Subjects 200201 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Studies
Formatted abstract
This thesis addresses the status and power of Aboriginal women in the town of Coen on Cape York Peninsula, Australia in the early 1990s. It seeks to explain how women in this setting could be forceful and respected political actors despite their apparently spending the majority of their time at their hearths. This contradicted previous anthropological analyses that suggested that identification with the domestic domain rather than the public one resulted in reduced power and prestige for women generally, and that Aboriginal women in particular needed to be active in the religious domain to gain power and prestige in other aspects of life. The aim here is to answer the question "Where do Aboriginal women of East Central Cape York Peninsula get their power?" Although fieldwork in the town of Coen gave the author the opportunity to interact with a number of different Aboriginal groups, the main focus of the thesis is the social organisation of the Lamalama of Princess Charlotte Bay.

Review of previous theoretical discussion reveals inadequacies in the concepts public, private and domestic, owing to ethnocentric assumptions at their base. It is argued here that debates about the degree to which space, activities and access to resources is gendered, and the consequences of any such gendering for actors' access to power and prestige, need to proceed from a well-established delineation of locally significant domains of action. At the same time it is demonstrated that the assumption that social life can be understood as having public and private domains, that public is always valued over private and that the public domain is invariably the domain of men, has informed both anthropological and state dealings with Aboriginal cultures, and must be taken into account. Aboriginal responses to state intervention in the shape of settlers and goldminers as well as policemen and government functionaries, have brought about changes in and between Aboriginal groups. In the contemporary political climate Aboriginal people here as elsewhere are having to take part in political processes dictated by government and they are having to take part collectively.

The formation of that collectivity is deeply informed by the way these cultures understand matters of access to space, interaction and resources, the way they delegate agency with respect to such access, and they way they limit notions of common interest. Instead of public and private domains, the primary points of reference here are country, hearth and mob. Individuals inherit rights in land from their mother and father which they bring in marriage to the formation of a new hearth group. Co-resident hearth groups have, as a whole, intersecting sets of interests in country which are reinforced and limited by the extent of marriage between them Such collections of related, co-resident hearth groups are referred to locally as mobs. The acquisition of personal power and prestige within both hearth groups and mobs depends on inherited rights, acquired knowledge and skills and the performance of acts of nurturance to other members of either hearth group or mob. There is no evidence that gender makes any difference to any individuals ability to access power in this manner. The bases of women's power lie exactly where the bases of men's power lie, in hearth and country.

Hearth group and mob distinctions persist in town living for all groups in Coen. They are evident in people's use of space, sharing of services, information and resources and, most clearly in the way they undermine action in the sphere constituted as collectively Aboriginal by the state. Men and women appeared to be equal actors in this domain in 1990-91, but it seems likely that increased activity in this domain consequent on the granting of title to land to local groups will mean increased pressure to operate according to norms that privilege the public domain and men as actors in it. The study concludes that analysis of political action at varying levels of inclusiveness is best accomplished with the concept of "multiple publics" rather than a public/private contrast, and that the fashioning of a democracy of multiple publics will only be accomplished through some measure of cultural change on the part of both indigenous and non-indigenous Australia.
Keyword Women, Aboriginal Australian -- Queensland -- Coen
Additional Notes The author has given permission for this thesis to be made open access.

Document type: Thesis
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Created: Mon, 14 Dec 2009, 14:29:44 EST by Ms Natalie Hull on behalf of Social Sciences and Humanities Library Service