The stolen generation: motherhood in black and white

Our series of blogs based on articles published in Lilith: A Feminist History Journal continues with Laura Rademaker’s analysis of Aboriginal missions in the early twentieth century.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blog may contain the images and names of people who have since passed away.

When I started researching the women who looked after the children of the Stolen Generation, I didn’t expect to feel sorry for them. But, reading the diary of a woman in charge of children at a remote Northern Territory mission, she seemed so attached to one stolen, nameless, Aboriginal child, that I felt for her.

7th May 1914. Went across to the camp tonight with Mr Warren. There are quite a crowd of natives there again. Daly Rivers baby is back & is nearly dead, starved. We told Nora to bring him over for food & I will try & see what I can do for it.

8th May. The new baby came over today—poor little thing. It has been starved … Have let him go back to the camp tonight—but I think I will keep him altogether.

10th May. My baby is getting on very nicely. I never saw such an improvement in one week in a child before.

11th June. This evening there was a lot of talking in the camp & Bob wanted to take his baby. Poor little thing I am afraid it would not last long in the camp. Mr Joynt brought Bob over here to see it asleep in my room & he went off satisfied. It is very doubtful if it will get better but it certainly would have no chance in the camp.

16th June. Have not looked at my diary for a few days. The poor little baby died this morning. I would have liked to have seen him get better but God knows best.

24th June. Another week gone. Have not felt very well & have missed the baby.

27th June. For the first time since I came I feel I would like to get away for a few days & yet I don’t think any time that things have been smoother than now nor have I been happier in my work. It is so strange to feel so depressed. I have missed the baby.

Mary Crome was stationed at Roper River with the Church Missionary Society (CMS).  She thought of herself as a mother, calling the child ‘my baby’. We don’t know why the baby was ‘starving’. Perhaps this kind of poverty was common, given the number of Aboriginal people there who had fled settler violence. I was surprised by her grief on the baby’s death. It threw her entire mission into question. It seems like ‘rescuing’ children by becoming their mother was fundamental to her idea of a missionary woman.

‘Halfcaste inmates, Groote Eylandt,’ 1928. Image via National Archives of Australia: A263, Album.

But, the thing is, most missionary women were not actually mothers.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of single white women flocked to missions, outnumbering men and married women combined. Most United Aborigines Missionaries in Australia were single women. They made up over two thirds of Aborigines Inland Mission missionaries from 1905 to the 1930s. CMS was also overwhelmed with single women; between 1892 and 1931, around fifty per cent of its missionaries were single women.

So, you would think, Crome and her missionary peers, would presume they didn’t know much about parenting.

At this time, the view spread that motherhood was both a high calling and a role that required expertise. The future of the British Empire depended on good mothers; instinct alone wasn’t enough. Christian women rallied to equip each other through groups like the Mothers’ Union. Scientists, feminists and government officials alike advocated the training of women in mothercraft.

But along with the new training of mothers came a presumption that it was dangerous for some women to have children. This had profound implications for Aboriginal people. Missionaries misread Aboriginal child-reading traditions and thought they didn’t train children at all – a presumption which continues today, most recently exemplified by Bill Leak, when Aboriginal parents are routinely blamed for social challenges. The future of the British supposedly depended on mothers, so logically, the ‘demise’ of Indigenous people must be the fault of Aboriginal mothers.

Since Aboriginal women, supposedly, were not up to the task, it only took a short logical leap for missionaries to describe Aboriginal children as orphans.

But these children were not orphans. Missionaries often knew that the children’s mothers lived nearby and even visited the mission. Yet, to missionaries, they had no real parents and some caring woman had to remedy that lack.

It was not motherhood that these missionaries rejected, but Aboriginal motherhood.

Stolen Generations Memorial in Sherwood Arboretum, Queensland. Photograph by Kgbo. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Stolen Generations Memorial in Sherwood Arboretum, Queensland. Photograph by Kgbo. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Surrounded by a society that exalted motherhood as a duty for women, it’s understandable that single women took on the motherly role wholeheartedly. Motherhood was expected to be women’s chief source of happiness. And who would be better than the selfless, hard-working, pious (and white) women who became missionaries? For them, caring for Aboriginal children could be an avenue to personal fulfilment.  Margaret Somerville from Croker Island Mission, emphasised the personal fulfilment she gained from stolen children, describing herself as a real mother.

I had more children than most people had. I worked out really at one time that I had about thirty children go through my cottage … and really it was a wonderful time in my life.

When missionary societies needed women to care for and evangelise Aboriginal people, unmarried Christian women looked for a tangible way to realise Christian womanhood. The complex story of the Stolen Generation can be better understood in light of norms for white women’s femininity and spirituality.

It is easy to criticise the missionary women for their cultural arrogance, but we should remember that many truly cared for Aboriginal children at great personal cost. Some Aboriginal people who grew up on the missions even described these women fondly. Part of the tragedy is that the mission ‘mothers’ genuinely sought what they thought was the children’s best interests.

But their vision of motherhood made it hard to see the children’s own mothers as truly mothers. The ramifications of such blindness, and sadly, new iterations of the same pattern, are still felt in Aboriginal communities today.


For the full article, see: Laura Rademaker, ‘”I had more children than most people”: Single Women’s Missionary Maternalism in Arnhem Land, 1908-1945,’ Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 17/18 (2012): 7-21.


rademaker-profile-picLaura Rademaker is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. Her research covers themes of race, gender and religion in twentieth century Australia. Her work on Aboriginal missions in Australia has received numerous prizes, including the Australian Historical Association’s Serle Award for best Ph.D. in Australian History, the Australian National University’s J.G. Crawford prize for most outstanding doctoral thesis and the John Molony Prize in History. Currently, she is working with Tiwi Islanders to write book on the history of Catholic missions that foregrounds the memories and perspectives of Aboriginal people. She is also researching Australia’s ‘religious realignment’ (or ‘secularisation’) in the 1960s and 70s, focusing particularly on questions of gender and race.

Follow Laura on Twitter @laurarads.

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