NB: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this site contains names, images, and quotes by deceased persons.
Can you believe we’ve gone all this time without featuring a Kickass Woman from Australia? This month we are featuring Faith Bandler, a campaigner for the rights of Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. She is best known for her decade-long struggle to pass the 1967 referendum on the rights of Indigenous Australians and South Sea Islanders. The referendum passed with over 90% of voters in favor.
Bandler was born Ida Lessing Faith in 1918. Long before she was born, her father, a Torres Strait Islander named Wacvie Mussingkon, was kidnapped from his home on Ambrym Island and forced to work on sugar cane farms as part of a historical enslaving process called ‘blackbirding’. He escaped and eventually met and married Ida Venno.
Ida Venno was born in New South Wales and was of Scottish-Indian descent. Wacvie Mussingkton changed his name to Peter Mussing. When Bandler was five years old, her father died, leaving her and her seven siblings to be raised by Venno alone. Mussing’s story of abduction, enslavement, and escape touched Bandler deeply and motivated her throughout her life. She was also affected by her mother’s resilience and insistence on the importance of education.
In 1934, Bandler moved to Sydney. She was thrilled to be in the Big City and loved going to concerts. During WWII, she joined the Australian Women’s Land Army. These women performed farming and agricultural duties as a way to offset the absence of men who had joined the army. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, including Bandler, were paid less than their White counterparts.
Later she joined the Margaret Walker Dance crew, and traveled Europe as part of this troupe of dancers. Walker, another Kickass Woman, devoted her life to preserving Indigenous dances from across the world. Bandler was especially moved by a dance Walker choreographed that illustrated the discrimination that Aboriginal people faced in Australia.
In 1952 Bandler moved back to Sydney and married Hans Bandler, a Jewish refugee from Austria who had survived Dachau and Buchenwald. The couple had one daughter and fostered a son. At this time, most Aboriginal Australians were forced to live on reservations. They could not enter or leave these reservations without the permission of the Aboriginal Welfare Board. In addition, each Australian state had its own set of laws regarding Aboriginal people, laws which varied widely from place to place and caused confusion and oppression.
Bandler became a full-time activist in 1956, when she co-founded the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship along with Pearl Gibbs, Burt Groves, and Grace Bardsley. They were soon joined by Jessie Street. This group worked for ten years to pass the 1967 Referendum. The Referendum compelled the Federal government to count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the national census, and placed the federal government in charge of legalizing rights as opposed to the states. The Referendum asked:
Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled ‘An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population’?
An article from the Parliament of Australia explains the referendum further, explaining that, contrary to myth, it did not give Indigenous Australians citizenship, the right to vote, or wage equality. Its importance was, according to this article, “largely symbolic,” ending a history of assimilationist policies and raising the expectations of Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders with regard to what they could accomplish and fight for.
Bandler remained an activist for the rest of her life, and wrote several books, both fiction and non-fiction. She was thrilled to travel to Ambrym Island to meet her father’s people. She died at the age of 96.
Here’s a wonderful video in which Bandler tells her story:
You can also find out more about Bandler at: