Landmark book ‘still has plenty to say’ on the whiteness of feminist analysis

4 August 2020

She may no longer be a prolific street protestor or social media keyboard warrior but Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson has sought to bring about bigger systemic and structural changes that have longer-term sustainable outcomes for all of us.

This ‘intellectual warriorship’ was celebrated at the launch of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, Indigenous Women and Feminism.

The anniversary edition was launched recently (21 July) on North Stradbroke Island by a long-time friend and academic associate, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, UQ’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement).

L-R Pekeri Ruska from North Stradbroke Island Museum, Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks.

After acknowledging local Elders of the Quandamooka Nation, Professor Fredericks outlined a life of publishing milestones, international esteem and the continuing relevance of the 20-year-old book.

“Aileen was the 22nd Aboriginal person in Australia to get a PhD, and only the 12th in a field other than Theology. Think about that for a moment. The 12th in Australia. She charted a new path in Australia that few Aboriginal people had gone on.

“When Aileen reworked her dissertation and published it as Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism, it was only the second monograph published by an Aboriginal woman. Aileen had very few models of what an academic career looked like for an Aboriginal person in Australia – but certainly she has created a model for many others to aspire to.

Talkin’ Up to the White Woman offered a clear and cutting analysis of whiteness and the power relations between Indigenous women and the feminist literature that still exerts its privilege to exclude Indigenous women. Through this book, Aileen gives voice to Indigenous women’s testimony and life stories and argues for the political importance of Indigenous self-representation.

“The impact of this book has been profound. It has made many people feel uncomfortable – particularly white middle-class ‘progressives’ whose self-image Aileen challenged, and called out.”

Professor Fredericks notes that the importance and continued relevance of this book are evident:

  • It has received multiple award nominations on first publications;
  • It’s never been out of print in 20 years;
  • It has had over a thousand citations by other researchers and is highly esteemed internationally;
  • At least 340 libraries worldwide have copies of Talkin' up to the white woman in their libraries; and
  • The book is also taught in university courses throughout the world.

Professor Fredericks said she repeatedly asks herself what it will be like to be Indigenous in 100 years’ time.

“I repeatedly ask this of myself, and in my work, and I encourage others that I work with and those that are coming up behind me to do the same.

“How will the generations ahead, including my grandchildren’s grandchildren, know what it is?

“How will it be? What will it be to be Indigenous in 2120? 

“What did we do to help them to know? What are the tracks that we are laying down?

“What will be the legacy be that I leave? What will be the legacy that we leave?

Professor Fredericks said launch attendees should be encouraged by Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s “legacy of scholarship, her continuous efforts to bring about change and the lasting impacts that her work will have”.

“I first met Aileen in the 1980s, when I was an undergraduate student at the Brisbane College of Advanced Education at Kelvin Grove.

“In those days, Aileen was working at the college and had to find creative ways to fund the activities of the Indigenous unit. She would organise activities, like cake stalls, and the staff and us students would be part of the effort to bake items to sell on the stalls.

“Aileen was always full of encouragement even when things were tough for us and her too.

“For example, I remember hearing about when she had to address a group of police cadets or officers and hearing that they cornered her in a room, threatened her and later walked out.

“I remember her involvement in the FAIRA Aboriginal Corporation and numerous other organisations. And I remember her skills, and abilities and her encouragement of us all to be strong and to talk up. 

“Aileen and I re-connected again in the early 1990s when she was the Social Policy Manager and then Acting State Manager for ATSIC. At that time, I was with the Commonwealth Health Department along with Angela Barney-Leitch.

“Angela and I would walk downtown from our office to see Aileen, who was always shifting, shaping and trying to influence the state-based agendas.

“Since that time we have connected and re-connected many times, and worked together too. I have witnessed her involvements and instrumental influences in higher education, policy, and research, and influential shaping of the scholarship of future generations.

“During this time, we have laughed, cried and sighed together too, with the few in the sector who are doing the really, really hard work of carving out the changes needed.

“Aileen has held senior government positions, has been a leader in higher education for decades, held board positions and received over 5000 citations for her academic writing.

“She has published two monographs, which are single-authored books (not novels). She has edited four collections of writing, published 30-plus book chapters, over 20 journal articles and many other publications of various kinds, along with offered presentations, keynote and public lectures, and TV and radio interviews.

“She has led a career marked by generous professional service, mentorship and tireless advocacy for Indigenous peoples in the media, education and to government.

“This international influence of Aileen’s work is important for us to note and to also celebrate tonight. Aileen has said that ‘my work is probably known more outside of Australia than within Australia’.

“Earlier this year Aileen was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her membership makes her the first Indigenous scholar to be elected outside of the US since the Academy’s founding in 1780!

“She has been invited to speak and give masterclasses at prestigious universities around the world.

Professor Fredericks said another way to look at the importance of the book was through the words of the people it has influenced:

Professor Haunani Kay-Trask, Professor Emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manatoa said of the book: “I suspect Indigenous women will discover much in this book that is painfully familiar but reassuringly accurate. Moreton-Robinson has done us a favour by detailing her people's experiences with white feminism. Now it is up to white feminists to read her book and learn from her analysis.”

Tara June Winch, who just won the 2020 Miles Franklin award for her book The Yield, wrote that: “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is a timeless reference that undertakes a compelling analysis of the whiteness of Australian feminism … essential reading.”

Timmah Ball, an emerging Noongar writer, wrote in 2017: “Injustices occur too regularly, but Aboriginal women of my generation can draw hope from women like Aileen Moreton-Robinson … Challenging women in power is not easy, particularly when many are blinded by their own privileges. But with Moreton-Robinson’s words to guide me I will keep talkin’ up to these white women.”

Professor Fredericks said she had been at a few international events and witnessed the referencing of Distinguished Professor Moreton-Robinson’s work, the high regard her scholarship was given and the respect she was afforded by many esteemed professors, dignitaries, leaders and Elders, along with emerging scholars and students.

“Sadly, I’ve also witnessed the disregard and disrespect she has been given here in Australia by people who fear her scholarship, and the strength and power of her intellect, and in essence her intellectual warriorship.”

“Aileen has always been a warrior whether others choose to see this or not,” Professor Fredericks said.

  • Talkin’ Up to the White Woman is published by University of Queensland Press.