The Guardian • Issue #2074


Remembering activist women

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2074
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Elle Bee

Faith Bandler (1918 - 2015) was an activist and who dedicated her life to civil rights.

Her father was from the South Sea Islands and had been kidnapped from his home in New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) when he was 12 years old and brought to Queensland as an indentured labourer in the sugar cane fields. This practice of kidnapped labour from the South Sea Islands was known as “blackbirding.” Faith’s mother was of Scottish and Indian descent.

During World War II she joined the Women’s Land Army, carrying out farm work. After the war she worked in a shirt factory. In 1951 Faith travelled through the Soviet Union and Western Europe as part of a dance troupe. She experienced both life in communist countries and the aftermath of the horrors of war.

When Faith returned to Australia, she joined the New South Wales Peace Council and became a founding member of the Movement for the Advancement of Aborigines, along with Indigenous activist Pearl Gibbs and civil rights activist Jessie Street. She was also targeted by ASIO on her return from Europe, and had her passport suspended for 10 years. Recalling this time, Faith said “None of this surprised me because I knew that great people in world were suffering as a result of McCarthyism.” Around this time in her life, Faith also met and married her husband Hans Bandler, who was a Jewish refugee from Vienna. Hans was one of the strongest supporters of Faith’s activism throughout her life.

Faith campaigned for many years on constitutional change of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, advocating for removal of racist provisions and for the counting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution. The referendum received a vote in favour with 90.77 per cent yes votes. It remains the most successful referendum in Australia’s history. She participated in grassroots activism for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, campaigning against white communities throughout New South Wales who sought to restrict or remove Aboriginal communities. She was a powerful organiser and worked tirelessly throughout her career.

Later in life, Faith wrote about her family history and advocated for the rights of South Sea Islanders in Australia. She challenged common narratives from right-wing, colonial historians that South Sea Islanders in Australian in the 19th century had immigrated to Australia independently. In reality, South Sea Islanders who had been kidnapped and brought to Australia were treated brutally and subject to much of the same racial segregation as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In the early days of Federation, South Sea Islanders were some of the first minority groups in Australia to be affected, as laws came into effect requiring the deportation of South Sea Islanders.

Bandler’s life is an inspiration at a time when people are fighting for real gains for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

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