Daisy Bates

It's been a while since I've done one of my terrifying, badass or otherwise remarkable women posts, so let's have one of those, shall we? As usual, all info and quotations come from Barbara Holland's They Went Whistling. I've pimped this book so much that you guys should have no doubts about how awesome it is, and if you don't buy it immediately, then may God have mercy on your soul.


This is Daisy Bates. Check out those sunglasses. How fabulous is she? You know she means business, and that business is crumpets and tea at precisely four o'clock.

"Daisy Bates remains the queen of expatriates. She left misty little Ireland for Australia, and then polite Australian society for the outback and the Aborigines; and there she stayed, in a tent, wearing corsets and high-button boots and recording her neighbors' tales and rituals. It would have been a hundred and twelve in the shade had there been any shade, but she never left off a single layer of petticoat or unbuttoned her high collar, though the naked native women, watching her dress, giggled in wonderment. A loose mix of journalist, government investigator, anthropologist, ombudsman, interpreter, and nurse, she stayed there for half a century, until she was past eighty, and died still struggling to get back there" (98-99).

That's quite the introduction. Let's back it up a minute.

She was born in 1861 in Ireland to a well-to-do family. She was bounced around to a bunch of relatives, who kept (in?)conveniently dying, which made her childhood pretty flexible as she moved from one guardian to another. When her last relative kicked the bucket, she got "sick" (*COUGH* Isabella Bird *COUGH*) and her doctor sent her to Australia to recuperate. Actually, Daisy Bates was an awful lot like Isabella Bird, minus the racism and contempt for humanity in general.

She hung out with the fabulous ex-pat people, and it was all very The Talented Mr. Ripley, though with probably less murder and jazz, and she saw some Aborigines for the first time and was all, "Ew." But she wasn't particularly rich, and eventually became a slave governess for some sproglets at a cattle station, and met her future reprobate husband, Jack Bates, while he was working as a hand there. He put a ring on it, and then "promptly went off on a six-month cattle drive" (100). When he was gone, she was all like, "What's going on with my body?" and the doctor was like, "Baby!" and she was all, "SON OF A BITCH!"

"Their son, Arnold Hamilton Bates, was born August 16, 1886, and his arrival apparently marked the end of their sex life. Poor Arnold; though Daisy was passionately fond of other people's children and other people's children adored her, her son didn't appeal to her. He's been described as dull, withdrawn, and rather lazy, and may have reminded her of his father" (100).

Jack Bates is pretty much identical to Luke from The Thornbirds, and just kind of took her inheritance money and went off to work all the time. She hardly saw him and he didn't seem to care that his wife and son bounced from hotel to hotel, waiting for their pittance to run out. When it did, she fell victim to depression and the doctor prescribed basically the only prescription available apart from brandy and leeches: travel. Only he was like, "Hey, go back to Great Britain" which is never the place you send people from that part of the world. They're trying to ESCAPE the mists and drizzle. It did, however, give her the imperative to place young Master Bates (heh heh) in a boarding school and she didn't see him again for years. Like Mad Anne Bailey. Awesome women don't necessarily always make awesome mothers.

So she got to London and got a job for the Review of Reviews. "Here she met all the best progressive minds of the day, stubbornly holding her own as the lone Tory among the liberals, disapproving of modern notions in general, and the women's movement in particular. (She always did enjoy the proud reactionary stance, clinging to her Victorian garb clear through the age of the flapper and into the blue-jeans era)" (100-01).

She may have had a thing with the dashing but unfortunately named Carrick Hoare, but she was married and their love could never be. She managed to get enough money to go back to her true love, Australia, dragging her 13-year-old son with her. In her autobiography, she repeatedly gets his age wrong and sometimes forgets his name, calling him "William" instead of "Arnold." By this point, her husband Jack had become a borderline alcoholic back in Australia, and his gentility and manners were none the better for her having gone to England for a while. Look, she had that awesome nose to sneer down–let's just be thankful that her husband gave her the frequent opportunity to do so.

Jack had, remarkably, managed to get his hands on some serious property so he could open up his own cattle station. She dumped their kid at a school far away, named their cattle station Glen Carrick after her boyfriend back home, tipped her hat and rode off to do research for an article she wanted to publish.

There she met properly with the Aborigines, concluded that they were "Irish at heart" (104) and her own heart grew three sizes that day. She immediately took the firm stance that "civilization is bad for the natives; those who come in contact with it degenerate and die; assimilation is impossible and segregation is the best of the bad answers; and the well-meaning white civilizers are so ignorant of native customs that their interference is always disastrous" (101). Look, I get what she was saying–she just happens to be partially wrong. Just like Mary Kingsley, she thought that Western civilization didn't need to be pushed upon the natives. It wasn't inherently "better" than their culture, and in many cases it made no sense or could be outright dangerous. The Aborigine culture needed to be preserved and protected, instead of frowned upon and corrected. I get that, and I agree with it. However, the idea that the Aborigines could never cope with civilization and that strict racial segregation was the answer . . . well, I'm never going to get on board with that. Since her time, that has been more than proved wrong.

She did, however, help the bungling Australian government begin to understand the Aborigine culture. "When dragged to the government hospitals they were housed together with members of different totems whose hostile magic worked on them while they slept; they died in droves of whooping cough, measles, flue, terror, grief, and homesickness" (102) and she was like, "OMG, STOP." "She was fearless and sympathetic and learned a hundred and twenty native languages, but that doesn't quite explain how she was made an honorary member of the Aboriginal world or how, in a patriarchy where women were bartered and rented out by their husbands, allowed to eat only after the dogs had been fed, and killed instantly for violating any of dozens of taboos, Daisy was made an honorary man" (102-3). Guys, I can barely remember how to conjugate verbs in the single foreign language I know. Her whole situation was nothing short of miraculous.

She got to watch the Aborigines' arduous manhood ceremonies where boys are fed on nothing but blood for years (whatever their vitamin deficiencies may be, iron is not one of them) before they are circumcised and allowed to choose a bride. She remains impassive when she learns that baby cannibalism is a regular practice, though "they rarely killed children who had managed to live for a few months, and were loving and dutiful mothers to the survivors, fattening up their favorites with tasty morsels of infant siblings" (106). Her open-mindedness and lack of moral outrage are to be commended, whatever we might feel about baby-eatin', ourselves.

She occasionally remembered to write her articles, as well as a couple of books, but she was not there to sight-see and report back. She lived with the Aborigines, doing hard manual labor, stuffed in a corset and petticoats, nursing children, cooking, harvesting crops, digging up stumps, hunting, repairing wells, and generally proving my theory that she had to have been a robot. Sometimes she'd go back to Glen Carrick and work her husband's great cattle drive. The West Australian reported, "There is in Perth a cultured, quiet, and somewhat frail looking lady who has just completed one of the most arduous trips that any lady has ever undertaken and has established what must be almost a record in the endurance of the 'weaker' sex" (103). She wrote an article about it called "3,000 Miles in a Side Saddle" because OF COURSE SHE RODE A SIDE SADDLE.

Then all her husband's cattle were lost in some treacherous land over which he had driven them. It shut down their cattle station and she was like, "Oh, you slacker bastard". She finally concluded he was useless and sent him packing while she went back to the Aborigines. She discovered that many tribes were dying out due to the plot of Dances with Wolves drink and their homelands being snatched by the Europeans. She nursed them and took down notes, attempting to persuade the government to cut the Aborigines some frigging slack. Eventually she was awarded the Aborigines' highest honor: she "was initiated into the freedom of all the totems, a kind of international passport as a friend of the whole Aboriginal world . . . Daisy Bates of Ireland was made the keeper of the sacred male totem-boards and placed in charge of hiding them from white men" (107-8).

She became famous amongst the white community and was constantly asked to do high-profile speaking engagements. She even had the Aborigines perform native dances for the Prince of Wales when he visited. Despite her popular success, no one really cared about her cause like she did. She would not be able to save the Aborigines, as they had hoped. The railroads came, destroying their lands and making them dependent upon supplies that the trains brought. Prostitution and begging flourished. Daisy spent all the money she had earned on the welfare of the tribes and begged the government for donations, but it was never enough. She stayed with them until her health forced her to return to civilization. She attempted to contact her son but, unsurprisingly, he refused to have anything to do with her. She died in 1951, around the age of 90.

So the moral of the story is: the more conservatively you dress, the more "rock star" your life will be.

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