SHAD Interview: “Radical Actions: Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Women’s Temperance Activism in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Australia,” with Maggie Brady

Editor’s Note: Today we finish our special three-post extravaganza of author interviews from the newest issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. The current issue deals with the topic of radical temperance–the act of not drinking alcohol in booze-soaked eras. Today we hear from Dr. Maggie Brady, an honorary associate professor at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at Australian National University. She discusses her article, “Radical Actions: Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Women’s Temperance Activism in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Australia.”

Tell readers a little bit about yourself.

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Dr. Maggie Brady

I was born in Bristol, England, from which I escaped to London and an office job at the BBC. After various explorations (traveling and working in southern Africa; working as a teacher; migrating to Australia) and after hearing an inspiring lecturer, I discovered anthropology. Fortuitously at the time I was a research assistant in a medical school’s psychiatry department in Adelaide, where I ended up participating in field work for a research project on juvenile ‘delinquency’ (as it was called then) and volatile solvent use (gasoline sniffing) among young Aboriginal people in a remote settlement on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia. At the time youths were sniffing leaded petrol and developing lead encephalopathy along with other health and social problems. The work with the medical team there enabled me to forge relationships with the Aboriginal community and subsequently I was able to pursue my own research project for a higher degree in anthropology. I learned so much in those first few years of ‘immersion’, even though I did not realise it at the time. Perhaps that’s what fieldwork of this sort is all about.  

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

Living in that particular community – of Aboriginal people who had been displaced from their land by atomic testing in the 1950s – I could not ignore their history, and the social distress manifesting in widespread gas sniffing among the young, and damaging, ‘heroic’ levels of drinking among the adults, particularly men.  Fifty percent of deaths in the community were alcohol-related. So, apart from engaging with the present situation (measuring alcohol-related harms, helping the community to restrict local supplies), I became interested in when this had all started. When and under what circumstances did these desert people first encounter strong drink? How did they respond? How did they describe it? What drug substances did they know prior to the arrival of Europeans? Did they know of fermentation? Did its absence protect them from ‘white man’s poison’ or make them more vulnerable to it? What was it about their history and social organisation that meant community members found it so difficult to intervene in alcohol abuse or sniffing among their own kin networks?    

Explain your journal article in a way that a layperson won’t find boring.

My article describes a series of uprisings against alcohol that gathered momentum in the 1980s and 1990s among Aboriginal women living in quite remote, isolated communities in Australia. I was witness to some of these. In view of the fact that people did not normally complain directly about alcohol-related trouble, it was extraordinary that they finally did complain, loudly and dramatically. They were spurred on by the huge damage alcohol was causing: homicides, domestic violence, car accidents and neglect of children. To justify their actions (and avoid breaking an unwritten social code that prevented overt intervention in or criticism of others’ behaviour), the women explained that they were doing their ‘job’: protecting the future generations and the integrity of their families. The women’s tactics included direct action against liquor outlets, smashing up beer supplies, marching through the streets (often bare-breasted with their bodies decorated with traditional designs), demonstrating outside troublesome liquor outlets, and writing letters officially objecting to new licences. I realised that these tactics by Aboriginal women in the 1980s with their focus on protecting the family, bore a startling resemblance to the activities and the philosophy of the 19th century temperance movement, particularly the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union one hundred years earlier. The paper examines these echoes and the notable symmetry between the two movements, despite there being no direct influence from the earlier WCTU on the more recent anti-alcohol activism.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

As an independent scholar, now in an honorary position at ANU, I am free to develop these interests. This work has led me to pursue the wider temperance movement in Australia and its engagement with the liquor industry and government, particularly its objections to the ‘reformed public house’ movement and experiments in state and local controls over sales. I am continuing to explore the re-invention of the ‘Gothenburg system’ in Scotland and in Australia – two countries which at first glance appear to be unconnected to Sweden and its history of alcohol control.    

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

Despite the rise in the availability of other (and illicit) drugs – and the sometimes inordinate attention that these receive – I firmly believe that alcohol misuse still presents us with a serious and ongoing challenge. Alcohol should retain our attention as the most damaging, widespread and socially embedded drug and one that disproportionately affects the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged. We should continue to learn the lessons of history to be found in experiments with temperance and regulation, local social controls as well as state policy interventions, and in studies of small-scale (as well as larger) societies that can throw light on the difficulties that ordinary people have in managing the effects of alcohol and other drug use. 

BONUS QUESTION: What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

Professor Robin Room is very much alive and is always a fascinating and rewarding dinner companion. 

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