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?    

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