Why women botanists outnumbered women linguists in nineteenth century Australia

Jane Simpson
Australian National University

1. Introduction

In colonial Australia (1788–1901), only about a dozen women are recorded as documenting Australian languages, compared with nearly 300 women contributors to herbariums (Maroske and Vaughan 2014), and with the 100 or so men who contributed to the two main nineteenth-century Australian Indigenous vocabulary collections (Curr 1886–1887; Smyth 1876). Why were plants more attractive than languages?

From the start, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are present as language teachers, e.g. the first substantial documentation of an Australian language took place some time between 1788 and 1791 when a young Aboriginal girl, Patyegarang taught Dharuk, the language of her people, the Eora, to Lieutenant William Dawes (Troy 1987). But the harshness of Indigenous people’s lives after the 1788 invasion, and their lack of access to education, means that we don’t have language documentation written by Indigenous people until the twentieth century.

Obvious reasons for settler women’s absence from language documentation are that in Australia for the first part of the nineteenth century there were fewer settler women than men, and that documenting languages requires some free time, something which only well-off women had. Family demands, child-rearing and lack of money would have been major obstacles for many women. But these don’t distinguish botany from language documentation. Two other important reasons are lack of access to Indigenous people and lack of education.

2. Access to Indigenous people

Women’s household occupations gave them little opportunity to meet Indigenous people. Settlement resulted in the deaths and disappearance of many Indigenous groups living close to the settlements. Of six women who published early or substantial language documentation, four had access to Aboriginal people through their husband’s or father’s work. The first woman to publish on an Indigenous Australian language, Eliza Dunlop (née Hamilton, 1796–1880), emigrated from Ireland with her husband who became police magistrate and Protector of Aborigines in the Hunter River Valley area north of Sydney. This gave her access to Aboriginal people, and she published a song with a translation (Dunlop 1848).

Missionary activity provided an opportunity for Christina Smith (née Menzies 1809?–1893) to engage with Buwandik people. She emigrated from Scotland as a poor widow with a young son, and then married James Smith. From 1845 they lived in the south-east of South Australia where they became missionaries. She arranged for Aboriginal children to live in their house, and encouraged her son Duncan to learn Buwandik. She published a book The Booandik Tribe of South Australian Aborigines (Smith 1880) which is a mixture of memoir, ethnographic observation, and conversion stories, with around 100 Buwandik words and a few sentences scattered through. At the end is a short grammatical appendix and vocabulary prepared by her son.

Harriott Barlow (née Harvey 1835–1929) and Catherine Stow (K. Langloh Parker) (née Field 1856–1940) both obtained access through living on their husbands’ stations. Barlow emigrated from England with her husband around 1862 and they lived on Warkon station about 400 km west of Brisbane.  Because of the frontier wars, about seventy to eighty Aboriginal people from different language groups lived there, and she recorded vocabularies from several languages. She was apparently the first Australian woman to publish an article on Indigenous languages in a scholarly journal, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Barlow 1873).

Catherine Stow (K. Langloh Parker) (née  Field 1856–1940) lived for more than twenty years with Aboriginal people, in western NSW, first on her father’s station and
then her husband’s station (Muir 1990). She published several books on local Aboriginal customs and legends, and some language from Yuwaalaraay people, including one of the first substantial texts recorded in an Indigenous Australian language, a 300-word text ‘Dinewan Boollarnah Goomblegubbon’ (Emu and Bustard) with a glossary of around 150 words (Parker 1896: 75).

3. Gaining tools for metalinguistic analysis

Women rarely had access to language education. None of the six women went to university. Recording Indigenous languages required metalinguistic analytic skills that were hard to learn when education was neither compulsory nor free. Gaining metalinguistic awareness through learning other languages was also less possible because nineteenth-century settlers in Australia and New Zealand were predominantly English speaking, and the neighbouring countries were not part of the European social sphere. Catherine Stow was quite aware of this:

I need hardly explain that I had no scientific education, nor preparation for research, beyond desultory reading about primitive peoples and an intense interest in the genesis of races and their original mentality.
(Parker 1930: viii)

Catherine Stow sought and received help from the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang Stow and other anthropologists. But the lack of training hampered women, and in particular the best-known of all Australian women ethnographers, Daisy Bates (née Margaret Dwyer, later O’Dwyer) (1859–1951). Daisy Bates emigrated from Ireland as an assisted immigrant, began her work with Aborigines around the age of 40, and was one of the first people in Australia to carry out long-term fieldwork with Indigenous Australian communities (White 1993). She collected vocabulary from many languages, in WA and SA. She had to make a living, and published around 300 newspaper articles on Aboriginal lives and customs. Like Stow, she received help from Andrew Lang, who arranged for her to collaborate with a young anthropologist, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. Her lack of formal training allowed him to dismiss her work:

The trouble was that Mrs. Bates’s knowledge, collected through many years of close contact with the natives, was not in a condition that Brown considered easily available for the ends of science. Indeed, he found it to be in a most hopeless tangle. The contents of her mind, in his estimation, were somewhat similar to the contents of a well-stored sewing-basket, after half a dozen kittens had been playing there undisturbed for a few days.
(Grant Watson 1946: 105)

Bates’ vocabularies remained unpublished until the twenty-first century (Thieberger 2017).

The last of the six women, Mary Everitt (1854–1937), was the first woman to publish a grammar of an Aboriginal language, Gundungarra. She was well-educated, eventually becoming a school principal. The grammar was based on her fieldwork, and was inspired by reading a grammar written by Walter Roth (Roth 1897).  It was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales (Mathews & Everitt 1900), with the surveyor Robert H. Mathews as first author. He was a member of the Society, but she was not (apparently there were no women members then). This disgusted Walter Roth (Thomas 2007):

A lady friend of mine, inspired with a little enthusiasm through the perusal of my grammar, took up the work and after a great deal of worry, time and labour got together a neat little paper on one of the N.S.W. dialects. The gentleman in question happening to hear of the work, expressed his great interest in it, and asked for its loan. He then read this lady’s grammar as his own before one of the local societies!
(Letter from Walter Roth to Baldwin Spencer, 8 Feb. 1903, MS 88, Sir Baldwin Spencer Manuscripts. Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, cited in Koch 2008: 210)

4. Conclusion

In sum, botany was a socially acceptable activity for women, one where it was easy to find support from people with similar interests. Documenting Indigenous languages, by contrast, required skills which few women had the chance to learn, and required opportunities to engage with Indigenous people, which were also hard for women to find. Women had to endure the undervaluing of what they had achieved in language documentation.

But women did have one advantage, which Andrew Lang noted in a foreword to one of Catherine Stow’s books:

It is hardly possible for a scientific male observer to be intimately familiar with the women and children of a savage tribe. Mrs. Parker, on the other hand, has had, as regards the women and children of the Euahlayi [JHS Yuwaalaraay], all the advantages of the squire’s wife in a rural neighbourhood, supposing the squire’s wife to be an intelligent and sympathetic lady, with a strong taste for the study of folklore and rustic custom.
(Parker 1905: ix)

This advantage is evident in some of the vocabulary and sentences published by Harriott Barlow, which reflect the presence of women teachers, and express useful concepts not generally recorded by male language documenters:

(to a child crying for its mother) ‘By and by she will come back’
Gunggari          Ka-boo ka-nŭng a (and also versions quite different in Guyinbaraay and Bigambul)
(calling to the mother) ‘The child is crying’
Gunggari          Kan-doo pa-ring oh!
(Barlow 1873: 170–1)


Barlow, Harriott (1873). ‘Vocabulary of Aboriginal Dialects of Queensland’, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 2: 165–75.

Curr, Edward M. (1886–1887). The Australian Race: Its Origin, Languages, Customs, Place of Landing in Australia, and the Routes by which it Spread Itself Over that Continent. Vols. 1-3.  Melbourne, VIC: John Ferres, Government Printer.

Dunlop, Eliza (1848). ‘Native poetry’ [Wed 11 Oct 1848 ]. The Sydney Morning Herald:3. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/12904464/1514274

Grant Watson, Elliot L. (1946). But to What Purpose: The Autobiography of a Contemporary. London: Cresset Press.

Koch, Harold (2008). ‘R. H. Mathews’ Schema for the Description of Australian Languages’, in William McGregor (ed.), Encountering Aboriginal Languages: Studies in the History of Australian Linguistics. Canberra, ACT: Pacific Linguistics, 179–218.

Maroske, Sara, and Vaughan, Alison. 2014. Ferdinand Mueller’s female plant collectors: a biographical register. Muelleria 32:92-172.

Mathews, Robert Hamilton, and Mary Martha Everitt (1900). ‘The organisation, language and initiation ceremonies of the Aborigines of the South-East Coast of N. S. Wales’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales 34: 262–81. http://ia801702.us.archive.org/22/items/journalproceedi341900roya/journalproceedi341900roya_djvu.txt, accessed 8 April 2016.

Muir, Marcie (1990). ‘Stow, Catherine Eliza (Katie) (1856–1940)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography,vol. 12, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stow-catherine-eliza-katie-8691/text15205, accessed 31 Aug. 2014.

Parker, K. Langloh (1896). Australian Legendary Tales: Folk-lore of the Noongahburraks as Told to the Piccaninnies. London and Melbourne, VIC: David Nutt; Melville, Mullen and Slade.

Parker, K. Langloh (1905). The Euahlayi Tribe: A Study of Aboriginal Life in Australia. London: Archibald Constable.

Roth, Walter E. (1897). Ethnological Studies among the North-West-Central Queensland Aborigines. London and Brisbane, QLD: [online facsimile], https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044051122489, accessed 26 April 2019

Smith, Christina (1880). The Booandik tribe of South Australian Aborigines/Mrs James Smith. Adelaide: Government Printer.

Smyth, Robert Brough (1876). The Aborigines of Victoria: With Notes Relating to the Habits of the Natives of Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania Vols. 1 and 2. Melbourne, VIC: John Currey, O’Neil.

Thieberger, Nick. 2017. Digital Daisy Bates Web resource. http://bates.org.au/ Melbourne.

Thomas, Martin (ed.) (2007). Culture in Translation: The Anthropological Legacy of R. H. Mathews, Aboriginal History Monograph 15. Canberra, ACT: Australian National University Press [online version], http://press.anu.edu.au?p=99461, accessed 8 April 2016.

Troy, Jakelin (1987). ‘The Role of Aboriginal Women in the Development of Contact Languages in New South Wales: From the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Century’,
in Anne Pauwels(ed.), Women and Language in Australian and New Zealand Society.Mosman, NSW: Australian Professional Publications, 155–69.

White, Isobel (1993). ‘Daisy Bates: Legend and Reality’, in Julie Marcus (ed.), First in their Field: Women and Australian Anthropology. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 46–75.

This is a summary of part of a longer paper ‘A Well‐Stored Sewing Basket’: Women and language work in early Australia’ to appear in Women in the history of linguistics, eds. Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Helena Sanson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

How to cite this post

Simpson, Jane. 2019. Why women botanists outnumbered women linguists in nineteenth century Australia. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2019/05/01/women-botanists-women-linguists/

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Posted in 19th century, Article, Australia, Field linguistics, Grammars, Missionary Linguistics, Uncategorized
One comment on “Why women botanists outnumbered women linguists in nineteenth century Australia
  1. […] Simpson, Jane (2019), ‘Why women botanists outnumbered women linguists in nineteenth century Australia’, History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2019/05/01/women-botanists-women-linguists/ […]

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