Woman Bell, Diane (1943 - )

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Activist, Anthropologist and Social justice advocate

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Diane Bell was born in Melbourne in 1943. She trained first as a primary school teacher (Frankston Teachers' College 1960-61) and taught in Victoria from 1962 to 1965 and 1969 to 1970 and in New South Wales from 1965 to 1967 before returning to complete high school at evening classes (Box Hill High, 1970). For her two children (Genevieve, born Sydney 1967, and Morgan, born Melbourne, 1969), Bell was always a student. She graduated with a BA (Hons) degree in Anthropology from Monash University in 1975 where, as a full time student, she organised childcare for school-age children. She pursued her feminist scholarship and interest in Indigenous Peoples with a Phd at the ANU (1981) and undertook intensive fieldwork with Aboriginal women in central Australia where she lived with her children from 1976 to 1978. This path breaking research formed the basis of her second book Daughters of the Dreaming (1983; 1993; 2002). She had already co-authored Law: The Old and the New - Aboriginal Women Speak Out in 1980, a book which set out to inform the Australian Law Reform Commission on their reference on the recognition of customary law.

Daughters of the Dreaming focused on the religious, socio-political and ceremonial lives of Aboriginal women in central Australia. In continuous print and with regular updated editions, it was and remains a highly influential text in Australian anthropology and internationally (1993, finalist JI Staley Prize). It established Bell's reputation as a leading feminist anthropologist, and demonstrated how researching the lives of women could transform understandings of how Aboriginal cultures and societies operated. Her awareness of Aboriginal women's lives has strongly informed much of the subsequent work she has undertaken in the area of land rights, law reform and violence against women. Bell has always taken her research into practice.

Since the 1980s, Bell has held a wide range of positions, both inside and outside the academy. She worked for the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority (1982), later acting as consultant for various bodies, including the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council, Aboriginal Legal Aid Services, the Australian Law Reform Commission, and the Aboriginal Land Commissioner. In this period she wrote numerous reports, published widely, and gave evidence to various inquiries. She ran a private practice as a consulting anthropologist (1982- ), became a research fellow at ANU in the 'Gender, Ideology and Politics in the South Pacific Workshop' (1983), joined the Social Justice Unit ANU (1984-86), before becoming Deakin University's first female professor when she took up the post of Chair of Australian Studies in 1986. In 1989, Bell moved to the United States, to become the Henry Luce Chair of Religion, Economic Development and Social Justice at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts where she taught their first Women's Studies courses and began comparative research projects with Native Americans (American Academy of Religions 1990-98). In 1999 she moved to Washington DC where she was Director of Women's Studies and Professor of Anthropology at The George Washington University (GWU).

Bell served on a number of boards including the Annual Review of Women in World Religions, Hampshire College (1991-99) and Unifem. The American Association of University Women ( AAUW) awarded her the Senior Scholar Special Commendation of Honor (2002). In 2003-04, Bell was awarded a prestigious American Council on Education (ACE) fellowship which she spent at Virginia Tech where she later was special advisor to the Provost (2004-05).
On retiring from GWU in 2005 she was awarded the title 'Professor Emerita of Anthropology'. She returned to Australia where she was appointed Writer and Editor in Residence at Flinders University (South Australia) and Visiting Professor, School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide (South Australia) where she also taught for a year.

Despite living away from Australia for seventeen years, Bell continued to be involved in Aboriginal affairs and policy, and was closely involved in the Hindmarsh Island bridge affair, testifying that there was women-only knowledge that rendered the area sacred. Through her research and in giving expert evidence, Bell has been able to demonstrate that Aboriginal women are owners and managers of land in their own right. It is now well-established practice to have women's councils as part of the decision-making and consultative structures in Aboriginal affairs. Bell worked on some ten land claims for the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council and the then Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Mr Justice Toohey.

Bell is the author or editor of ten books, including several significant monographs on Australian Aboriginal culture and numerous articles and book chapters dealing with religion, land rights, law reform, art, history and social change. With her publishers, McPhee Gribble, Bell won the contract to write landmark volume on women for the Australian Bicentennial: Generations: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters (1987). She also publishes fiction and Evil: A Novel (2005) was adapted for the stage by Leslie Jacobson and performed at the Kennedy Center's Page to Stage season in 2006. Bell has served on the editorial boards of several journals (Aboriginal History 1979-1988; Women's Studies International Forum 1990-); and was a contributing member of the Editorial Board for the Longmans Encyclopedia (1989), Encyclopedia of World Religions (2005) and the Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia (2009).

Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World that is, was, and will be (1998) Bell's account of women's restricted knowledge with respect to the contested places and stories in the Murray Mouth, Hindmarsh Island region, won the NSW Premier's Literary Award for cultural and literary criticism (1998) and was a finalist for the Gold Medal of the Australian Literary Society (2000), the Age Book of the Year (1999), the Kiriyama Award (2000) and the Queensland Premier's History Award (1999). In 2008 she worked with the Ngarrindjeri community on Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan (Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking) and in 2012 completed the Consent Determination Report for the Ngarrindjeri Native Title, a decade long project.

In 2004 Bell bought a farm in Ngarrindjeri country and almost immediately became involved in the politics of water and the local campaign to stop damming the River Murray where it entered Lake Alexandrina. As a member of the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group (2007-2012) she ran many high profile media campaigns, wrote numerous reports and gave evidence to various committees. She ran as an Independent for the seat of Mayo (SA) in the House of Representatives by-election of 2008 as a river advocate and garnered 17 per cent of the vote in a three week, shoe-string campaign run from her kitchen table. Bell served as Chair of the Water Committee of the Conservation Council of SA (2012) and member of the Management Committee of The Wilderness Society, SA (2013).

Diane Bell now lives in Canberra and is working on a new book.

Published Resources


  • Bell, Diane, Generations: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters, with photographs by Ponch Hawkes, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, Victoria, 1987. Details
  • Bell, Diane, Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World that is, was and will be, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Bell, Diane, Daughters of Dreaming, 3rd edn, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne, Victoria, 2002. Details
  • Bell, Diane, Evil: A Novel, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2005. Details
  • Bell, Diane and Ditton, Pam, Law: The Old and The New - Aboriginal Women Speak Out, Revised 2nd edn, Aboriginal History for the Central Australian Aborigianl Legal Aid Service, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1984. Details
  • Bell, Diane; Caplan, Pat; and Karim, Wazir Jahan, Gendered Fields: Women, men and ethnography, Routledge, London, England, 1993. Details
  • Ngarrindjeri Women, Kungun Ngarrindjeri miminar yunnan: Listen to Ngarrindjeri women speaking, Bell, Diane, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne, Victoria, 2008. Details

Book Sections

  • Bell, Diane, 'The Word of a Woman: Ngarrindjeri Stories and a Bridge to Hindmarsh Island', in Peggy Brock (ed.), Words and Silence: Aboriginal Women, Politics and Land, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 2001. Details

Edited Books

  • Bell, Diane and Klein, Renate (eds), Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1996. Details
  • Charlesworth, Max; Morphy, Howard; Bell, Diane; and Maddock, Kenneth (eds), Religion in Aboriginal Australia: an anthology, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 1984. Details

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

The Songlines Conversations: Diane Bell
16 July 2006
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)


Murray Darling Basin Draft Plan: Not so water-tight
25 November 2011