Woman Bardsley, Grace (1920 - 1972)

Aboriginal rights activist and Political activist

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Grace Bardsley, born around 1920, was a white woman who dedicated much of her life to working with Aboriginal women in campaigns for citizenship and justice. Bardsley was a professional typist and secretary, who had worked for organisations such as the North Australia Workers Union (NAWU) in the Northern Territory - where she observed first hand the deprivation of the Territory's Indigenous people and the systemic discrimination against them. In her spare time she also worked on a voluntary basis for a number of different organisations devoted to peace and social justice. She was for a time a member of the communist party, but fell out with the party in the 1950s as Joseph Stalin's crimes were revealed.

In 1943, she met Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs, who was campaigning for Aboriginal citizenship rights as a member of the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA). She became firm friends with Gibbs, and when Gibbs and Faith Bandler formed the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF) in 1956 Bardsley volunteered to work as a typist for the group. Her knowledge of, and concern about, the contexts and causes of Aboriginal oppression grew, and, at Gibb's request, Bardsley joined the group.

From that point, Bardsley directed her considerable energies to this cause, while continuing to work full time - during the 1950s, for example, she was private secretary to the managing director of a Sydney timber company. She was known for her practical support of individuals as well her campaigning for structural change. Aboriginal women, Joyce Clague, was billeted with Bardsley for an Easter weekend when she came down to Sydney from the Ulgundahi Island mission on the Clarence River to attend the 1960 Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) conference. She remembered Bardsley with great affection:

Grace Bardsley I found was a delightful, beautiful woman. I doubt - and this is me of course - I doubt I will ever find a white woman like that. She was so trusting - I mean, you know I suppose I've never had that form of trust and sharing a home with a person and, would leave you for work and would go and leave you with all these things around you. (Clague, 1996)

Using some of her many contacts, Grace helped and encouraged Joyce to find her own flat in Sydney, complete her nursing training, get a job and develop a budget, believing that education and access to income was necessary for Indigenous people to break free from state oppression. She argued it was essential that Aboriginal people were clearly informed of their rights, as many were intimidated and harassed under assimilation policies when they had lived in the country and on reserves, and were not necessarily aware of their rights under law (Bardsley, 1965, p. 16). She strongly promoted the view that Indigenous people needed to control their own political struggles, rather than be guided or spoken for by well-meaning white people. She argued at a 1965 AAF general meeting focused on the campaigning for the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal citizenship, that 'Aborigines should not hear white people tell them what to do. The Aborigines should be there sponsoring, chairing and talking. The Aborigines should have the whole show' (Horner, p. 110).

From the late 1950s, Bardsley also worked with Helen Palmer (daughter of Nettie and Vance Palmer) and Audrey Johnson to edit and produce the fortnightly socialist newspaper, Outlook, a publication that continued until 1970. Bardsley died in 1972. A fund in her name, the Grace Bardsley Aboriginal Fund, was established by the AAF; between 1973 and 1978 it helped fund publications and other projects supporting Aboriginal rights.

Published Resources


  • Horner, Jack, Seeking Racial Justice: An Insiders Memoir of the Movement for Aboriginal Advancement 1938 - 1978, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2004. Details

Book Sections

  • Clague, Joyce, 'Staying to the End', in Scutt, J (ed.), Glorious Age: Growing Older Gloriously, Artemis Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 1993. Details

Magazine Articles

  • Bardsley, Grace, Aborigines and the Law, Smoke Signals, vol. 4, 1965. Details

Online Resources

See also