Woman Ganter, Regina (1957 - )

May 1957
Black Forest, Germany

Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne

Regina Ganter is a historian whose work has shaped a new approach to Australian history, shifting focus to the north and to interactions between Asian and Indigenous peoples and pre-British interactions with outsiders. She charted an unconventional career path as a non-English speaking migrant, arriving in Australia in 1979 with a strong sense of social inequalities. By 2013 she was Professor of History at Griffith University (2013), a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities (2011), and an elected member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (2008).

Born in a predominantly Catholic community in the Black Forest in May 1957 as the second daughter of Walter Ganter (1926-1965) and Brunhilde née Müller (1929-) she attended Bühlertal's new primary school (1964-67) built by Yugoslav guest workers next to her three-generation home. As a child, unaware of transcultural influences, she acted out Karl May's Apache heroes in the local forest and a black doll, a children's book on the integration of American schools, and a gold-plated ring with J.F.Kennedy head, left a lasting impression. Destined to become the third generation of master photographers in the Ganter family she was sent to the science-oriented Realschule (1967-74) with core courses in physics, chemistry, biology, geography, algebra and geometry. Instead she followed her natural leaning and spent a period at a private language college in Gengenbach (Black Forest) before moving to Berlin in 1976 to complete her diploma as commercial correspondent at Friedrich-List college (including shorthand in English, French, German).

In Berlin she participated in the anti-establishment youth culture with consciousness raising and women's self-help health groups and a book club discussing new women's texts like Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, and Verena Stefan. On her 19th birthday she was hitch-hiking with two friends to an international women's conference at the Sorbonne. Defying the shackles of unsuitable schooling, a dominant single mother and a close-knit conservative community, she read liberationist authors like Tomas Szasz, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara and participated in civil liberty actions and a public campaign for women's rights over their bodies. As a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Education Research (1976-78) in a cognitive research project led by Wolfgang Edelstein, inspired by the Frankfurt School and visited by Jürgen Habermas, she received in-house training in empirical social science methods and SPSS. During this period her own and neighbouring alternative lifestyle communities in Kreuzberg were subjected to razzia police raids in a climate of fear about international terrorism and its 'sympathisers' and she saw friends, family and colleagues incarcerated as political prisoners.

Ganter exchanged the heated political milieu of Berlin for an open-ended Weltreise. During ten months in South-East Asia (1978/79) she acquired conversational Bahasa Indonesia. The deposition of the Shah up-ended her overlanding plans but instead of returning home she turned to Australia to replenish her travel funds with domestic, take-away, and bar work in Sydney hoping to wait out the end of the Iranian civil war. After her marriage to white Australian Ray Vaughan (1980-1992) she was able to obtain regular employment. She became organising secretary for an international conference celebrating the Muslim sesquimillenium 'The Qur'an through 14 centuries' convened in 1980 by Tony Johns, Dean of Asian Studies at ANU.

At the end of her contract Ganter followed her husband now studying in Rockhampton, where, prompted by several months of unemployment, she volunteered for Lifeline, the Women's Shelter, and the Central Queensland Aboriginal Corporation for Cultural Activities led by Nola James, who later founded Rockhampton's Dreamtime Centre, and for whom she made her typing skills available. Activities with CQACCA, including oral history fieldwork at Woorabinda and the Central Queensland west exposed her to the structure of racism and Aboriginal administration in Queensland. An outspoken Birri elder with German parentage, Reg Dodd, claimed her as a daughter and instructed her in Aboriginal history from his experiences at Mission Beach, Palm Island, Woorabinda, and as a union member at the Rockhampton meatworks. Together they attended the formation of the Central Queensland Land Council at Neerkol. After a stint typing shire rates notices in a local council, Ganter was appointed school secretary in Education at the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education in 1981 but soon became dissatisfied with the limitations of her career, unable to apply her language and commercial training. She heard that Australian universities offered free education and mature age entry and applied for admission to a BA.

Attracted by its interdisciplinary orientation to Griffith University, she completed her BA (1982-85) and a first class Honours in history (1986) on the History and Development of the Keppel Islands written on behalf of Woppaburra families connected with Keppel Island. In her undergraduate years she provided research assistance for various projects in the School of Humanities, often drawing on her German, and as a student union member helped organise the Land Rights and Justice conference at Griffith University in the lead-up to the 1982 Commonwealth Games, with many invited Aboriginal speakers including Reg Dodd. Her Honours supervisor Lyndall Ryan facilitated her appointment as an oral history consultant for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in 1987 in the crown-of-thorns starfish research program to record and analyse living memory of the reef among former pearl divers and indigenous communities in north Queensland. This was supplemented with a federal government PhD scholarship as living allowance and became Ganter's Pearl-Shellers of Torres Strait, based on extensive fieldwork in north Queensland and Japan funded by GBRMPA. During her PhD candidature she tutored in the School of Humanities and School of Australian Environmental Studies and gave birth to her son, Yannick, in March 1988.

Ganter's PhD in 1992 was awarded the inaugural AHA prize in Australian History, which included a publishing contract with Melbourne University Press under John Iremonger. In that year she also became a single mother and a full-time lecturer A in the School of Humanities. During a postdoctoral fellowship (1993-95) in the History Program, RSSS, ANU, she revised her PhD thesis for publication and commenced a new project on triangular race relations, conducting fieldwork in the remote north with funding from the History Program led by Paul Bourke. She was promoted to Lecturer B and invited to the North Australia Research Unit in Darwin led by Deborah Bird Rose (1995) to continue fieldwork in the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia accompanied by her son, who attended four different primary schools due to her professional commitments.

After her return to teaching at Griffith University she conducted a research methods seminar at Lae and Tami Island (1996) as consultant for the PNG Division of Fisheries and GTZ (a German development aid organisation) and collaborated with the Quandamooka Land Council to host a public seminar published as Ganter (ed) Stradbroke Island: Facilitating change (1997). Her project on Asian-Aboriginal Contacts in north Australia was supported with an ARC Discovery grant (1997-2000) and led to a public seminar published as Ganter (ed) Asians in Australian History (1999). She presented at many conferences and published various articles but the major outcome of the project was not published until 2006. In the meantime she was chief investigator on an ARC Linkage grant for Mark Copland (PhD) on forced removals in Queensland (1998-2001) and on an IRD (ARC) discovery for Dale Kerwin (PhD) on dreaming tracks and trading paths (2003) and supervised four other PhD candidates to completion. She obtained a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education to enhance her classroom techniques and became a senior lecturer in 2000. She was appointed to the executive committee of the Australian Historical Association (2000-04) and convened the AHA national conference in Brisbane in 2002.

Ganter's major work, Mixed Relations: Asian-Aboriginal Contact in North Australia appeared in 2006 and received the NSW Premier's History Book Award (2007) and Ernest Scott Prize in Australian History (2007), also making the shortlist in the Northern Territory History Awards and Queensland Premier's Literary awards. It was seen as a landmark study opening up a new field of historical research in Australia. As an Associate Professor (2006) Ganter commenced a new project, on German-speaking missionaries in Australia as visitor at the Institute of Ethnography, University of Heidelberg (2006) and at the Robert Bosch Foundation, Stuttgart with funding from the Hans Walz Förderpreis (2007). The first part of this project was published in 2009 with funding from the Queensland Sesquicentennial as a website on German missionaries in Queensland with contributions from third-year history students. She continues this work with an ARC Future Fellowship (2011-2015) and convened a colloquium for International Women's Day 2013 about women on missions.

Ganter became an Australian citizen in 2006 and cast her first vote in 2007. In 2009 she took up singing in the Brisbane Liederkranz where she met her Australian husband Michael Boehm from a German-Eurasian family not unlike many of the families in her book.

Additional sources: Personal communication with Regina Ganter, August 2010.

Published Resources

Online Resources

See also