Woman Cowlishaw, Gillian (1934 - )

Otakiri, the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
Alternative Names
  • Jessup, Gillian (Maiden)

Written by Patricia Grimshaw, The University of Melbourne

Gillian Cowlishaw is a leading anthropologist whose work on Aboriginal Australians has influenced an entire generation of social science scholars. She was born in 1934, the youngest of four children of Philip and Mary Jessup, dairy farmers at Otakiri in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. She walked along gravel roads to the four-roomed primary school at Otakiri and had a long bus ride with the 'country kids' to High School in Whakatane. Keen to leave her rural home, and with no suggestion of attending university, she enrolled at Auckland Teachers' Training College at the age of seventeen. Subsequently she taught school, travelled, married and had two children in Australia.

Cowlishaw entered the University of Sydney as a mature age student, graduating in 1974 with a BA(Hons) in Anthropology. She proceeded to postgraduate work under the supervision of the eminent anthropologist of Aboriginal Australia, Dr (later Professor) Lester Hiatt. During her candidature she led the demands of Fellow postgraduate students and part time tutors for better conditions. After the completion of her PhD in 1980 she held a series of academic appointments at Charles Sturt University's Bathurst campus until 1990 (with a year's break at the ANU), the University of Sydney from 1992 to 1997 and the University of Technology, Sydney from 1998 to 2005. In 2006, at the age of 71, the ARC awarded her an Australian Professorial Fellowship, which enabled her to embark on new research in Sydney's western suburbs. She was subsequently reappointed as a research professor at the University of Sydney and will retire for the third time in 2014.

Cowlishaw's work pursues theoretical, philosophical and empirical questions that emerge from ethnographic fieldwork - she analyses concrete social relations on Australia's racial frontiers. Her first research in Southern Arnhem Land led to Rednecks, Eggheads and Blackfellas; a study of racial power and intimacy in Australia, a historical ethnography of a remote community published in 1999. Two books, Black, White or Brindle (1988) and Blackfellas, Whitefellas and the Hidden Injuries of Race (2004) based on many years of intermittent field work in Bourke, NSW, explore existential questions and living dramas arising from the racial binary in rural Australia. Her latest book, The City's Outback (2009) focuses on suburban Aboriginal self-perceptions and relations with others, including the city of Sydney, and also exposes the vicissitudes of social research. Besides these four major monographs, Gillian has edited several collections of essays, and published over sixty academic articles as well as essays in newspapers and journals.

Cowlishaw's professional contributions include writing several commissioned reports - for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1990, for the Katherine Regional Aboriginal Legal Service in 2000, for the Northern Land Council in 2004. She was an editor for the journal Oceania from 1991 to 2001, President of the Australian Anthropological Society from 2006 to 2008; and has been convener of the Sydney Writers' Anthropology Group (SWAG) since 2009. A year before her eightieth birthday, she was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. She is now planning another two books.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Cowlishaw, Gillian, 'Disappointing Indigenous People: Violence and the Refusal of Help', Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, Winter 2003, pp. 103 - 125. Details
  • Cowlishaw, Gillian, 'On Being Awarded an Australian Professorial Fellowship', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 22, no. 52, March 2007, pp. 15 - 24. Details

Online Resources

See also