Diane Bell

Diane Bell

Diane Robin (Di) Bell (born 11 June 1943) is a pioneering Australian feminist anthropologist, author and activist, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the George Washington University in Washington, D. C., Writer and Editor in Residence at Flinders University, South Australia and Visiting Professor School of Social Sciences, University of Adelaide. In 2005, after 17 years in the United States, she returned to her native Australia to retire and currently lives and writes in South Australia.

Bell was born and grew up in Melbourne. She has lived in Sydney, Canberra, Darwin, Alekarenge, Northern Territory, Worcester, Massachusetts, Washington, D. C., Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, Blackstown, Virginia and Finniss, South Australia. She is the daughter of Allan and Florence Haig. She has two children, Genevieve and Morgan, and two grandchildren, Lawson and Clancy.


Work life as a teacher, researcher, consultant, writer and editor

Originally trained as a primary teacher in the 1960s in Victoria, Australia, Bell returned to study in the 1970s but first had to complete high school which she did by attending night school at Box Hill High School, Victoria. Bell continued onto university and received her BA (Hons) in Anthropology at Monash University in 1975, and a Ph.D. from Australian National University in 1981 which was based on field work with Aboriginal women in central Australia.

During the 1980s, Bell held a range of positions in Australia. She worked for the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority in the early 1980s, before establishing her own anthropological consultancy in Canberra. She consulted for the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council, Aboriginal Legal Aid Services, the Australian Law Reform Commission, and the Aboriginal Land Commissioner. She subsequently held academic posts, first as a Research Fellow at the ANU, and then as the Chair of Australian Studies at Deakin University in Geelong where she was the first female Professor on staff. In 1989, Bell moved to the United States to take up the Chair of Religion, Economic Development and Social Justice endowed by the Henry R. Luce Foundation, at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. 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). As the recipient of a Fellowship in 2003-4, awarded by the peak educational body, the American Council on Education ACE), Bell also worked closely with the senior administration of Virginia Tech as they revised their curriculum. Bell also served on the Board of Trustees for Hampshire College for eight years. On her retirement from GWU in 2005 she was awarded the title "Professor Emerita of Anthropology" by The George Washington University. On her return to Australia 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).

Bell is the author/editor of 10 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. .[1] She 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) Macmillan, Encyclopedia of World Religions (2005) and the Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia(2009).

Bell was also a contributing consultant to National Geographic on their Taboo TV series (2002-4).

Changing the face of Australian anthropology

Bell's first full-length anthropological monograph,Daughters of the Dreaming, was ground breaking scholarship. Her explicit focus on the religious, spiritual and ceremonial lives of Aboriginal women in central Australia was not without controversy, but her rich ethnographic material had an indelible mark on Australian anthropology, and beyond. It is now well-established practice to have women's councils as part of the decision-making and consultative structures in Aboriginal affairs. 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. Bell worked on some 10 land claims for the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council and the then Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Mr Justice Toohey.

In 1986, Melbourne publishers McPhee Gribble, with Diane Bell as author, won the competitive tender from the Australian Bicentennial Authority (ABA) to write a book about women in Australia for the 1988 Bicentenary. The book, Generations: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters (with photos by Ponch Hawkes) explored generations of Australian women and "the way the significant objects in their lives have been passed from hand to hand, generation to generation".[2] It focused on ordinary people through the stories they had been told by and were passing onto their female kin. Bell used an ethnographic approach to explore the commonalities of Australian women's cultures across age, time, race and region. Shortly after it was published, the book reached number one on the Age best seller list for works of non-fiction.

"Anthropology in the Eye of the Storm"

Throughout the latter part of the 1970s, and through most of the 1980s, Bell was involved in issues surrounding Aboriginal land rights and law reform. With lawyer, Pam Ditton, she authored Law: the old and the new. Aboriginal Women in Central Australia Speak Out (Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, 1980) which addressed issues of law reform in Central Australia, in the wake of the passage of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act (1976). Bell worked on a number of land claim cases in the Northern Territory, particularly in central Australia, but also in and around the Top End.

In the late 1990s, Bell became a key player in the Hindmarsh Island bridge controversy. In 1994 a group of Ngarrindjeri women, traditional owners of the Lower River Murray, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert and the Coorong (South Australia) had objected that a proposal to build a bridge from Goolwa to Kumarrangk (Hindmarsh Island) near the Murray Mouth would desecrate sites sacred to them as women. The gender restricted knowledge that underwrote their claim became known as 'secret women's business' and was contested in the media, courts and academy. In 1996 a South Australian Royal Commission found that the women had deliberately fabricated their beliefs to thwart the development. However, the women who claimed knowledge of the sacred tradition did not give evidence at the Royal Commission because they considered it to be a violation of their religious freedoms. Five years later these women and those experts who had testified on their behalf were vindicated. In 2001, federal court judge, Mr John von Doussa, heard from all parties to the dispute and found the women had not lied. Nonetheless the notion that the women lied persists in some quarters and 'secret women's business' is used as a term of derision and disrespect. Bell became involved in this matter of gender-restricted knowledge after the Royal Commission. On the basis of her research in the SA archives and fieldwork with the women in 1996-8, Bell was convinced there was sufficient evidence to support the women's claims that there was gender-restricted knowledge in Ngarrindjeri society and that the women had told the truth.

Bell's subsequent monograph, Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin (1998), won the NSW Premier's Gleebook Award for cultural and literary criticism in 1999. The judges wrote: "An erudite capacious book on the politically contentious and culturally sensitive subject of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair, in which the author allows diverse voices to be heard and refuses to simplify an inherently complicated and pressing set of issues. This is an outstanding book of cultural criticism, which brings together feminist anthropology, oral and archival history, political and legal narrative." The book was also short listed for The Age Book of the Year and the Queensland Premier's History Award in 1999 and the Gold Medal of the Australian Literary Society in 2000. Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin is often cited as an important example of alternate ethnographic prose. Bell's most recent writing with Ngarrindjeri women, Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan (2008) is a further contribution to collaborative research and writing and documents the impact of the contesting of cultural knowledge on the Ngarrindjeri. Bell continues to work with the Ngarrindjeri and now lives on their traditional lands.


Aside from her numerous anthropological texts, and feminist works, Bell has also delved into fictional writing. Her first book, titled "Evil", addresses secrets within the churches and is set on the campus of an American college. Performed as a play adapted by Leslie Jacobson for the "From Page to Stage" season on new plays at the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, USA, 3 September 2006 and presented as a staged reading in Adelaide, 16 May 2008.


Bell ran as an independent candidate in the 2008 Mayo by-election, caused by the resignation of former foreign minister and Liberal leader Alexander Downer.[3]

South Australian independent Senator Nick Xenophon gave support to Bell's campaign.[4][5] Her campaign was called Vote 4 Di and was supported by a campaign website.[6] In a field of 11 candidates, Bell received 16 percent of the vote, behind the Greens on 21 percent and the Liberals on 41 percent. The seat became marginal for the Liberals, who suffered a reduced primary and two-party margin.[7]

River advocate

Diane Bell campaigns for fresh water flows for the River Murray, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert and the Coorong. In 2007, she was a co-founder of [1] and worked with the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group inc to stop the construction of a weir across the River Murray at Pomanda Island (at the point where the river enters Lake Alexandrina). Since 2009 she has administered the [2] website and been a frequent speaker and commentator on environmental matters.


As author

  • Evil: A novel Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 2005.
  • Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A world that is, was, and will be Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 1998
  • Generations: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters Melbourne, Penguin, 1987
  • Daughters of the Dreaming, First ed. Melbourne, McPheeGribble/Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1983
  • Law: The Old and the New (with Pam Ditton) Aboriginal History, Canberra, 1980

As editor

  • Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan: Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking Melbourne, Spinifex Press, 2008
  • All about Water: All about the River (co-edited with Gloria Jones for the River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group, www.stoptheweir.com)
  • Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed (Contributing co-editor with Renate Klein) Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 1996
  • Gendered Fields: Women, Men and Ethnography (Contributing co-editor with Pat Caplan and Wazir Karim) Routledge, London, 1993
  • This is My Story: The Use of Oral Sources (Contributing co-editor Shelley Schreiner) Centre for Australian Studies, Deakin University, Geelong, 1990
  • Longman's Encyclopedia (Australian Contributing Editor) Longmans, 1989
  • Religion in Aboriginal Australia (Contributing co-editor with Max Charlesworth, Kenneth Maddock and Howard Morphy) University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1984


External links

Further reading

  • Bell, Diane. (2001). The word of a woman: Ngarrindjeri stories and a bridge to Hindmarsh Island. In Peggy Brock (Ed.), Words and Silences: Aboriginal Women, politics and land (pp. 117–138). Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
  • Bell, Diane. (2007). For Aborigines? Rights and Reality. In Neil Gillespie (Ed.) Reflections: 40 years on from the 1967 Referendum (pp. 97–107). Adelaide: Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement.
  • Brodie, Veronica. (2007). My Side of the Bridge: The life story of Veronica Brodie as told to Mary-Anne Gale. Kent Town: Wakefield Press.
  • Brunton, Ron. (1999) Hindmarsh Island and the hoaxing of Australian anthropology. Quadrant, May, pp. 11–17.
  • Clarke, Philip. (1996). Response to “Secret Women’s Business: The Hindmarsh Island affair.” Journal of Australian Studies, 50/51, pp. 141–149.
  • Fergie, Deane. (1994). To all the mothers that were, to all the mothers that are, to all the mothers that will be: An anthropological assessment of the threat of injury and desecration to Aboriginal tradition by the proposed Hindmarsh Island Bridge construction. A Report to the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement Inc. in relation to section 10 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.
  • Fergie, Deane. (1996) Secret envelopes and inferential tautologies. Journal of Australian Studies, 48, pp. 13–24.
  • Hemming, Steven J. (1996). Inventing Ethnography. In Richard Nile and Lyndall Ryan (Eds.), Secret Women's Business: The Hindmarsh Affair, Journal of Australian Studies, 48, pp. 25–39. St Lucia, UQP.
  • Hemming, Steven J.. (1997). Not the slightest shred of evidence: A reply to Philip Clarke’s response to “Secret Women’s Business.” Journal of Australian Studies, 5 (3) pp. 130–145.
  • Kartinyeri, Doreen. (2009). Doreen Kartinyeri: My Ngarrindjeri Calling. Aboriginal Studies Press.
  • Kenny, Chris. (1996). Women’s Business. Potts Point, NSW: Duffy and Snellgrove.
  • Mathews, Jane. (1996). Commonwealth Hindmarsh Island Report pursuant to section 10 (4) of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984. Canberra: Australian Government Printer.
  • Mattingley, Christobel and Ken Hampton. (Eds.) (1988). Survival in our own Land: Aboriginal experiences in South Australia since 1836, told by Nungas and others. Adelaide: Wakefield Press.
  • Mead, Greg. (1995). A Royal Omission. South Australia: The Author.
  • Rankine, Annie. (1969). Old ways and new. Ms No. 1439, recorder unknown, 11/3/1969. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
  • Saunders, Cheryl. (1994). Report to the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs on the significant Aboriginal area in the vicinity of Goolwa and Hindmarsh (Kumarangk) Island. Adelaide: South Australian Government Printer.
  • Simons, Margaret. (2003). The Meeting of the Waters: The Hindmarsh Island Affair. Sydney: Hodder.
  • Stevens, Iris. (1995). Report of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission. Adelaide: South Australian Government Printer.
  • Taplin, George. (1859–79). Journal: Five volumes as typed from the original by Mrs. Beaumount. Adelaide: Mortlock Library.
  • Tindale, Norman B. (1931-4). Journal of Researches in the South East of South Australia, 1. Adelaide: Anthropology Archives. South Australian Museum.
  • Tindale, Norman B. and Clarence Long. (nd). The World of Milerum. Stage A, volumes 1-10. Adelaide: Anthropology Archive: South Australia.
  • von Doussa, John (2001). Reasons for Decision. Thomas Lincoln Chapman and Ors v Luminis Pty Ltd, 088 127 085 and ors, Federal Court of Australian, No. SG 33 OF 1997.

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