Diane Bell

For the filmmaker, see Diane Bell (director).

Diane Robin (Di) Bell (born 11 June 1943) is a pioneering Australian feminist anthropologist, author and activist. She has a particular focus on the Aboriginal people of Australia, Indigenous land rights, human rights, Indigenous religions, violence against women, and on environmental issues. She is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the George Washington University in Washington, D. C., and Writer and Editor in Residence at Flinders University, South Australia. Bell was born in and grew up in Melbourne. In 2005, after 17 years in the United States, she returned to Australia and worked on a number of projects in South Australia. Bell lives and writes in Canberra.[1]

Her books include Daughters of the Dreaming (1983/93); Generations: Grandmothers, mothers, and daughters (1987); Law: The old and the new (1980); Religion in Aboriginal Australia (co-edited 1984); and Radically Speaking: Feminism reclaimed (co-edited 1996). Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A world that is, was, and will be (1998) won a NSW Premier’s Literary Award and was short listed for the Age Book of the Year Award, the Queensland Premier’s History Award and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medallion. Evil: A novel (2005) was made into a play and performed in DC and Adelaide. She also wrote Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan: Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking (2008).[2]

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

Bell trained as a primary teacher in the 1960s in Victoria, Australia. She 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.[3] Bell continued onto university and received her BA (Hons) in Anthropology at Monash University in 1975, and a Ph.D. from Australian National University (ANU) in 1981 which was based on field work with Aboriginal women in central Australia.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] Bell served on the Board of Trustees for Hampshire College for eight years.[8] 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.[9] 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 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.[10] 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. The book has been in continuous print since its first publication in 1983 and subsequent editions in 1993 and 2002 engage with the debates the work stimulated. 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 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".[11] It focused on ordinary people through the stories they had been told by and were passing onto their female kin.[12] 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 about 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 Kumarangk (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 continued to work with the Ngarrindjeri and from 2005-2012 lives on their traditional lands as she researched and wrote the Connection Report for their Native Title Claim.

Creative writing

Bell has also delved into the writing of fiction and plays. 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. Her play "Weaving and Whispers" was performed at the TarraWarra Museum of Arts Biennial in 2014. Her short story "Blenders" appeared in Island magazine 2010.


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.[13] Her campaign was called Vote4Di and was supported by a campaign website.[14] South Australian independent Senator Nick Xenophon gave support to Bell's campaign.[15][16] In a field of eleven candidates and the absence of a Labor candidate, Bell finished third on a 16.3 percent primary vote, behind the Greens on 21.4 (+10.4) percent and the Liberals on 41.3 (–9.8) percent. The seat became marginal for the Liberals on a 53.0 (–4.0) two-candidate vote.[17]

River advocate

Bell campaigned for fresh water flows for the River Murray, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert and the Coorong. In 2007, she was a co-founder of the 'StoptheWeir' website 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). She administered the "Hurry Save The Murray" website [18] and has been a frequent speaker and commentator on environmental matters on line, in the media and in preparing submissions and giving evidence to various environmental inquiries.


As author

As editor


  1. "Diane Bell- The Conversation". The Conversation. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  2. "The Conversation: Diane Bell". The Conversation. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  3. Diane, Bell. "The Songlines Conversations with Gregg Borschmann". www.abc.net.au. ABC Radio National. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  4. Diane, Bell. "The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia". www.womenaustralia.info. Australian Women's Archives Project 2014. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  5. "Professorial post.". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995). ACT: National Library of Australia. 20 June 1986. p. 9. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  6. Kuzniewsk, Anthony (1999). Thy Honored Name: A History of the College of the Holy Cross, 1843-1994. USA: The Catholic University of America Press. pp. 453, 465.
  7. Cox, Clara B. "Virginia Tech Hosts One Of Nation's 37 ACE Fellows". vetchworks.lib.vt.edu. Virginia Tech University. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  8. Diane, Bell. "Trustee Emeriti". Hampshire College. Hampshire College. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  9. Bell, Diane - Bright Sparcs Biographical entry
  10. Bowdler, Sarah (1984). "Review of Daughters of the Dreaming by D. Bell.". Australian Archaeology (19): 116–117. Retrieved 9 July 2016.
  11. from the back page blurb of the Penguin edition of Generations
  12. "Bicentenary books enshrine Australian women's arts.". The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995). ACT: National Library of Australia. 30 January 1988. p. 13. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  13. Anthropologist and author Diane Bell throws hat into Mayo ring: The Australian 12/8/2008
  14. Di Bell. "G'day, Di here". Retrieved 17 March 2016.
  15. Xenophon backs Bell for Mayo by-election: The Australian 21/8/2008
  16. Mayo candidates jockey for votes as saviours of the Murray: The Australian 25/8/2008
  17. AEC results: Mayo by-election 2008
  18. "Hurry Save The Murray". Retrieved 2 April 2015.

Further reading

External links

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