Diane Bell

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Diane Robin (Di) Bell (née Haig) OAM (born 11 June 1943) is an Australian feminist anthropologist, author and activist. She is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C, USA and Distinguished Honorary Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University, Canberra.[1][2] Her work focuses on the Aboriginal people of Australia, Indigenous land rights, human rights, Indigenous religions, violence against women, and on environmental issues.

Bell was born and grew up in Melbourne; has undertaken fieldwork in central and southeastern Australia and in North America; and held senior positions in higher education in Australia and the USA. In 2005, after 17 years in the United States, she returned to Australia, worked on a number of projects in South Australia and, since 2013, lives and writes in Canberra.[3]

Her books include Daughters of the Dreaming (1983/1993/2002); Generations: Grandmothers, mothers, and daughters (1987); Law: The old and the new (1980/1984); 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 (1998/2014) won a NSW Premier's Literary Award and was shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year Award, the Queensland Premier's History Book Award and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medallion. Evil: A novel (2005) was adapted to a play. In collaboration with Ngarrindjeri women, Bell edited Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan: Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking (2008).[4]

Bell was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for "service to literature" in the 2021 Queen's Birthday Honours.[5]

Work life as a teacher, researcher, consultant, writer and editor[edit]

Bell trained as a primary teacher at Frankston Teachers College (1960-1) and taught in a range of state schools in Victoria and NSW. After the birth of her children, Genevieve (1967) and Morgan (1969),[6][7] she completed high school through night classes at Box Hill High School, Victoria (1970-1), her BA (Hons) in Anthropology at Monash University (1975), and a Ph.D. from Australian National University (ANU) (1981).[7][8]

In 1981, Bell worked for the newly established Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority; set up her own anthropological consultancy in Canberra (1982-8); consulted for the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council, Aboriginal Legal Aid Services, the Australian Law Reform Commission, and the Aboriginal Land Commissioner. Her academic posts included Research Fellow at the ANU (1983-6), and then as the Chair of Australian Studies at Deakin University in Geelong where she was the first female professor on staff.[9]

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.[10] In 1999, she took up the position of Director of Women's Studies and Professor of Anthropology at the George Washington University (GWU),DC. 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.[11] Bell served on the Board of Trustees for Hampshire College for eight years.[12] On her retirement from GWU in 2005 she was awarded the title "Professor Emerita of Anthropology". On her return to Australia in 2005, 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). Currently she is Distinguished Honorary Professor of Anthropology in the College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU (2017).[13]

Bell is the author/editor of 10 books and numerous articles and book chapters dealing with religion, land rights, law reform, art, history and social change.[14] She has served on the editorial boards of several journals (Aboriginal History 1979–1988; Women's Studies International Forum 1990-2005) and was a contributing member of the Editorial Board for the Longmans Encyclopedia (1989) Macmillan, the 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).[15]

Anthropological work[edit]

Bell's first full-length anthropological monograph was Daughters of the Dreaming, which focused on the religious, spiritual and ceremonial lives of Aboriginal women in central Australia.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] The book, Generations: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters (with photos by Ponch Hawkes) traces ways in which significant objects in the lives of Australian women have been passed from generation to generation and explores how stories of the objects forge links with female kin.[19] 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.[20]

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, 1980/1984) 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 some 10 land claims for the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council and the then Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Mr Justice Toohey.

In the late 1990s, Bell was drawn into 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.[21] The gender restricted knowledge that underwrote their claim became known as 'secret women's business' and was contested in the media, courts and academy.[22] In 1996, a South Australian Royal Commission found that the women had deliberately fabricated their beliefs to thwart the development.[23] However, with one exception, 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.[24][25]

In 1997, in the Federal Court of Australia, the developers sought compensation for the losses incurred by the delays in the building of the bridge.[26] Mr. Justice von Doussa, heard from all parties to the dispute and, although the court had been informed that the case would not be a rerun of the Royal Commission, the matter of restricted women’s knowledge recurred such that ‘late in the trial the applicants amended their pleadings to specifically allege that the restricted women's knowledge, which they refer to as “women's business”, was not a genuine Ngarrindjeri tradition’.[27] In his ‘Reasons for Decision’ of August 2001, von Doussa noted 'the evidence received by the Court on this topic is significantly different to that which was before the Royal Commission. Upon the evidence before this Court I am not satisfied that the restricted women's knowledge was fabricated or that it was not part of genuine Aboriginal tradition'.[28] As to Ngarrindjeri key witness, Dr. Doreen Kartinyeri, he wrote, ‘I am not persuaded that I should reject Dr. Kartinyeri’s evidence and find that she has lied about the restricted women's business’.[29][30]

On 4 May 2009, ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, the site complex the Ngarrindjeri women had sought to protect through the courts, was registered by the State Government of South Australia.[31] On 6 July 2010, on behalf of the SA Government, Paul Caica, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, acknowledged von Doussa’s Decision that Ngarrindjeri knowledge was a genuine part of Aboriginal tradition and apologised for the great pain and hurt to the community.[32][33] Notwithstanding the von Doussa Decision, the SA Government apology and site registration, there remain commentators who hold to the opinion that the ‘usual suspects again have been promulgating the cultural fabrications of the island’.[34]

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.[35]

Bell's subsequent monograph, Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin (1998/2014), won the NSW Premier's Gleebook Award for cultural and literary criticism in 1999. 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. 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.[36][37] From 2005–2013, Bell lived on Ngarrindjeri lands as she researched and wrote the Connection Report for their Native Title Claim.[38]

Creative writing[edit]

Bell's first published novel, Evil, addresses secrets within the church and is set on the campus of a fictional American liberal arts college.[39] Adapted by Leslie Jacobson to a play, Evil was performed for the "From Page to Stage" season on new plays at the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., USA, 2006 and in Adelaide, 2008.[40][41] Bell's play "Weaving and Whispers" was performed at the TarraWarra Museum of Arts Biennial in 2014.[42]


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.[43] Her campaign was called Vote4Di and was supported by a campaign website.[44][45] South Australian independent Senator Nick Xenophon gave support to Bell's campaign.[46][47] 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.[48]

River advocate[edit]

Bell campaigned for fresh water flows for the River Murray, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert and the Coorong.[49] 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).[50] She administered the "Hurry Save The Murray" website[51][52]and has been a frequent speaker and commentator on environmental matters online, in the media and in preparing submissions and giving evidence to various environmental inquiries.[53]


As author[edit]

  • Evil: A novel Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 2005
  • Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A world that is, was, and will be Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 1998 (New edition 2014)
  • Generations: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters Melbourne, Penguin, 1987
  • Daughters of the Dreaming, First ed. Melbourne, McPheeGribble/Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1983 (Second ed. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press 1993; Third ed. Melbourne, Spinifex Press 2002)
  • Law: The Old and the New (with Pam Ditton) Aboriginal History, Canberra, 1980

As editor[edit]

  • 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

As reviewer[edit]

  • Miles Franklin and the Serbs still matter: a review essay, Honest History, 1 December 2015[54]
  • Sex, soldiers and the South Pacific, Honest History, 8 February 2016[55]
  • An anthropologist, an historian and his historians, Honest History, 26 October 2016[56]
  • Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom is a Big Book about Big Ideas, Honest History, 7 October 2018[57]
  • Read and savour the salt of Bruce Pascoe’s stories and essays of our land, Honest History, 1 November 2019[58]


  1. ^ "Diane Bell | Department of Anthropology | Columbian College of Arts & Sciences | The George Washington University". anthropology.columbian.gwu.edu. Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  2. ^ Director (Research Services Division). "Professor Diane Bell". researchers.anu.edu.au. Retrieved 27 January 2021.
  3. ^ "Diane Bell- The Conversation". The Conversation. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  4. ^ "The Conversation: Diane Bell". The Conversation. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  5. ^ "Emeritus Professor Diane Robin Bell". It's An Honour. Retrieved 13 June 2021.
  6. ^ McDuling, John (23 June 2017). "Genevieve Bell and the fight to remind tech that human beings matter". Australian Financial Review.
  7. ^ a b Diane, Bell. "The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia". www.womenaustralia.info. Australian Women's Archives Project 2014. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  8. ^ Diane, Bell. "The Songlines Conversations with Gregg Borschmann". www.abc.net.au. ABC Radio National. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  9. ^ "Professorial post". The Canberra Times. 20 June 1986. p. 9. Retrieved 1 January 2015 – via National Library of Australia.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Cox, Clara B. "Virginia Tech Hosts One Of Nation's 37 ACE Fellows". vtechworks.lib.vt.edu. Virginia Tech University. hdl:10919/20596. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  12. ^ Diane, Bell. "Trustee Emeriti". Hampshire College. Hampshire College. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  13. ^ "Professor Diane Bell - Researchers - ANU".
  14. ^ Centre, The University of Melbourne eScholarship Research. "Bell, Diane - Biographical entry - Encyclopedia of Australian Science". www.asap.unimelb.edu.au.
  15. ^ ""Taboo" Body Perfect (TV Episode 2003) - IMDb".
  16. ^ Bowdler, Sarah (1984). "Review of Daughters of the Dreaming by D. Bell". Australian Archaeology. 19: 116–117. doi:10.1080/03122417.1984.12092964.
  17. ^ Toohey, J (1979). Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, Land Claim by Alyawarra and Kaititja (PDF). Aboriginal Land Commissioner to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. pp. Paragraph 105.
  18. ^ Brown, Diane (2003). Publishing Culture: Commissioning Books in Australia, 1970-2000. PhD thesis, Victoria University. p. 54.
  19. ^ "Bicentenary books enshrine Australian women's arts". The Canberra Times. 30 January 1988. p. 13. Retrieved 1 January 2015.
  20. ^ "Best-Sellers Lists, Non-fiction". The Age. 4 June 1988.
  21. ^ "The Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair".
  22. ^ Langton, Marcia (1996). "The Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair: How aboriginal women's religion became an administerable affair". Australian Feminist Studies. 11 (24): 211–217. doi:10.1080/08164649.1996.9994819.
  23. ^ Stevens, Iris (1995). Report of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission. Adelaide: South Australian Government Printer.
  24. ^ Brodie, Veronica (2002). My side of the Bridge as told to Mary-Ann Gale. Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press.
  25. ^ Maddox, Marion (1998). "What is a 'fabrication'? The political status of religious belief". Australian Religious Studies Review. 11 (1).
  26. ^ Matter No. SG 33 of 1997. Thomas Lincoln Chapman, Wendy Jennifer Chapman and Binalong Pty Ltd (Receivers and Managers Appointed) (in liquidation) v Luminus Pty Ltd, Deane Joanne Fergie, Cheryl Anne Saunders, Robert Edward Tickner and Commonwealth of Australia. The applicants’ statement of claim alleges behaviour that was ‘misleading or deceptive or was likely to mislead or deceive’ (Trade Practices Act 1976).
  27. ^ 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; Paragraph 11.
  28. ^ 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; Paragraph 12.
  29. ^ 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; Paragraph 425. See also paragraphs 472 and 473 regarding the credibility of Dr. Doreen Kartinyeri as a witness and further paragraphs 572 and 473 regarding the veracity of her evidence.
  30. ^ 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; Paragraphs 198-200. ‘I consider that unless the applicants can establish that the restricted women’s knowledge was not part of genuine Aboriginal tradition within the meaning of the HPA, the claims based on the statutory prohibitions against misleading and deceptive conduct cannot succeed.’
  31. ^ South Australian Government (2009). Meeting of the Waters, Site Registration, No 6626-4727, Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988, signed 4/5/2009, Department of Premier and Cabinet.
  32. ^ Om, Jason (7 July 2010). "Symbolic Hindmarsh Bridge walk recognises Aboriginal struggle".
  33. ^ Diane, Bell (2014). Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin. Australia: Spinifex Press. pp. xxii contains a transcription of part of the comments of the Minister. ISBN 9781742199184.
  34. ^ Kenny, Chris (12 July 2014). "Aunty falls for an old furphy again". The Australian.
  35. ^ Bell, Diane (2001). "The word of a woman: Ngarrindjeri stories and a bridge to Hindmarsh Island". In Brock, Peggy (ed.). Words and Silences: Aboriginal women, politics and land. Allen and Unwin. pp. 117–138.
  36. ^ Bartlett, John (2008). "Book of the Week: Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan (Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking)" (PDF). Eureka Street. 18 (17).
  37. ^ Edwards, Fiona (2008). "Review: Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan (Listen to Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking)" (PDF). InCite. Vol 29, No. 9:19. |volume= has extra text (help)
  38. ^ Sumner v State of South Australia (Ngarrindjeri Native Title Claim Part A) [2017] FCA 1514, Consent Determination, 2017.
  39. ^ Cruickshank, Francis (2006). "Something is rotten" (PDF). Australian Women's Book Review. Vol.18.1: 9–10. |volume= has extra text (help)
  40. ^ Franklin, Jane (2019). "'Women's Work' a George Washington University". DC Metro Review.
  41. ^ Australian-American Fulbright Commission (2007). U.S. Fulbright Scholars (PDF). p. 5.
  42. ^ Bell, Diane. (2014). "Weaving and Whispers: Mimi wisdom, A One Act Play". In King, Natalie and Mundine, Djon (Co-curators) Whisper in my Mask. Victoria, Australia: TarraWarra Museum of Art. pp. 12-15 https://natalieking.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Whisper-in-My-Mask-TarraWarra-Biennial-2014.pdf
  43. ^ "Anthropologist and author Diane Bell throws hat into Mayo ring: The Australian 12/8/2008". news.com.au. Archived from the original on 17 September 2012.
  44. ^ Di Bell. "G'day, Di here". Archived from the original on 4 September 2008. Retrieved 17 March 2016.
  45. ^ Tregenza, Julian (2008). "Independent Runs for Mayo By-Election". The Wire.
  46. ^ "Xenophon backs Bell for Mayo by-election: The Australian 21/8/2008". news.com.au. Archived from the original on 22 August 2008. Retrieved 29 August 2008.
  47. ^ "Mayo candidates jockey for votes as saviours of the Murray: The Australian 25/8/2008". news.com.au. Archived from the original on 8 April 2009. Retrieved 29 August 2008.
  48. ^ "AEC results: Mayo by-election 2008". aec.gov.au. Archived from the original on 9 September 2008. Retrieved 7 September 2008.
  49. ^ Patterson, Brent (6 April 2009). "Maude Marlow visits the Lower Lakes in Australia". Le Consel Des Canadiens.
  50. ^ River, Lakes and Coorong Action Group. "Stop the weir [electronic resource]".
  51. ^ "Hurry Save The Murray". Archived from the original on 4 September 2012. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  52. ^ "Spinifex Press: Author Profile: Diane Bell".
  53. ^ "HurrySaveTheMurray".
  54. ^ "Bell, Diane: Miles Franklin and the Serbs still matter: a review essay | HONEST HISTORY". Retrieved 3 February 2021.
  55. ^ "Sex, soldiers and the South Pacific (review of Smaal) | HONEST HISTORY". Retrieved 3 February 2021.
  56. ^ "An anthropologist, an historian and his historians: Diane Bell on Tom Griffiths | HONEST HISTORY". Retrieved 3 February 2021.
  57. ^ "Bell, Diane: Clare Wright's You Daughters of Freedom is a Big Book about Big Ideas | HONEST HISTORY". Retrieved 3 February 2021.
  58. ^ "Bell, Diane: Read and savour the salt of Bruce Pascoe's stories and essays of our land | HONEST HISTORY". Retrieved 3 February 2021.

External links[edit]