Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 22, 2020

Lowitja, the authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue (2020), by Stuart Rintoul

It was Bismarck who said that ‘politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best’.  Well, the two women I most admire in Australian politics are exponents of that art: Penny Wong, who, as I read in Margaret Simons’ recent biography Penny Wong, Passion and Principlesays that you can’t achieve change unless you’re ‘in the room’, even if that means that sometimes you have to settle for less;  and Lowitja O’Donoghue, whose steely determination to represent Indigenous people changed Australia for the better, even though there is still much more to be done.

Stuart Rintoul’s biography traces the story of this remarkable woman’s life, tracked alongside significant events in Australia’s Black History, rendering the biography also a refresher course for those who lived through these events and an education for younger readers who did not.  The book begins in 1979 with the desert burial of Lowitja’s mother Lily, who was Anangu, a Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara woman.  Lowitja barely knew her, because in 1934 at the age of two, she and her sisters and brother were taken to a mission at Oodnadatta by her white father Tom O’Donoghue, who subsequently left the area and married a white woman. Rintoul spends 29 pages on this man, but fails to shed light on what kind of father could do such a thing.  Ultimately, he seems wholly irrelevant. Lowitja has no memory of him at all.

So Lowitja grew up separated from her family, her culture and her language, and when she was finally reunited with her mother thirty years later, they could not communicate.

They stood mute in front of each other, not able to speak the same language, Lowitja’s mind full of questions that would never be asked because she could see the pain sweep across her mother’s face, and decided there and then to cause her no more suffering. (p.4)

By the time they met, in an awkward reunion where the gulf was wide, Lowitja had become a fully qualified and respected nurse and an activist.  At sixteen, she had left the loveless Colebrook Home, not allowed to continue her education but dispatched instead to domestic service as a nanny to the Swincer family.  However, it was when she was attending church that there was a life-changing moment:

Lowitja’s potential became a topic of conversation between Joyce Swincer, a nurse before she married, and Alice Tuck, who says to Lowitja one day after church, ‘You want to be a nurse, I hear.’

‘Yes, I do,’ Lowitja replies.

‘You can start now,’ Tuck says, and changes the course of her life.’ (p.85)

It wasn’t that simple of course, and there were hurdles to overcome.  When she went to withdraw her wages held in trust at the United Aborigines Mission office, where she had £40 to buy new black shoes and stockings, she was told she couldn’t have it.  She had to wait until she was 21, they said, and in the meantime a preacher would escort her to the shops to buy what she needed.  At sixteen she stood on her dignity and refused to submit to that.

She turns on her heels and never goes back.  She buys what she can afford from the money that has been paid to her, borrows a uniform, and then buys more as she can afford it: ‘Every day, I’d be in the laundry washing what I had on, so that I’d have something for my next shift.  I’d be in the laundry and borrowing clothes, until I was paid enough to eventually have my own uniforms.” (p.87)

Lowitja’s qualities of steely determination and integrity were needed time and again.  Sometimes, patients refused to let her nurse them.  She didn’t make an issue of it, but used it to become so good at her job that she was beyond criticism, as the references that Rintoul quotes attest.

From the beginning, she is driven by the conviction that as an Aboriginal woman, ‘I needed to be better than the others to be seen as equal.’ (p.88)

In training at the South Coast District Hospital, she earns the nickname ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ because the mission had taught her that dancing and drinking were sinful.  Still, despite her reputation as a hard-working, dedicated and skilful nurse, the Royal Adelaide Hospital refused to let her complete her final two years at a major teaching hospital to become fully qualified. The matron Kathleen Scrymgour, was a trailblazer for women in the nursing profession, but that didn’t extend to Lowitja and she was told to go to Alice Springs and nurse [your[ own people.  Lowitja had never been to Alice Springs and she didn’t know the Indigenous people of that area at all.  This racism, however, was the catalyst for her to join the Aborigines Advancement League, which provided the forum for this and other injustices to be made public in the Adelaide News, and Matron Scrymgour relented.  At 22, Lowitja became the first Aboriginal person to nurse at the Royal Adelaide.

The story of her rise and rise to become the chair of ATSIC with a budget of $1 billion, to be ‘in the room’ with Paul Keating and the Cabinet to negotiate native title laws in the wake of the Mabo decision, and to be honoured with awards such as Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Australian of the Year, National Living Treasure, and Companion of the Order of Australia, is astonishing.  The biography conveys little of her emotional life and does not harp on her personal pain, but it’s there between the lines.  At Colebrook she took care of a baby called Doris, but decided that she herself would never have children.  And there is a world of pain in these words Rintoul quotes from a Film Australia interview in the 1990s:

Sometimes the missionaries allow church families to take Colebrook children into their homes for the school holidays.  When they show affection, Lowitja pushes them away: ‘They wanted to hug and kiss you and tuck you in bed and kiss you goodnight and that sort of stuff,’ she will recall.  ‘I just didn’t like it at all.  Shied away from it and didn’t really want any part of that.’ (p.75)

What shines through this biography is Rintoul’s admiration for an indomitable woman whose story is an inspiration to all Australians.  She was attacked from all sides, including by her own constituency, but she never wavered.  That girl who wouldn’t be patronised over her right to access her own money, steered her way through the corridors of power as an adult, all the way to forums in the United Nations.  Though she saw some of what had been achieved sabotaged by John Howard as Prime Minister, her legacy is profound.  The Lowitja Institute is a classic example of her approach: it’s a research organisation built on the priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and you can donate to it here.

My favourite photos from the collection in the middle of the book show the jubilation when the 1993 Native Title Act passed the Senate, and the moment on the occasion of the 2008 national apology to the Stolen Generations when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took Lowitja’s hands in his and said,’ A long time coming, Lowitja.  Sorry us whitefellas are so slow.  But we finally got there.’ This moving photo is credited to Gary Ramage from Newspix so I can’t share it here, but you can see it (of all places) at the China Daily.

Highly recommended.

Author: Stuart Rintoul
Title: Lowitja, the authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760875602, hbk., 380 pages including Acknowledgements, Notes and an Index.
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin. RRP $45.00

Available from September 29th.  Pre-order at Fishpond: Lowitja: The Authorised Biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue and your local indie bookshop.


  1. Right! This is going straight to my TBR pile!! Sounds fascinating and – just as importantly – well -written. Lisa, do you have any views about who ‘should’ be writing biographies like this one? Should it have been written by an Indigenous writer? My view is that if a white man can write a great biography about an Indigenous woman, then great. Topped by the fact it was an approved biography, so clearly Ms O’Donoghue was onside. But is that why they’ve been so careful to call it an approved biography, I wonder?


    • LOL I discussed this authorship issue with The Spouse and said I wasn’t going to raise it in my review!
      I’ve read a number of biographies of Aboriginal heroes but though I’ve read many memoirs by Indigenous authors, the only bio of an Indigenous leader I can think of by an Indigenous author is Tracker by Alexis Wright.
      There may be cultural reasons for this. Based on what I read at which I’ve summarised in the 3rd paragraph, I can perhaps make a few guesses at what such restraints might be: a collaborative approach to authorship and decision-making; an unwillingness to interrogate lives of sadness and hardship; and maybe questions of identity (who is, who isn’t Indigenous? who is, who isn’t stolen?) I’d also hazard a guess that Aboriginal politics might play into this because, even without what’s explained in the book, I know that there are Indigenous leaders who were/are hostile to Lowitja.
      It will be interesting to see what reaction the book generates among Indigenous readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  3. What an amazing woman. I am always astounded at how people such as her overcome such adversity to thrive and change circumstances. Very bittersweet.


    • I agree. And the bio is very good at conveying that.


  4. Thank you: and straight onto my list it goes :-)


  5. Michelle and Lisa, my opinion is if she was happy with Rintoul as her biographer then good on her, but we’ll never know what he didn’t know to ask, nor as with any authorised biography, what matters O’Donohue kept quiet about. She sounds very much like a woman who got very little affection as a child and so had difficulty accepting it as an adult. Also, I’m not sure that Keating’s Native Title Act is all that good – the traditional owners get to use unalienated land, and to earn royalties from it, but they don’t own it. Tracker gives a very different view than the one here, and an Indigenous (and non-authorised) author might have teased that out.


    • It’s true that an authorised biography is always at risk of not venturing into No-Go areas, I remember thinking the same about the Margaret Olley bio that I read. The payoff for not knowing some of the things you want to know is that the biographer does hear, from the subject directly, rather than second-hand or just from documents.
      Alas, as this bio makes plain, there are multiple Indigenous PoVs on Native Title as on everything else, and that disunity has been a stumbling block in many issues.


  6. Good points Bill … As you know, I don’t have as strong feelings on this issue as you do, but in terms of a biography that you hope will provide some “truths” then (unconscious) cultural blindness could have a big impact on what we get. On the other hand, at least someone has told her story and we need more stories of Australia’s indigenous movers and shakers.


    • We certainly do. When there are so many terrific Indigenous writers, it is surprising that there aren’t more of them celebrating Indigenous heroes with biography.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Lowitja, the Authorised Biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue (2020) by Grant Rintoul […]


  8. […] Lowitja by Stuart Rintoul, see my review […]


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