Review of ‘First in their field: Women and Australian anthropology’ edited by Julie Marcus

09th January 2014

‘First in their field: Women and Australian anthropology’ edited by Julie Marcus, 1993, Melbourne: University Press, 189 pp. ISBN 0-522-84466-9 (pbk)

Review by Claire Smith

This volume is a fascinating collection of essays focussing on the pioneering work of early women anthropologists in Australia. As Marcus comments in the Preface, not all of the women who are the subjects of these essays have been recognised as anthropologists as such (indeed, part of the impetus for the volume, I would think), though each has provided a unique contribution to anthropological knowledge and to public understandings of Aboriginal life. The book is the result of a small conference held at Glenelg, Adelaide in 1990, entitled ‘When the Voice of the Turtle shall be heard in the Land … Women and Anthropology in Australia’, and a workshop held at the Academy of the Humanities, Canberra in 1991. Each essay is written by a feminist scholar of established stature.

The volume opens with an overview article by Marie de Lepervanche which discusses how issues of gender and race have contributed to a lack of recognition of women’s contributions to anthropology. She provides an interesting discussion of Rabinow’s (1985:12) observation that: ‘It is impolite in many places to talk about institutional racism, sexism, and even colonialism and anthropology. Who enforces these civilities and why?’

De Lepervanche comments (p.11): ‘True, anthropology has prided itself on being a pioneer in gender studies, but it has been curiously silent on the racist and sexist implications of anthropological knowledge.’

This volume takes an important step towards redressing this silence.

The first biographical paper is Isabel McBryde’s inquiry into the influences that shaped the life and values of Mary Ellen Murray-Prior, whose meticulously documented ethnographic collections of material from northeast New South Wales are held in the Australian Museum, Sydney, and the Rijkmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Lieden. Taken together, these collections comprise over half the known examples of Aboriginal material culture from the Richmond River district in major museums. McBryde interprets Murray-Prior’s painstaking scientific recording and collection as ‘an inheritance of concern’, which faced the responsibilities of being dispossessors. One implication is that perhaps there was also a need to create sense and order from the non-sense and chaos of dispossession.

Isobel White’s article on Daisy Bates considers the case for and against the claim that Bates should be counted as an anthropologist. White decides in favour, largely on the basis of Bates’ genuine contribution to anthropological knowledge and her innovative field methods, which included participant observation and sitting on the ground to conduct discussions with Aboriginal people. White points out that Bates’ approach was indeed novel at a time when most of her contemporaries sought their information from the comfort of station homesteads, mission houses and so forth.

Miranda Morris’ discussion of the work of Jane Ada Fletcher, author of children’s books, including the popular ‘Little Brown Piccaninnies of Tasmania’ highlights the manner in which these works were situated in the general values of the time. For instance, Fletcher unquestioningly accepted the ‘fact’ that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were extinct and relied upon the use of euphemism – distasteful in a modem world – to minimise and distance violence, as when she described the murder of any Aboriginal person as ‘a black smudge in the sand’.

Anne O’Gorman’s article on Ursula McConnel highlights both the eclectic nature of McConnel’s academic work and the internal consistencies in her research interests. O’Gorman notes that, despite devoting over twenty years of her life to ethnographic research, McConnel was never successful in her applications for an academic position. O’Gorman’s inquiry into the process by which talented and committed individuals, such as McConnel, are rendered ‘invisible’ or excluded from historical discourse is particularly insightful.

Julie Marcus delves into the values and actions of Olive Pink. Pink was feisty, provocative, an advocate for Aboriginal rights … and a woman in many respects well before her time. One of her many battles involved an altercation with Charles Mountford over the dissemination of secret/sacred material. With Pink’s assistance, Mountford had made a film of an Aboriginal ceremony and ground painting at the Granites. Pink believed, rightly or wrongly, that an under- taking had been given to the Aboriginal people involved that the film would be used only as a scientific record and she confronted Mountford and his colleagues when she discovered that it had been shown in American and British universities.

Perhaps the most fascinating article of all is Christine Cheater’s detailing of the career of Phyllis Kaberry, undoubtedly one of the most insightful and sensitive field workers to ‘work’ with Australian Aboriginal people. Among Kaberry’s enduring research concerns were the need to show that the study of women was of value in itself, not simply as an adjunct to the dominant male culture, and that an anthropology of women should involve the detailed study of social and cultural institutions. The same arguments are being put forward by feminist writers today.

The volume finishes with two letters from Kaberry in the field to Professor A.P. Elkin, and provide some insight into both Kaberry’s approach to fieldwork and her relationship with her mentor.

So, what does this diverse group of anthropological pioneers have in common? Their backgrounds are eclectic in terms of class, research interests and personal lifeways. Some were academics, fully trained in the methods and theories of the day, while others had a pastoral or farming background which, of course, facilitated their recording of local Aboriginal societies. The common factors are, I think, marital status and, unquestionably, a certain independence of spirit. Four of the six were never married. One, Mary Ellen Murray- Prior, was married once but almost immediately widowed while another, Daisy Bates, was married twice and the mother of only one child. Clearly, a fundamental criterion for con-ducting the pioneering work of these women was freedom from the responsibilities of a young family (though some, such as Mary Ellen Murray-Prior, had to deal with the responsibilities of an aging family). One can only be grateful that this is not true for female fieldworkers or female success in academia today … or is it?

Marcus is to be congratulated for conceptualising and executing the production of a fine collection of essays. Unfortunately, her editing is not perfect and some simple and obvious mistakes have passed undetected. For example, references in O’Gorman’s article to Robinson 1957 and Berndt 1950 are not to be found in the bibliography. However, the book is visually attractive, with numerous well-selected, though occasionally fuzzy, plates. Its relatively small size makes for easy handling and portability.

Perhaps the ultimate importance of this volume will be through facilitating incorporation of the work of early female anthropologists into contemporary anthropological and archaeological research and teaching programmes. This will provide a much needed broadening and deepening of such programmes. Hopefully, First in Their Field will be an initial enriching and stimulating stop for those scholars who wish to obtain a more rounded and insightful understanding of social relations in both past and present societies.


Rabinow, P. 1985 Discourse and power: On the limits of ethno-graphic texts. Dialectical Anthropology 10(1/2):1-13.

Smith, C.
Review of 'First in their field: Women and Australian anthropology’ edited by Julie Marcus
December 1996
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