Woman White, Isobel Mary (1912 - 1997)

Anthropologist and Economist
Alternative Names
  • White, Sally (Known as)

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Isobel White, known to her friends as Sally, was born in England in 1912. Her father was a headmaster, and the family lived first at Harrow and then in Birmingham. When she left school, where she had done brilliantly at maths, she read economics at Cambridge under Maynard Keynes. She completed the course in 1933, but, as a woman, was not awarded a degree. When she had completed her studies, she received a scholarship to travel to Canada to research the lives and conditions of migrants and outworkers. After returning to the United Kingdom she worked in a variety of government and private positions, while developing her political activism through membership of the Fabian Society.

In 1938 she married a scientist, Michael White, and by the end of World War II they had two sons. After the war the family followed Michael's career through appointments in the United States until the early 1950s, when Michael took up the position of Head of Zoology at the University of Melbourne. Here, Isobel continued to pursue an academic interest in anthropology that had begun in the United States, where she had found the discipline well suited to her interests in social issues and roles.

In Melbourne, White worked with the Melbourne Museum and became involved in the Victorian Anthropology Society, then in 1964 joined the Anthropology Department at the new Monash University, Melbourne, where she taught and inspired a generation of young anthropology students. Her own field work with Tiwi, as well as with Andagarinja, Jangkundjara and Pidjanjara women, looked at the exclusion of women from male rites examined in the light of reported ignorance of physiological paternity; role of women in physical procreation and birth, role of men in spiritual rebirth at initiation; acceptance of junior status by women and reinforcement of male superiority by men. During the 1970s, White conducted anthropological fieldwork at Yalata Lutheran Mission. She also undertook the major task of sorting and editing the massive collection of notes collected by Daisy Bates while researching her proposed book in the early twentieth century. This she did with meticulous historical and anthropological research and the book was published in 1988 as Daisy Bates, The Native Tribes of Western Australia, ed. Isobel White.

White took an ethnohistorical approach to her work, combining history and anthropology. During the 1980s, White was a member of the editorial board and for many years review editor of Aboriginal History, and she co-edited the volumes of this journal that honoured her colleague Diane Barwick. When she retired from Monash University, White became a visiting fellow in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. She died in 1997.

Published Resources


  • Bourke, Colin; Johnson, Colon; and White, Isobel, Before the Invasion, Aboriginal Life to 1788, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1980. Details

Book Sections

  • White, Isobel, 'Daisy Bates: Legend and Reality', in Marcus, Julie (ed.), First in their Field: Women and Australian Anthropology, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1993. Details

Edited Books

  • White, Isobel (ed.), The Native Tribes of Western Australia, Bates, Daisy, National Library of Australia (NLA), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1988. Details
  • White, Isobel; Barwick, Diane; and Meehan, Betty (eds), Fighters and Singers: The Lives of Some Aboriginal Women, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1985. Details

Journal Articles

  • Brady, Maggie, 'Preface', Aboriginal History: Sally White Commenorative Volume, vol. 23, 1999. Details
  • McBryde, Isabel, 'A Tribute to Isobel Mary White', Aboriginal History, vol. 21, 1997, pp. ix - xi. Details
  • White, Isobel, 'Mrs Bates and Mr Brown: An Examination of Rodney Needham's Allegations', Oceania, vol. 51, no. 3, March 1981, pp. 193 - 210. Details

See also