Woman Kaberry, Phyllis (1910 - 1977)

United States of America
September 1977

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Phyllis Kaberry, who was born in the United States in 1910, was the first Australian woman to be recognised as a fully trained and qualified anthropologist. She achieved several other 'firsts' along the way: she was the first female Australian anthropologist to complete doctoral work, which she did at the London School of Economics in 1938, and the first who took a particularly woman-focused approach to her field work and theories.

Kaberry had moved with her family to Sydney at the age of ten. After finishing secondary school, she completed a BA at the University of Sydney, followed by an MA in anthropology through research that focused on New Guinea. She studied under A.P. Elkin, Chair of Anthropology at Sydney, who encouraged her interest in the women of the cultures she investigated. He believed 'female anthropologists were able to give a unique and beneficial perspective of women in various societies'. After completing her MA, Kaberry spent three years studying Aboriginal society in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, funded by an ANRC grant, before travelling to the United Kingdom to undertake her PhD. Her doctoral research focused on kinship, religion, and the economic and social organisation of Aboriginal women, as well as the influence of European contact on traditional culture. At the LSE, she worked closely with Bronislaw Malinowski. The Kimberley fieldwork and her doctoral studies formed the basis for her first book, Aboriginal Woman: Sacred and Profane. Published in 1939, this was the first major anthropological study of Aboriginal women and their roles in sacred ritual, and it influenced many studies of Aboriginal women that would follow.

Her next foray into fieldwork in New Guinea was cut short when events of World War II forced her to return to Sydney, where she was employed as an honorary assistant lecturer. After the war, she won fellowships to Yale, edited The Dynamics of Culture Change (1945), a posthumous collection of Malinowski's unpublished papers and held a research assistant position at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, before embarking on the work that was to occupy her for the rest of her life. She was invited by the Colonial Social Science Research Council to investigate the cause of malnutrition in the British Cameroons, and over the next twenty years would spend a great deal of time in West Africa. The results of her research were published in Women of the Grassfields (1952), a systematic study of gender relations which became a classic text. It was particularly significant after the decolonisation of Africa post World War II and has been revisited by recent anthropological work on development. In January 1949 Kaberry had joined the staff of University College, London, and was reader in anthropology from 1950 until her retirement in September 1977. She died later that year.

Published Resources


  • Kaberry, Phyllis, Aboriginal woman: sacred and profane, Routledge &‚Äč Kegan Paul, London, England, 1939. Details
  • Kaberry, Phyllis, Women of the grass fields : a study of the economic position of women in Bamenda, British Cameroons, HM Stationers Office, London, England, 1952. Details
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw, The Dynamics of Culture Change: An Inquiry into Race Relations in Africa, Kaberry, Phyllis (ed), Oxford University Press, London, England, 1945. Details
  • Toussaint, Sandy, Phyllis Kaberry and Me: Anthropology, History and Aboriginal Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1999. Details

Edited Books

  • Ardener, Shirley (ed.), Persons and Powers of Women in Diverse Cultures: essays in commemoration of Audrey I. Richards, Phyllis Kaberry, and Barbara E. Ward, Berg, New York, United States of America, 1992. Details
  • Marcus, Julie (ed.), First in their Field: Women and Australian Anthropology, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1993. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources

See also