Power, hedonism & the best years of our lives
The Kokoda Trail & the enemy within

The book that went missing for 50 years

Marie Reay
Marie Reay wrote the the first, book on women’s lives in the PNG Highlands. It was not discovered for 50 years (Noel Butlin)


Wives and Wanderers in a New Guinea Highlands Society by Marie Olive Reay. Francesca Merlan (ed). ANU Press 2014. 268 pages. ISBN 97819250212155 (paperback). Link here for free download

Marie Reay (1922-2004) was an Australian anthropologist, best known for work in the New Guinea Highlands. The manuscript for Wives and Wanderers was discovered in 2011, seven years after her death and 50 years after she had made her last amendments to it. Editor Francesca Merlan did a fine job in bringing it to publication and providing a valuable and stimulating Introduction. Some edited extracts follow - KJ

CANBERRA - Wives and Wanderers presents vivid, ethnographically based narrative of the lives of women of the Wahgi Valley in the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Marie Reay explores the experiences of courting, attraction, love, marriage, and the combination of male dominance and barely restrained female resentment and rebelliousness.

Her attention was focused on what she saw as a radical discontinuity in the socialisation of women in this part of New Guinea: a contrast between considerable freedom enjoyed by young women in the choice of male partners versus the sudden and dramatic deprivation of their freedom upon marriage.

She saw marriage as a traumatic, often violence-laden experience in their lives. Had it appeared earlier, Wives and Wanderers would have had a central place in the anthropological literature on Papua New Guinean societies, especially those of the Central Highlands.

And it would have been the foundational, indeed the first, book on women’s lives in that part of the world.

Map - North and South Wahgi Census Divisions showing tribal areas (John Burton)
Marie Reay's area of research - the north and south Wahgi census divisions showing tribal areas (John Burton)

We may ask why the work did not appear in Reay’s lifetime? Reay was otherwise a fairly steady author; and she had worked on this manuscript for a long time.

Some of the ethnography upon which it is based goes back to Reay’s first fieldwork in the New Guinea Highlands in the early 1950s.

Why, then, did she not publish it? What considerations, perhaps hesitations, may have kept her from doing so? This Introduction offers some suggestions.

Though it lay unpublished so long, Wives and Wanderers remains amazingly contemporary.

Through publication now, it may yet find a place in the anthropological literatures of Highlands Papua New Guinea, and of feminism.

We anthropologists at The Australian National University were to hold a conference, ‘Anthropology’s futures: looking forward from 60 Years of Anthropology at The Australian National University’, in September 2011.

A couple of months before that, I was rummaging through many boxes of the papers and effects of Marie Reay in the basement of the Menzies Library at the university.

When I began to search through them, it became obvious to me that the collection contained previously unknown manuscripts and required work beyond ordinary archiving to assemble them. The rummaging turned out to be unexpectedly productive.

The many boxes of material from her long-term fieldwork in Papua New Guinea spanned a period from 1953 into the 1980s. During these years Reay made numerous field trips to the Wahgi Valley.

She was there so often that a contemporary and colleague, Jeremy Beckett, playfully called her ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Fieldwork’.

The present manuscript, unknown at her death, now appears to have been the first full monograph on women’s life in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.

Reay had been unusual in having shifted to fieldwork in Papua New Guinea from fieldwork with south-eastern Australian Aboriginal groups.

Kariim lek
Kariim lek,  1959 (Reay)

Crucially, during the period of increasing anthropological research in New Guinea from the 1950s when Reay began her work, Australia made its presence as colonial power felt in many parts of the country, and in the Highlands at least, was met with considerable enthusiasm.

A certain colonial privilege was assumed and enjoyed by most of these ethnographers, men and women. Some, such as Peter Lawrence, would tell anecdotes about the period, evoking a picture of the anthropologist’s privilege in summoning ‘natives’ to interview on the verandah and visiting the Australian plantocracy.

Reay, too, enjoyed some of these privileges. It is clear she had good access to the District Officer; that she had use of a car and driver; and that she had young male assistants who did her housekeeping and some gathered daily news, reported on court cases and other activities, and translated for her and helped her to transcribe.

However, this does not mean that female researchers were treated without prejudice Michael Young has noted that the Wahgi ‘god-administrator’ disapproved of female anthropologists, especially those who broke the ‘White Women’s Protection Law by wearing shorts’—which Reay did.

“Modified Bombay Bloomers,” Reay called them: capacious khaki shorts which she wrote “looked terrible” and would certainly “discourage any sexual passion that happened to be present”.

Like female anthropologists elsewhere, Reay was treated by New Guineans as an honorary male in that she was regularly present at otherwise gender-restricted ceremonies and events.

Tanim het  1959 (Reay)
Tanim het, 1959 (Reay)

Reay used to refer to her time in Papua New Guinea as ‘meadow work’, making a humorous contrast with the more ordinary anthropologist’s ‘fieldwork’. She obviously enjoyed her time there.

In contrast to her absorption in fieldwork, Reay’s academic situations, and especially her appointment at The Australian National University, tried her, particularly in latter years.

Anthropologist Michael Young remarked that Reay observed a succession of male departmental chairs and different styles of academic leadership.

“As a graduate student she had been exploited by Elkin, bullied by Nadel, and patronised by Stanner, so she took a dim view of god-professors in general, and tended to remain aloof from departmental politics,” he wrote.

From personal acquaintance with Marie when I was at The Australian National University in 1981 as a visiting junior academic, and from conversations in the late 1990s, when I and my family visited her in her home on the central coast of New South Wales, I can attest that, at least for some of her working years, she felt persecuted under particular departmental chairmanship.

She said she was closely monitored by professor and departmental head Derek Freeman, who often gave her up to 10 directives and notes a day about her duties, and (at some point) denied her the right of supervising postgraduate students (though she clearly did supervise a number of students).

She also, perhaps in conjunction with this, had some periods of mental instability and recurrent depression in later years. Reay remained bitter about the treatment meted out to her to the end of her life.

Probably not often mentioned outright, but certainly well known, was the fact that Marie was lesbian. She lived at some distance, with a female companion, in a small town about 30 kilometres from Canberra, rather secluded from most university contacts.

However, in some ways she was flamboyant rather than reclusive. For a period of time she drove a little, bright red sports car. And she was socially active in many ways outside the university.

In her declining years she lived with her sister on the NSW coast north of Sydney, hoping (she remarked sardonically) to outlive certain academics who had made her life difficult in Canberra.

Was Reay a feminist in the sense of having a particular interest in women’s lives, or liberation?

Through all her Wahgi ethnographic work, her focus on women’s lives, and the inequalities they lived with shaped a good part of what she did.

This was not through prior decision or commitment on her part; in fact, the reality of women’s lives, and their work, seems not to have appealed to her, nor to have particularly evoked her sympathy or personal interest: she regarded it as tedious.

She evidently found much more interesting the conduct of court cases and politics, including developing electoral politics in Papua New Guinea. She was personally in sympathy with some individuals, following their ups and downs closely, and offering them help and rewards as seemed right to her.

She recorded unflinchingly the considerable amount of violence through which women were kept in line in Kuma society.

This connected with a strong feeling she had concerning personal freedom, her view of women’s fate as denial of freedom to them, and her view of Wahgi society as riven by powerful tensions.

In concluding her book Reay suggests that should women be treated more fairly and equally, and be enabled to have more control over their own lives

While much change has occurred in the meantime, it is difficult to say that the social order has become radically altered or unrecognisable. Nor have women become ‘free’ in the way Reay considered desirable.

It is speculative, but Reay may have shared some sense of oppression with them, especially in light of persecution she suffered in her academic situation, but perhaps also more generally.

Such sensibilities as these, however, did not make of her an easy personality.

She had high academic standards. She was evidently an acute observer and admirable ethnographer, and left behind copious valuable field materials. An excellent and exacting writer herself, she could be an acerbic critic of other people’s expression.

She could be intimidating and abrasive to students and junior colleagues, though moderating her sharpness with sly, dry humour. She could also be kind and generously attentive to students.

Many academics such as myself, who shared a corridor and many interests with her, found her at the best of times to be a sharp, receptive though sometimes slightly testy interlocutor and critic.

If her not publishing this book in her lifetime was an exercise of the same critical sense against herself, I think that was unfortunate.

The book is hereby available and readers can judge for themselves its place in feminist, anthropological, and specifically Melanesianist literatures.

Marie Reay (bottom right) and ANU colleaguesMarie Reay with colleagues from The Australian National University, 1955.

Top row left to right - Dr Peter Lawrence (Research Fellow), Mr CA Valentine (Fulbright Scholar), Dr Derek Freeman (Senior Fellow), Dr Adrian Mayer (Research Fellow), Mr Ron Penny (Research Fellow), Dr Walter Svoboda (Scholar);

Bottom row left to right - Miss Helen Woodger (Secretary), Dr WEH Stanner (Reader), Mrs Fancy Lawrence (Departmental Assistant), Professor Fred Nadel (Head of Department), Miss Marie Reay (Scholar)


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Wahgi is also the standard in the Encyclopaedia of Papua New Guinea.

Phonetically it is also the correct spelling. 'Waah-gee' instead of 'Wag-hee'.

The publishers have noted the mistake and are now fixing it. Here's the note they sent to me:

Hello Philip,

We wanted to thank you again for identifying the error below. As a result of your email, we have decided to publish a new edition of this title, and will be happy to forward you a copy when it is available.

Kind regards,

Helen Glazebrook
Administrative Assistant
ANU Press
RG Menzies Building (#2)
The Australian National University
Acton ACT 2601

John Offer

Maybe Mr Fitzpatrick should drop by the football ground at Minj and tell Waghi Tumbe the rugby league team that they've got their name wrong.

I see both spellings widely used now with Waghi more common in the Wahgi valley itself. I'm not sure there is now a standard orthography.

A standard orthography there seems to be not. Neither form fails to make the major dictionaries. Quickly checked were Oxford, Cambridge, Macmillan, Collins, Merriam-Webster, Free or Britannica.

Three dictionaries have a bet each way - Living, Names and Tok Pisin-English.

I couldn't find any authoritative source that used the 'Waghi' spelling.

'Wahgi' has been standardised by Wikipedia, Talking Dictionary, Summer Institute of Linguistics, PNG Association of Australia and it's also the PNG Attitude standard - KJ

Philip Kai Morre

Reay's book is amongst the best anthropological and ethnographic information to learn from. Most of our traditions have died out including karim leg courtship.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Just an interesting aside.

In the title pages of the book 'Wahgi' is misspelled as 'Waghi'.

Bit slipshod for the ANU?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Marie may have endured the disapproval of the Wahgi ‘god-administrator’ (presumably Tom Ellis) but she got on wonderfully with the lesser kiaps in his domain.

I met her at kiap Barry Taverner's house in Minj in 1968 where she had come for dinner and then later in Hagen and Tambul. Inviting her to dinner was an excuse for tapping into her vast knowledge of the highlands.

I can't say I ever saw her in Bombay Bloomers however.

I've downloaded the PDF and ordered a paperback and encourage others to do so. It will be an interesting read.

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