Jane Tolerton holding a photo of the NZ Volunteer Sisterhood before the first group left Wellington for Egypt in October 1915. Hatless in the middle is Ettie Rout, the one woman associated with NZ in WWI whose name is well known. Photo: Bev Short
The cover of the 1979 reprint of Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand by Patricia Sargison has a drawing of women marching in the streets, carrying ‘Votes for Women’ placards.
What’s wrong with that drawing?
Nothing, if you are talking about London 20 years after we got the vote. But New Zealand women did not march in the streets to lobby for the vote, or chain themselves to railings, as is commonly said.
The cover is an example of the way New Zealand borrows British suffrage imagery when portraying our suffrage movement. Another example was the first image in a documentary on the New Zealand Herald website for Suffrage Day 2017 – a woman wearing a hobble skirt being arrested by two policemen: London bobbies!
The hobble skirt, tight at the ankles, is the shape worn by the figure on the pedestrian crossing lights near Parliament that is a nod to Kate Sheppard, who ran the Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaign. But she did not wear hobble skirts while doing so – 20 years before the style became popular.
Why do we want to represent our suffragists of the 1890s as 1910s British suffragettes? Because they’re more dangerous, edgy and exciting?
In fact, New Zealand has a better story to tell than the British one that includes the suffragettes. In our story, women organise and sign petitions, hold meetings, write cogent arguments, persuade politicians – and are first in the world to get the vote. New Zealand men feature as being open-minded enough to listen to such arguments and be convinced by them. In fact, a number of prominent men, including three prime ministers, were convinced before most women were.
The suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Britain used the motto ‘Deeds not Words’. A New Zealand woman, Frances Parker (calling herself Janet Arthur) was arrested for trying to blow up the Scottish birthplace of poet Robert Burns. She was force fed in prison and released when she was very weak.
Frances Parker’s uncle was Lord Kitchener, who was appointed Secretary of State for War when the First World War broke out, just weeks after her release.
Emmeline Pankhurst called a halt to the violent Women’s Social and Political Union campaign after war began. Many British women saw war work as a way of showing they were vote-worthy citizens.
Our history books say during World War One, women here knitted and fund-raised, but a significant number joined the war effort like British women did. There were New Zealand nurses in: the first British Red Cross group to go to Belgium; the first French Flag Nursing Corps group to work for the French government; and the first two units organised to go to Serbia by aristocratic British women.
About 550 nurses served overseas in the New Zealand Army Nursing Service. At least as many other women also worked overseas: as ambulance drivers in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force; as members of British women’s army, navy and air force auxiliary services; as land girls, munitions workers and civil servants. At least 25 women doctors worked overseas; one was the first woman doctor to work in a British military medical unit and two headed all-women field hospital units in the Salonika Campaign.
For 100 years there was no book that aimed to tell the story of New Zealand women who played an active role in the war effort – until the publication of Make Her Praises Heard Afar in November 2017.
These women in war have been unattractive to New Zealand while the suffragists, and even law-breaking suffragettes, have been vaunted. Te Papa spent $40,000 to buy Frances Parker’s suffragette medal. Kate Fulton (aunt of Wellington actor Kate Harcourt, nee Fulton) was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for driving her ambulance through shellfire in 1918 to rescue wounded soldiers. But the way New Zealand sees women’s suffrage and our women’s war effort, Fulton’s humanitarian bravery is in second place to Parker’s criminal bravery.
Kate Sheppard said we must be ourselves at all costs. She said she was sick of people talking about the women’s sphere – the domestic sphere, of course. Women just wanted to be just natural, she said.
The women who went to war were being themselves; they were being natural.
But how can we be ourselves if we think we come from British suffragettes instead of New Zealand suffragists?
Let’s be ourselves: New Zealand women with a legacy of law-abiding campaigning for the vote and a record of humanitarian effort in World War One.
These are virtues in our world, in which we deplore terrorist actions and welcome women in the peaceful democratic process – to the point of having a prime minister giving birth in office.
About the writer
Jane Tolerton, of Wellington, is the author of Make Her Praises Heard Afar: New Zealand women overseas in World War One. Published by Booklovers Press, available from bookshops and Potton & Burton.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of Museums Wellington.
Suffrage 125 events at Wellington Museum
After Hours: Big Girls at Flux
Thursday 19 July, 6:30pm / Entry by koha
Big Girls on Parade: Shine A Light On Your RIGHTS
Saturday 11 August, 6pm / Free
In Conversation: Feminisms with Dr Hera Cook
Thursday 23 August / Entry by koha
In Conversation: #MeToo with Dr Hera Cook
Thursday 30 August / Entry by koha
For more info on these events visit the Museums Wellington website.