I was looking for a title for my new little book featuring ‘first’ New Zealand women – my contribution to the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage. I thought I would have to resort to ‘The first New Zealand woman to….’ – as at least it would do the job.
Then I woke up at 2am with a phrase from singer Dinah Lee in my head. I had written her piece and used a quote from an interview I did with her for my 1997 book, Sixities Chicks.
Dinah was the first New Zealand woman to have a number one hit overseas – in Australia, in 1964. She said the men in the band she toured with told her ‘not to get a big head. They kept me right down because to them the girl singer was just a fill-in. But I changed all that. All of a sudden I was going on my own tours.’
So I called the book, ‘But I changed all that’. All of these women heard a little crack in the glass ceiling.
The book is a clutch of ‘firsts’, a pick and mix gathering together of just some of the women who led the way. It cannot be representative or all-encompassing, and selection has depended on there being an accessible publishable photograph or portrait.
Many were the first woman in a particular role; others were the first New Zealander, male or female, to achieve in a particular arena. In some spheres the women have been ahead of the men. Where is the male writer as well known internationally as Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame, the male painter who had as high a profile in Britain as Frances Hodgkins? The Booker Prize has been won by two New Zealanders, both women: Keri Hulme and Eleanor Catton.
Among the obvious suspects are the first woman: mayor in the British Empire, Elizabeth Yates of Onehunga, in 1893; MP, Elizabeth McCombs, who was elected in 1933 almost 40 years to the day after woman gained the vote; Cabinet minister, Mabel Howard, in 1947; Maori MP Iriaka Ratana in 1949; Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, in 1997; and first elected Prime Minister, Helen Clark, in 1999.
The historiography of the women’s story in New Zealand has a difficult balance to strike. Some books and websites make sweeping statements about how ‘in those days’ girls and women stayed home, obeyed their parents and were unable to pursue their ambitions. But too much reliance on such assumptions has helped to hide the endeavour of women who did achieve their ambitions, including some of those in this book.
This is a major reason why the story of New Zealand women who worked overseas in World War One was not told until my book, Make Her Praises Heard Afar came out last year – because doing the research seemed unnecessary as everyone just seemed to know that women stayed home. Au contraire: New Zealand women were British women and they went overseas to play an active role in the war effort: as doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, munitions workers and land girls, among other occupations. The first woman doctor to work in a British military medical unit (a fact that has appeared in more British and Australian books than New Zealand ones) was a Wellingtonian, Dr Agnes Bennett, and the first woman recruited for the Women’s Royal Naval Service was too: Enid Bell.
The past provides a mixed picture, just as today does. We marvel at a prime minister having a baby in office but eye a gender pay gap. We note that paid leave for victims of domestic violence is necessary only because of the frequency of such crimes.
Looking at the past is useful only in helping us gain insight into our own time and the future. ‘Tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame,’ as Gustav Mahler said. I hope that while But I Changed All That preserves the memory of individual women, it also reminds us that it is now our responsibility to keep pushing forward to make life better for New Zealanders now and in the future.