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Reformers down under.
By Helen Watson White in All Sorts
the importance of their faith to those seeking social justice and reform.Reformers down under
If you've heard of Kate Sheppard, you might also have heard recently – through Kim Hill, for instance, on RadioNZ – that although she was a leading light, she wasn't THE leading light of the movement to gain voting rights for NZ women. There's another Kate, surnamed Edger (= Edgar) among our many suffragists. The campaign of the 1890s was only part of a broad-based progressive social movement coming out of the evangelical churches, especially Nonconformist ones (Methodist, Congregationalist, Baptist, Presbyterian), in the US and UK. I've been avidly reading a book about this, called Kate Edger: The life of a pioneering feminist, by Diana Morrow.
When Kate Edger (b1857) won a scholarship to enter university, her studies took the form of night classes in a building that was part of Auckland College and Grammar, described by one critic as 'a disused military hut, the floor of which is not quite safe to tread on, the roof of which is open to the sky.' Diana Morrow's biography of Edger reveals how a few holes in the roof – like pseudo-scientific notions of male superiority – were never going to deter this young woman from the journey she purposed through higher education, and beyond.
At first home-schooled by her father Samuel, a liberal nonconformist minister who was both feminist and socialist, Kate absorbed from an early age the view that father and daughter(s) were equal, in the same way as all classes and nations were equal, in the sight of God. She studied with senior boys and excelled in the same exams, going on to graduate BA and further, while working full-time, MA at Canterbury College. A teacher for most of her life, Edger told girls they
had every right to succeed as she had – in a society ruled by councils that were then 100% male.
In 1893, this founding headmistress of Nelson College for Girls resigned to marry a Congregationalist minister, William Evans, and together they launched in Wellington a colonial form of Britain's (voluntary) Forward Movement. Since Kate believed in the sanctity of home and family, some historians assume that William Evans was the initiator and Kate (for 11 years the sole breadwinner) supported him; but Morrow shows their endeavours were squarely based on a lived equality, a partnership in which they both believed.
The momentum of socially progressive movements in the 19th century can be traced back to the great spiritual revival of the late-18th century; it was evangelical zeal that fired up women and men to campaign for things like the abolition of slavery. Furthermore, over half of the British-born feminists listed in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography came from the nonconformist denominations: this is the background shared by Kate Sheppard and Kate Edger.
Throughout, Morrow stresses the importance of their faith to those seeking social justice and reform. Although the word feminist was not used until the 1890s, these were also the leaders of first-wave feminism, campaigning to improve women's legal and voting rights, education and then employment opportunities. Many like Edger went further, wanting nothing less than the complete reformation of society: they campaigned for equal pay and better work conditions; for temperance or abstinence to prevent alcohol destroying families; for prison reform – that is, for rehabilitation, not punishment; for an end to the sexual double standard, whereby prostitutes were imprisoned while their clients went free; for the advent of female police and judges to protect women and children from violence. The list is long.
Many of the causes seem ahead of their times. In the Forward Movement's journal The Citizen, first issued in 1895, articles include a plea from socialist feminist Louisa Blake for a compulsory government work-scheme to banish unemployment and make charitable aid unnecessary. In its pages Morrow even notes a 'male feminist' named Basil Stocker arguing for 'co-operative housekeeping': families cooking in a communal kitchen, the aim being 'the emancipation of wives and mothers, women and girls, from their present deplorable slavery.' Strong words when international slavery was still in mind.
I found the number of meetings, lectures, sermons, discussions and organizations Kate was involved with quite overwhelming; these were all extramural activities, added to her full-time domestic role. Morrow shows how the nineteenth-century ideal of the home as the 'noblest sphere' was, however, shattered by World War I, which distanced the members of most families from one another, adding death and disease to the wounding of the nation's morale. The war brought a great disillusionment for all idealists, and a new generation who didn't necessarily want to be 'reformed'.
Yet Edger stayed on course: after mourning in 1921 the death of her husband and, also of her best woman-friend, she threw herself into the work of the British League of Nations Union (LNU), opening a branch in Wellington in 1922. Morrow's final chapter, 'A Just Community in a Happy Family of Nations', shows her aim for harmonious living in a family being extended to larger groupings. As head of Nelson College for Girls she had laid down a process of certification by merit, replacing competition for school prizes; in the same way, in line with her father's internationalism, she sought peaceful co-operation in place of war. The League of Nations being the precursor of the United Nations, it's hard not to see her future-changing work as worthy of being continued.
– Helen Watson White
[This is an abridged form of my review published 1 Nov in Landfall Review Online.]