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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

Women and Girls in Edwardian Kaponga

Women and Girls in Edwardian Kaponga

Our period coincides with the worldwide women's movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw New Zealand women lead the world by gaining the franchise in 1893. The late 20th-century revival of the feminist movement has seen the advent of a new women's history, aimed both at removing the neglect of women's contribution and developing a feminist perspective on the past. It includes a search for the reasons why the earlier feminist movement faltered and died away. Two potent models have been used by many recent women's historians: a public-private model, which sees men dominating the public sphere and women confined to the private domestic world; and a separate-cultures model, which sees men and women developing two equally rich but different parallel cultures. In this present study we have repeatedly observed that our sources were created mainly by adult males, who focused on male interests, and if reporting women's activities did so from a male perspective. Lacking any substantial women's diaries or personal letters, we cannot hope to contribute significantly to the understanding of women's private sphere or of the feminine culture.

It would be easy to depict Edwardian Kaponga as dominated by a chauvinistic male culture. All local body representatives were male, all members of the Settlers' and the Tradesmen's Protection Associations were men, men dominated the playing fields and the male game of rugby was the major sport. The position of ‘Our Own’, Kaponga's main purveyor of infor mation on public life, was held by a man throughout. These correspondents commonly showed women in a purely supportive role in a male world, doing the hack work from the ancillary position of a subordinate women's committee, providing the refreshments, supporting from the sidelines. The sideline support to which they gave pride of place was the tumultuous male glory of the Kaponga Brass Band.

Yet I believe this picture would be substantially false. A truer picture page 302 would show Kaponga women's considerable success in following up the gaining of the franchise with a deliberate pressure at local level to gain a share of the control of the aspects of life they considered significant to their sex. Furthermore, no local male programme continued to flourish once it came under the cloud of female disapproval. We will first present evidence for this picture from a careful reading between the lines of male reportage. In the next section we put this aspect of Edwardian Kaponga in the context of the interplay between world influences and frontier conditions and also sketch the wider picture of women's place over the period of our study.

In the Edwardian years probably the most potent instrument of the Kaponga community's self-expression was the Horticultural Society's annual show. It catered for men and women on pretty equal terms, with both men and women competing in the cut flowers section, men dominating the farm and garden produce and fruit sections, and women the flower arrangement, cooking, preserves, and sewing and fancy work sections. We will outline the salient features of the society's development as a preliminary to examining some striking developments in women's involvement in its management. We have already seen that when the society was formed on 25 February 1898 men took all the executive positions. However, ‘a strong committee of ladies and gentlemen was formed’. Over the years the scope and prestige of the show steadily grew. In 1900 a poultry section was added, in 1902 a marquee was provided for the displays of visiting nurserymen, and from 1905 the show's widening scope was acknowledged by a title change to Kaponga Horticultural and General Produce Show. Year by year the show was opened by the local member of Parliament. The number of outside visitors grew, with some distinguished personages among them, such as ‘His Grace Archbishop Redwood’ in 1903, and ‘the Hon C.H. Mills and party’ in 1905. In 1906, besides displays by the local seedsman and by nurserymen from as far away as New Plymouth, local businessmen mounted displays as diverse as bicycles and harness. ‘Our Own’ (2/3/06) reported:

Comment was general as to the large crowd in town for the flower show. Mr J. Bullock's livery stable was taxed to its utmost, and there were two or three lines of vehicles in the street outside.

The show continued to grow from strength to strength. The record 460 entries of 1906 had more than doubled to 954 entries in 1910. New features were added, such as a children's milk-testing competition. In 1907 it was noted that ‘many of the prize winners, contrary to the usual custom, came from the vicinity of Kaponga’.22 This, of course reflects the history of the district, with many of the farm homesteads having a 10-year start on the town sections.

Let us now explore women/men relationships in the development and management of the Horticultural Society. Apart from the fact that men continued to hold all the executive positions we have no information on page 303 committee composition over the first few years. However, in late January 1900 a planning meeting for the forthcoming show appointed a ladies' committee ‘so that the minor details which were overlooked last year’ could be attended to. These shows required a great deal of detailed work to receive, record, judge and display exhibits; to steward, entertain, and provide refreshments on show day; and to clear up afterwards. There is no doubt that male executive members put in a tremendous amount of work, but the setting up of the women's committee may well have resulted from some things not being up to standard to a woman's housekeeping eye. That the show's growth was creating plenty of work is suggested by the appointment of a Ladies' Committee of 24 and a Gentlemen's Committee of 31 at the AGM on 25 September 1901. On 24 January 1902 seven women were among the 15 stewards appointed for the forthcoming show. Year by year at the meeting following the show the ‘ladies’ received fulsome votes of thanks for their work in stewarding and providing refreshments. But between the lines one senses the women's growing concern at their relegation to a purely supportive role while the men monopolised the main decisionmaking. For example, the crucial catalogue committee (which finalised the shape and terms of the show) consisted in 1902 of five men and in 1903 of three men. One senses some stirring from the women in the rather brief report on the AGM of 21 September 1904 that

Kaponga Horticultural and General Produce Society's Autumn Show, 1909. We are looking
towards the stage of the Town Hall. The acetylene gas lighting installed in 1905 was a great
improvement for occasions such as this

… Messrs Frethey, Walker, Dr Maclagan, and Mesdames Frethey, Walker and page 304 Maclagan were appointed a Catalogue Committee. The General Committee is to be the same as last year, with the addition of Mesdames Shore, Towler, Mathewson, Needham, and Mr Snell.

So the catalogue committee now consists of three married couples. The women are no longer confined to an indirect input to decisions on their sections of the show, but are equally represented in the decisionmaking. Yet any carry-over of male/female tension to this committee is likely to have been restrained by its ‘married couple’ character. This outcome, and the strengthening of women's representation on the general committee, have the look of a prudent response to some strong feminist pressure.

But the women were apparently not yet satisfied. ‘Our Own’ reported that at the next AGM, on 17 November 1905, there were about 20 present, which was apparently a rather large number (numbers were given on only two other occasions: nine in 1906 and 11 in 1907). Rather ominously ‘Our Own’ continued: ‘Included among those present was a fair number of ladies.’ He does not say whether they were in the majority. The list of officers elected begins with the usual male president and vice-presidents, but then continues with the quite unprecedented ‘general committee, all members of the society, and the following ladies:’. The names of 64 women are then listed. There is no corresponding list of men. The list concludes with ‘executive committee, president, vice-president, Messrs McKay, Frethey, Cowern and their wives’. Obviously some kind of gender sorting out was going on, but ‘Our Own’ refrained from any explanation of his rather cryptic report. At the following AGM (29 September 1906) there were five women and four men present. Election results list no ‘general committee’. For the executive committee six women's names are listed, followed by 12 men's. Whatever had been going on, it clearly ended with women firmly represented at executive level. The ‘ladies' committee’ as a separate entity became a thing of the past—though undoubtedly working parties of women would have continued to undertake various tasks. But from 1904 on women had firmly insisted that they were to be deciders as well as supporters. The 1904 date may have some significance, for in that year a supper room and kitchen were added to the Athenaeum. Perhaps the women, in reaction to the prospect of an ever-growing role as ‘providers’, felt the time was ripe to stake their claim to also be ‘deciders’. The men seem to have got the message. A suggestions committee set up after the 1908 show consisted of two women and three men. The AGM of 7 September 1908 elected an executive committee of nine women and 11 men.

The Kaponga Horticultural Society flourished because it met the needs, and gained and retained the support, of a large number of both women and men. But it must have been more significant in the lives of the women than the men. Men had many ways of displaying their accomplishments—the stock sales, the view over their farms, their milk output and cheques, their deeds on the sports fields, and their speeches in the public forums. For the page 305 women the show will have been the major opportunity to publicly display their skills and accomplishments. When from 1902 on the Star began giving a comprehensive impression of the show it was mainly women who were picked out for special note. Year by year, until she and her husband retired to New Plymouth in 1908, it was Ellen Frethey, a prominent Methodist, who was the dominant exhibitor, with Mrs C.S. Walker, a prominent Anglican, as her main competitor. The only man who continuously gave them some solid competition was Robert Gibson. But the prize lists show plenty of other women strongly committed in particular sections. To take an example, the 1909 list (Star, 10/3/09) shows women well represented in all nine sections, whereas men were only well represented in four. There were 745 entries, of which 321 won placings on the list; of these women took 222, men only 99. Fifty-five women's and girls' names appear in the list, but only 35 men's and boys’. (With 424 unsuccessful entries there would, of course, have been unlisted competitors.) Even in the children's milk-testing section the girls had, as usual, competed on pretty well equal terms with the boys.

We have already noted the great contest for ‘Kickapoo’ Hunter's new cup at this show. This ran across most sections as minister's wife Alice Scott, taking over the Methodist baton from Ellen Frethey, fought it out with Anglican stalwart Mrs C.S. Walker. By the rules for the cup it became the property of the ‘exhibitor who wins twice in succession or three times at intervals’. The battle was renewed with a vengeance at the 1910 show to which the two women each submitted over 100 entries. By once again winning, Mrs Walker secured the cup.

We now move on to a more cursory survey of how women maintained or extended their position in various other areas of Kaponga public life. We have already seen them asserting their right to a share of the use of the playing fields, particularly for hockey in which they were soon having major successes. Not only did they win good male support for their venture (their first fundraising concert and dance, on 1 September 1910, was a great success), but they also saw the men follow them into the game. The Star (7/9/10) reported that a match between a team of men dressed in skirts and the women's team (allowed two extra players) was to be played on Thursday, 8 September 1910. By April 1911 a men's hockey club had come into being. Over Easter weekend a working bee of 30 of its members levelled and stumped an area of the school ground that the school committee had lent them for matches and practice. By 1912 the southern end of Victoria Park was being developed as a hockey field.23 It was probably the fact that the women's and men's teams could practise against each other that made a third male winter sport feasible in Kaponga, and arrangements made for playing fields avoided any conflict with the other codes. The two clubs flourished together, running successful joint hockey balls and keeping their accounts in credit.24

There is an interesting contrast with rugby's fortunes. The rugby ball page 306 of 1908 turned in quite a heavy loss, it lapsed in 1909, and when revived on a fine September evening in 1910 ‘Our Own’ reported an ‘extremely enjoyable evening’ for ‘all who had the good fortune to be present’, which amounted to a pointed omission of any reference to the attendance.25 For several years from 1909 the club had difficulty in balancing its books. This may well have been partly due to losing the confidence and support of Kaponga's women. A decline in athletic sports over this period may also be related to a loss of female support—an athletics concert on 30 October 1908 was poorly attended. Women may have resented the poor provision of events for them in the programmes. On the other hand tennis, which provided well for both sexes, flourished. There is little information on other women's summer sports activities. They must, however, have played some cricket for ‘Our Own’ (7/4/05) reported ‘a very enjoyable return match’ played on the park by the ladies with the gentlemen, which ended in a tie, both sides scoring60. There may also have been some croquet, carried over from the school grounds to the home lawns.

While hockey balls flourished and rugby balls had mixed fortunes, another type of ball enjoyed a general success—the bachelors', to which the single women responded with the ladies' return ball. The ladies' ball of late April 1904 was described as ‘about the best that has been held here for some time’.

The M's.C. were Misses J. Winters, E. Fitzgerald, and J. Kissick, who were loudly praised for the manner in which they carried out their duties, and according to those present at this function the gentlemen M's.C. run a very poor second to these three women.

Women were showing their organising and directing skills in the smaller centres also. Thus at Rowan on 3 September 1909 they held a highly successful concert and dance to raise funds for a croquet set for the school.

Another venture that flourished for a time by winning both male and female support was the Kaponga Literary and Social Club, founded on 4 February 1902 with F.W. Wilkie as president and a committee of equal numbers of men and women. Over the next three years it sponsored a varied programme of debates, ping pong tournaments and socials that were strong on indoor pursuits such as cards, quoits, chess, and parlour games, and on musical items.26 The club seems to have faded through the competition of a growing flow of visiting entertainers, and the rise of more specialised groups such as a debating club with a strongly male orientation,27 Miss Wilkinson's dancing classes,28 and Dr Maclagan's glee club. Under Maclagan's guidance the Glee Club seems to have developed into the Orchestral Society. It was apparently a mixed group from the start and on Maclagan's departure was taken over by Miss Robinson, a music teacher.29 The rise of the orchestra broke the band's male monopoly of the provision of musical support for public occasions. Thus, when in 1910 the Horticultural Society took over the spring flower show from the Methodists, it was the orchestra and not page 307

KapongaOrchestral Society, 1912. Standing: Maurice Bates (bass), Rex Cook (violin),
Alexander Ward (violin), Tom Brotheridge (flute), Hugh McCarthy (cornet), Percy Allen
(trombone, Hon. Sec.). Seated: (violinists & conductress): Florrie Signal, Charles King, Ivy
Robinson, Vida Robinson (conductress), Gwendoline Thoumine, Wilfred Morris, Mary Power.
In front: Herbert Briggs (violin), Beatrice Bates (piano)

the band that provided the evening's music.30 The band, of course, had wide support because of its readiness to grace community occasions of any kind. We have already seen the women initiating a ‘monster bazaar and fancy fair’ in aid of its instrument fund in April 1908, and calling on the men to follow up with a committee in their support.

We conclude our survey of the more prominent place women were taking in Kaponga life in Edwardian times with a glance at the crossroads at the town's centre. On one corner was the hotel, whose bar of course continued to be a male preserve. But across the street the fine new post office, opened in May 1903, was under female management over these years, for the succession of postmasters was broken by a succession of postmistresses from May 1899 until October 1912. And in May 1904 F.W. Wilkie's fine new Kaponga. Coffee Palace opened across Manaia Road from the hotel, with a succession of women lessees maintaining an alternative venue to the hotel bar, a place where women could meet with their friends of either sex without the divisive presence of liquor. Here, for example, ladies from St Mark's congregation met with their bishop and his party when he passed through on 13 January 1906. And while the hotel continued to be the venue for the all-male juries called together for inquests, it was to the Coffee Palace that the doctors had the more fortunate victims of page 308 misadventure brought. Thus when in May 1905 Mountain House custodian W.H. St Clair fell and fractured his leg, Dr Noonan had him brought to the feminine care of the Coffee Palace.