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

Women, the Frontier and the World

Women, the Frontier and the World

We must now set our probing of women's place in Edwardian Kaponga into a wider context of time and place. We begin with a brief look at local statistics. Although census returns were not collated in a particularly helpful way until 1916 they do make clear a significant female presence in the district from the beginning of settlement, but a male predominance throughout. Thus the 1886 and 1891 censuses show males outnumbering females by roughly three to two in the Waimate Road District, of which the Kaponga area was a substantial part. Over the longer run the figures for Manaia Road (which runs from Manaia's northern boundary to the mountain) are probably as good a sample as any. Whereas these also show the male/female ratio as roughly three to two in 1886 and 1891, in the next four censuses, to 1911, female numbers fluctuate around 45 per cent. From 1906 we have the Kaponga Town District returns, where the female/male figures are, respectively: 1906: 144/134; 1911: 185/199; 1916: 194/203.31 It should be noted that in early autumn, when most of these censuses were taken, Kaponga's male population would have been at a low ebb. There was a general outflow to the open country through summer to early autumn, first for the shearing, then the harvesting and threshing. The censuses fail to capture either of the district's two main seasonal inflows, the brief cocksfoot harvest one in January, and the more sustained bushfelling one, getting under way in May and lasting through the winter months.

These figures confirm that families were an important element of the initial settlement flow. Almost all the females of the earlier years will have been wives and daughters in the homesteads on the clearings. The surplus of men will have been found mainly in the whares of bachelor settlers, sawmill workers, roadmakers &c, and will have been augmented by the seasonal influx of itinerant bushfellers and cocksfoot harvesters. When the township appears it has a balanced sex ratio, partly because some men were being drawn away for farm, road and sawmilling work, and partly because there were some work openings in the town for single women from outside. Right through our period the district would have had a marked surplus of bachelors, many of them seeking wives. Any healthy, personable young woman would have felt strong pressure to marry.

We have already built up a pretty comprehensive picture of both the work and leisure of our people. Using this as a background we now examine how women's lives were being shaped by traditions emanating both from the local and colonial scene and the Old World. For simplicity we will concentrate on the three main traditions involved: the ‘colonial helpmeet’, the ‘leisured lady’, and the ‘emancipated woman’. All three are essentially page 309

Elizabeth Smith née Sinclair by her Palmer Road fireside. She brought spinning and knitting
skills from the Shetland Islands. She knitted wool from sheep on the Smith farm into shawls
for families settled between her home and Neill Road. Betty Arnold has inherited her family's
shawl and it has been used at the baptisms of some of our grandchildren

middle-class models, for though a significant proportion of our folk came from working-class backgrounds, most moved up to reasonably affluent freeholder station and so achieved middle-class status.

The colonial helpmeet was the woman who, by a heavy investment of her labour and skills into the farm or small business and by running a very self-sufficient domestic economy, assisted her under-capitalised husband to make his way up in the world. This model had roots going back to mediaeval times and the earlier colonial experience of New England. The leisured lady had become a dominant model for the increasingly affluent middle class of Victorian England. Her leisure was a status symbol of the menfolk of her class—they would consider themselves failures if she were ever reduced to working for income. What these men looked for in their brides was not an intellectual or practical education, but accomplishments (music, ‘deportment’, dancing, embroidery, a little facility in French &c). Coming home each day from their battles in the world of work, these men looked for relaxation in the sheltered nests established by their protected wives. The emancipated woman was a reaction against the purposelessness of the ‘leisured lady’ model. Feminist ideas of sexual equality arose in the urbane, intellectual, liberal circles of Europe and America, and from the mid-19th century onwards women following this model made some progress in gaining access to the kind of education hitherto reserved for page 310 men, a foothold in some of the professions, and a limited access to public affairs. In most areas, though, it was easier to make such progress in New Zealand than in England.

One reason why things worked out differently in New Zealand was that colonial women enjoyed much more freedom than their English counterparts. English social custom, heavily influenced by parental concern to maintain social status, provided for the careful chaperoning of daughters. The eagerness with which many young Englishwomen embraced the bicycle when safe, cheap models became available in the 1890s owed not a little to their desire to escape such cramping supervision. As David Rubinstein comments in an article on cycling in the 1890s:

… cycling helped women to liberate themselves by defeating conservative opinion. It was in the 1890s that writers and journalists drew attention to the New Woman, the direct ancestor of the liberated woman of our own day. Independent in speech and action, the New Woman insisted on freedom from the trammels of convention, and the bicycle was her symbol. The ageing writer Mrs Eliza Lynn Linton, the best known of the anti-feminists of the day, made quite clear her main objection to cycling by girls in an article written in 1896: ‘Chief of all dangers attending this new development of feminine freedom is the intoxication which comes with unfettered liberty.’32

Kaponga's women, however, did not have to wait for the bicycle to achieve this liberty, and indeed on their district's primitive roads they did not take readily to it. But from the beginning they had had the choice freedom of easy access to riding horses. In the 1880s New Zealanders were six times as well provided with horses as Britons (one for every three people in New Zealand; one for every 18 in Britain).33 At the 1911 census Eltham County had a little better than one horse for every two people. Most Kaponga women learnt to ride as children. Many girls indeed had years of riding in getting their schooling. In our episodes we have seen a group of women among the party that gathered by horseback to meet John Finlay at Bentley's in October 1886; we have seen Catherine Hayes, in her husband's absence, set out with her three younger children in the dray to visit her married daughter at Otakeho; and we have seen that Essie Mason had only to ask to get the use of one of her employer's riding horses for the day. Few Englishwomen had this casual access to horses.

A good idea of the relaxed freedom of New Zealand women's use of horses is provided by a Star (21/3/14) reprint from an English newspaper. A Miss Shaw, recently back from some months in New Zealand, joined a discussion on the respective merits of cross and side-saddles. She reported that in New Zealand

the great majority ride cross-saddle, and personally, out there I am convinced it is best, as it makes one more independent, and one has a chance of getting on again if one falls off…. New Zealand … must be the jolliest country in page 311 the world to ride in. In the first place, the scenery is glorious; in the second place, we looked after our horses ourselves, which is much more fun. The first day after I arrived I was commanded to go into a paddock apparently miles in extent to catch a horse to whom I had not been introduced, and put him in the dog cart. I had never harnessed a horse in my life, but was not going to confess my ignorance, so I meekly went and obeyed, and with much luck and hard thinking duly produced a horse and trap so fastened together that they did not come apart…. There is not much real grooming done. When one's horse had rolled in a deeper mud-hole than usual we took them down to the river, divested them of their saddles and ourselves of clothing and rode them into a deep hole where they could swim a few yards before touching bottom again. It is a thrilling moment when they are first carried off their feet and the cold water ripples round one's waist. Afterwards there is a gallop on the bank to warm ourselves.

Sometimes I was sent to the forge, riding one horse and leading two others…. The blacksmith used to talk with me with great learning on matters ‘horsey’ whilst I waited. I found I needed all my wits not to disgrace my country, for, of course, everyone knew I was a young lady ‘from Home’. Once we rode for two whole days and had many adventures. There were four of us, and our costumes were varied. My companions wore blouses and divided skirts, with slouch hats adorned with gaudy scarves. I was Hyde Park all over, except my head, which was swathed gypsy fashion in a silk handkerchief. It was therefore not surprising that we were taken for a troupe of circus riders by two small boys in a village we passed through …

Miss Shaw's account shows how, when thrown into the labour-hungry colonial rural environment, an active young woman could quickly become a useful addition to the workforce. Miss Shaw obviously enjoyed the challenge of fending for herself and relished the independence she gained by successfully meeting it. The tone of her writing suggests why the ‘colonial helpmeet’ label sounds a little inappropriate for Kaponga rural relationships. Rather than being a case of major players and underling helpers it was one of family teams—men and women, girls and boys— collaborating in the mutual enterprise of wresting a good living from a demanding environment. They were deeply conscious of their continuous battle against nature but often little conscious of subordination among themselves. In his investigation of dairy farming life in the 1930s W.T. Doig found that ‘the wife is in many cases as much a business partner as she is a homemaker’.34 This had been even more true of the Kaponga of an earlier period. Before the coming of the factories domestic manufacture by the women had complemented milk production by the men. When factory dairying brought growing herds a labour force of both sexes was needed, with girls often taking up the task at an early age. And far more than in the 1930s, girls and women had worked alongside men and boys in the subsistence enterprise that provided their homes throughout the year with page 312

London Fashions’ from the November 1895NZ Farmer. Each month's Farmer brought
several drawings such as these to Kaponga. They must have been obtained from an English
source. There were plenty of other sources of fashion news

fruit and honey, eggs and vegetables, bacon and bottled preserves. Rather than finding all this onerous, many families carried their subsistence skills over into flower garden and shrubbery, and made the annual show an occasion of glorying in both ‘bread and roses’.

But when the success of the enterprise brought a growing prosperity, some began to respond to the ‘leisured lady’ model constantly commended in publications from ‘Home’ and even in the ladies' pages of the Star and the Farmer. We have seen that a discontented son could easily leave the home team to milk elsewhere. This was not so easy for daughters, but many parents must have found it wise to humour them by some ‘leisured lady’ concessions, such as fashionable dress, feminine accomplishments, and a little leisure in which to enjoy these. Various editions of Wise's Post Office Directory show that from the mid-1900s Kaponga's shops were moving to meet this demand. ‘Dressmaker’ is first listed in 1906, with Miss Harris and A. Lonargon; followed by C. Jones in 1908, Miss N. Berridge in 1910 and Mrs Jane in 1912. Ada Kime appears as the first female draper in 1908, followed by Miss A. Bentley in 1909; and four women draper's assistants were listed between 1909 and 1911. The first milliner was Miss C. Fish in 1911. Music teachers Misses I. and V. Robinson were listed from 1912. ‘Our Own’ provides some more detailed information. Miss V. Robinson had been teaching music as early as 1905 and her mother had begun running a dressmaking department in the Egmont drapery in 1901.35 Miss Wilkinson, page 313 unlisted by Wise's, had begun dancing classes in the winter of 1903.36

Some married women adapted features of the ‘leisured lady’ tradition to their frontier homes. Looking back in 1984 on her Edwardian childhood in Kaponga Winifred Davies (1904–) recalled how her mother

… enjoyed entertaining other ladies in the district. These were the days of ‘at homes' and because there were no telephones for arranging these social events, each lady had a special ‘at home’ day for her neighbours to call and on that day everything in and outside the house was spot cleaned

Davies describes how she and a number of her friends used to play houses under the school-ground pine trees. They outlined their houses with rows of pine needles and with their lunches would ‘visit each other's houses and play ladies to our heart's content’.37

But for neither young nor old could the lifestyle of the leisured lady be carried very far in Kaponga. At ‘Home’, though only among those who enjoyed the ample leisure made possible by a team of servants, it was a game full of elaborate rituals.38 In New Zealand even the wealthy had great trouble finding and keeping servants. In Kaponga, where servants were a rarity, the ‘lady’ game must have meant an added burden of work to create brief episodes of pretended leisured lifestyle. And the young lady dressed à la mode must have found getting about the place a bit of a problem.

So it was principally the ‘emancipated woman’ tradition that was bringing change in Edwardian Kaponga. New Zealand, especially in the 1890s, had shown an unusual readiness to adopt progressive liberal principles, and the emancipation of women had been one of them. Kaponga District had six signatories to the franchise petition and there were five from just outside the District.39 Thereafter, up to the war, women maintained a steady pressure to gain themselves a fuller place in the district's public life. Caroline Daley's valuable close study of the gender history of Taradale over this period gives us an example of a district that seems to have marked time once the vote was won.40 Perhaps Kaponga's more progressive spirit owed something to the ethos of dairying, but until we have a range of studies such as Daley's it will not be possible to make firm generalisations. It is, however, possible to discern a number of forces working for emancipation in Kaponga.

As with the gaining of the national franchise, male support was crucial, and here Kaponga women were fortunate in some of their local leaders. A key figure was the bachelor farmer F.W. Wilkie, who appeared from time to time in support of female emancipation. When a prohibition meeting gathered in the town hall in May 1899 Wilkie chaired it, telling the 150 folk present that he was a prohibitionist but not a faddist. His provision of the Coffee Palace was therefore based on conviction. His founding presidency of the Literary and Social Club and long-term support of the Horticultural Society, even though not himself an exhibitor, are other examples of his fostering of activities open to both men and women.

page 314

It was particularly propitious for Kaponga feminism that headmaster Peter Matheson drew on the Scottish tradition of co-education. While at Taradale improved recognition of female sport was being frustrated by headmasterly male chauvinism,41 at Kaponga Matheson was actively working for equality on the school's sports grounds. As a mother of young
children Helen Matheson was not particularly active in public life, but she did help found the women's hockey club. Over the Edwardian years the three younger professional couples, the Mathesons, Maclagans and Scotts, gave a strong and united lead in many aspects of local public life. In doing so the Maclagans and Scotts in particular modelled for the community how a married couple could lead an egalitarian life, supporting each other and their friends in public life as well as at home. It was Alice Maclagan who made a third with Matheson and his gifted assistant Miss Henn in coaching the school for its annual concert in May 1905. Dr Maclagan had joined the school committee in 1904 and served there until at least 1909. All three men and Alice Maclagan were actively involved in the founding and running of the tennis club. Alice Maclagan was founding president of the women's hockey club whose origins owed so much to Matheson. Being childless, Alice Maclagan would have been more free for public involvement than Helen Matheson or Alice Scott. The Maclagans were deeply involved together in the life of St Mark's. Dr Maclagan served repeatedly as a hard-working president of the Horticultural Society and his wife was an active member of its committee. Horticulture was, of course, a deep interest of the Scotts, and we have seen how Matheson moved in to encourage Scott with his Methodist spring flower show. As a busy minister's wife and mother Alice Scott would not have been able to operate as such a spirited competitor in the shows without a very supportive husband.

Good models of husbands supporting their wives in public activities can also be found among the settlers. Thus Ellen Frethey and Mrs Walker could scarcely have been such potent competitors at the horticultural shows without good backing from their husbands. A more general support from the whole family would have been required in sport. In the context of the family work team, and the difficulties of winter travel, sacrifices will always have been involved in releasing sports team members, and getting them to their practices, and through the winter mud to the scattered fields of south Taranaki for the provincial competitions. The new feature of the Edwardian years was that this was now not just a matter of mothers and sisters supporting their men, but also of fathers and brothers making sacrifices for the young women.

Besides the egalitarian spirit of the rural work team and the propitious presence of good models among its professional and settler leaders, what else in Kaponga life was helpful to the quest for equality? The environment was not particularly encouraging for career women, but the quality of the local women teachers, postmistresses, and the small group of business-women may have helped some young women not to consider marriage the page 315 only meaningful female career. Kaponga's most active church was the Methodist, at this time the major denomination most encouraging of women's leadership. Scottish traditions were more sympathetic to feminism than English ones, and while the Scottish element was weak in Kaponga, with Matheson it was present in a crucial position. A moderate influx of mainly working-class Lancashire immigrants over the Edwardian years may also have been significant (surnames include Alty, Hey, Parkinson, Rawcliffe, Riley, Turner). In her study of early 20th-century Lancashire working-class women Elizabeth Roberts found that they knew their worth and did not feel subordinate to men.42 These egalitarian sentiments will have persisted as they worked their way up to middle-class rank in their new setting.