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My First Eighty Years

Chapter 21 — The Women's Division

page 200

Chapter 21
The Women's Division

When we had achieved a clay road and a car I began to enjoy driving round the countryside and, rather belatedly, growing to know our neighbours. Soon the Women's Division became my absorbing interest. I was not quick to recognise its merits; I was, in fact, pushed into it.

My husband, always an ardent Farmers' Unionist, had been to Wellington to the annual conference. The wives of delegates often accompanied them, taking a holiday at the hotel. I had sometimes done so but unfortunately not this time (1925). He returned saying, ‘There's something starting in Wellington that is just your price — a women's section of the Farmers' Union. They want you to join.’

I told him, I am afraid coldly, that I didn't care for women's associations. If I sounded ungracious he didn't take it so, for suffragette excesses were not far behind us.

I had been cajoled into attending a few of the suffragette meetings in the Ohau days. They invariably began with, ‘Now that the men have made such an appalling mess of the world we women are going to take a hand to put it to rights.’

That was the spirit of the movement and, though I was in sympathy with its object — the vote — I was narrowminded enough to keep aloof from the fight because I didn't care about the fighters.

Once, in Wellington, I had seen a small procession of women carrying banners, one of which was inscribed (you will hardly believe it) ‘Down with Men’. My husband and brother were the only men I knew much about, and, not being anxious to down either of them, I was naturally lukewarm.

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But my husband persisted, ‘You will like this one. They are holding their first gathering in Wanganui and I have promised to take you to it.’

We went, I saw and was conquered. Instead of disgruntled females and acidulated spinsters oozing hatred, I met a band of happy wives and mothers of farmers who were anxious to help their husbands in pushing the old chariot of progress along.

I took a long step forward in development that day and came home all agog to form a branch in Pio Pio. I had no experience, but neither had anyone else, so we felt our way together and no one criticised. I was extremely nervous over the election of officers, having been so often told that women were no sports and could not work together. I found it quite otherwise. Outstanding women, beaten for the vicepresidency, stood again smiling for the committee. All went well except that there was no suitable place in the township in which to hold our meetings. We considered meeting in each other's houses but that did not find favour, so after a time we decided to build ourselves a rest room. It was a bold effort for so small and so new a branch but, as we began to gather money, enthusiasm grew and difficulties melted before it. There is nothing like an effort, a goal, to stimulate enthusiasm.

After attending the annual conference I found my interest in the W.D. not merely local. The movement had begun in Wellington when sixteen women gathered at Kirkcaldie's for tea and to listen to Mr McAlpine, the Farmers' Union organiser. He described the conditions in which he found the wives of the settlers living in the backblocks — their hardships, their privations, their mudbound isolation. The story so touched the women present that they immediately formed themselves into an association for the purpose of doing something about it. But what? After much discussion Mrs C. C. Jackson, who had been appointed secretary, wrote letters — some two hundred of page 202 them — to every address in the back country she was given, asking what an organisation of farm women centred in Wellington could do to improve the conditions of those who were isolated.

‘Tell us how to obtain help in emergencies such as sickness, or when we have to leave home.’ That was the theme of most of the replies, and from them the ‘Bush Nurse and Housekeeper Scheme’ was evolved. The W.D. began by engaging a housekeeper who was to go to the country on call. But this was a time of rising wages and it was soon found that countrywomen's ideas of money values are far lower than those of the towns. Settlers on the still undeveloped farms felt it impossible to afford the wages common in the town so we engaged two trustworthy women and started a fund wherewith to subsidise their wages to indigent cases or indeed any case where there was difficulty in affording the whole wage — at that time, thirty shillings a week. The scheme, a boon to countrywomen, was well planned and carried out effectively and grew constantly until the second war made it impossible to find housekeepers.

The Division has undoubtedly been a great success; but I deprecate very strongly the vainglorious attitude of a small minority who say, ‘See what women can do.’ We must realise that the wealth we are so proud of came originally from the farms and could not have been accumulated but for the generosity of the farmers who have indeed been extremely liberal. Our system is that membership costs only half-a-crown and branches, once they have been in existence long enough to find their feet, are asked to send an annual donation to a fund which we call ‘the Community Chest’. These donations are raised by garden-parties, ‘bring and buy’ stalls and other activities and are used to subsidise the wage of the housekeepers sent to indigent cases. Thus the fund becomes, not a source of charity, but a kind of insurance. Members, while things go well with them, help page 203 in all the efforts to fill the Chest in order that in cases of sickness or accident they may accept from it without compunction. Sometimes, too, it is insurance in reverse — the benefits are drawn before the premiums are due. I have known women who, when their families were young and the farm merely land in the raw, asked our help again and again, but, when the children were off their hands and the farm had begun to pay, became generous givers and staunch supporters of the W.D. As we are human beings it goes without saying that there are some chronic cadgers as well as many generous women who have been givers since the beginning and have taken nothing whatever.

Members have sometimes told me that their husbands made things difficult for them, jeering at their attachment to the Division and to their branch. ‘Oh, yes! I know; the Division first, husband nowhere’. But these must have been few, for the men have been known to hold stock-drives for the benefit of the organisation. These were supported with great generosity. My man, I remember, was readier to give than I, and was always suggesting new localities in which a branch might be formed.

It was the housekeeper scheme that did most towards making the men co-operate. They realist what a relief it would be to them should household upheavals occur in busy periods.