The Vote, the Pill and the Demon Drink: A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand
Victoria University Press, $49.95
Charlotte Macdonald’s compilation of original New Zealand writings by and about women’s rights is a most welcome addition to the bookshelf. The ninety-four documents span the period between May Ann Muller’s ‘Appeal to the Men of New Zealand’, first published in 1869, to Jenny Shipley’s introduction to the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Bill in 1992. The book is divided by period into eight chapters, each with an overview essay written by Macdonald that draws out the social context and the themes of the debates in each period. Each essay is followed by a list of secondary sources and suggestions for further readings.
The introductory essays alone are an invaluable history of debates about women’s rights in New Zealand. Read without reference to the accompanying documents they provide a much-needed overview of shifting ideas, concerns and commonsense notions of women’s place in the nation, the community and the home. Macdonald’s style is lively and informed as she leads the reader through the major concerns of feminists over 150 years. She chronicles both the shifting meanings of women’s rights and the continuities in demands for reproductive control, economic independence, physical and sexual safety and fair representation of women’s needs.
The documents in the book were chosen both to provide a wide selection of feminist writings and to complement other recently published volumes, such as Margaret Lovell-Smith’s The Woman Question: Writings by Women Who Won the Vote and Pat Rosier’s Been Around for Quite A While: Twenty Years of Broadsheet Magazine. The emphasis is on making available sources that are not easily accessed. As Macdonald points out, there are severe problems of access for those wishing to read the original writings from either the suffrage movement or the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of these were produced in relatively ephemeral form as letters, pamphlets, mimeographs or newspaper articles. For example, the majority of documents published in the chapters covering the 1970s to the 1990s come from the ephemera collections in the Alexander Turnbull Library. These include manifestos from the Auckland and Wellington Women’s Liberation Movements, probably dating to 1971, a statement of opposition to beauty pageants from the Christchurch Women’s Liberation Movement (probably 1972) and a number of early and important papers read at conferences. Ephemeral documents are complemented by texts from more widely available sources, such as The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and official publications such as the New Zealand Parliamentary Debates. Also reprinted are a number of articles from two feminist periodicals produced in the 1930s – Woman Today and Working Woman.
This is a book to be dipped into and savoured – a veritable smorgasbord of passionate rhetoric, wry humour, pedantic manifesto and critical analysis. With such a range of articles to choose from it is difficult to single out a few for comment. I loved reading Margot Roth’s characteristically sharp and funny ‘More Mum’s for the Olympics’, admired the clear-cut organisation of the minds who produced sixty-three points on dress reform, sixteen reasons for women’s suffrage or fifteen points on women’s equality. It was particularly gratifying to read the volume of material on women’s writings on peace (1905-1919) and on economic independence (1920s and 1930s), from a period which is often viewed as the dark age for feminism.
The only possible quibble is the quality of the visuals, which include photo-reproductions of some of the original articles, poems and illustrations. These are badly presented, often unclear, with text cut off or crooked on the page. In an age of image scanning and electronic enhancement they could have been better handled. They undercut the presentation of what is otherwise a very fine book.
In sum, this book is an excellent read for those with a general interest in women’s history, an invaluable resource and guide for students and a compact sample of source materials for professionals. It is one of those rare books which purports to reach a wide audience and accomplishes this goal with great style and quality.
Maureen Molloy is a senior lecturer in Women’s Studies at Auckland University.