On top of Mount Cook: women’s worlds, Shelagh Duckham Cox

The Book of New Zealand Women: Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa
Charlotte Macdonald, Merimeri Penfold and Bridget Williams (eds),
Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1991, $45

You could start to read The Book of New Zealand Women at the beginning and make your way to the end, commencing with Caroline Abraham, the bishop’s wife who could not ‘be content merely to glide down the stream of life’ and read right through to Miss Z, the laundress who appeared as a witness before the Sweating Commission of 1890With enough time and stamina it could be done.

But it is more likely you’ll use it as a reference book. A major indication of the quality of such a work is the care and imagination to be found in its indices. The indexing in this book really does tell you what’s in it. It covers topics that might be expected in a women’s biographical dictionary ‑ shopkeepers, widows, teachers. Then there are the subjects that aren’t to be expected at all, or not till you consider what these women’s lives. were often actually like – gum-digging, experiencing psychiatric illness, improvident husbands. This index (along with the two of women-subjects and the writers of the entries) points to the calibre of the work that underlies The Book of New Zealand Women. All the figures of the received national myth are there, but there is much more to it than that. There are women who had things done to them as well as those who did things, Annemarie Anon who was ‘completely unsexed’ through a medical procedure at Seacliff Asylum in 1890 as well as Grace Neill who provided and withheld charitable aid. Poor and rich, makers of children, homes and gardens as well as pioneers in the arts, sport and the professions, immigrants and native-born, Maori and other ethnic groups in large numbers, populate these pages. The range of entries is large and impressive.

Move from the index to the pieces themselves and the sense of scholarship persists. Look someone up and you get a thorough and uncomplicated access to the facts of her life, a solid sense of editorial shape and full references without the distraction of obtrusive footnoting. I defy anyone, though, to start what’s going to be a long acquaintance by reading The Book of New Zealand Women either chronologically or as a reference book. The pleasure it gives, when you are getting to know it, is quite different. It’s that of a succession of fairytales where protagonists suffer injustice or overcome fearful odds; of suddenly discovering the diaries of a great-aunt who’s hitherto been known as a family eccentric and dark horse. To plunge into story after story is to identify with the hopes, the loss of hope, or the wresting of opportunity out of unpromising situations that mark the progress of so many of these women’s lives.

Mostly, that is. A minority of entries in this book lack lustre; even when the stories they have to tell are good ones, they read mustily. Fortunately mustiness is rare and that’s why it stands out. Mostly I read with a constant sense of surprise, a marvelling at the almost quirky things that can bring about change in a woman’s life. Maggie Makeriti Papakura, a tourist guide in Whakarewarewa thermal reserve, married an Oxfordshire landowner she met as a result of her work, divorced him, enrolled at Oxford University as a student in anthropology and wrote a thesis that sprang from her Maori heritage. And, according to her mother, it was getting contact lenses at the age of fifteen that turned Helen Paske from an introvert with a phenomenal memory to compensate for her bad eyesight into an outgoing journalist.

The urge to go on telling the stories that have had most impact on me is a measure of the success of this book. In its compulsive sense of engagement it pushes forward the frontiers of feminist research in New Zealand. Over the last five years or so books have been published here that fill gaps in women’s history, sociology and literary criticism. They tend ‑inevitably, perhaps, as pioneers in their field ‑ to tell us a lot about the outside world that has shaped the lives of women, to identify and explore more and more parts of the female social pattern. The Book of New Zealand Women takes the rounding-out of this task as its starting point. Then it does more. It moves from the outer to the inner world. The best of the writers of these stories record what happened but also bring to life the feelings that went with events, often in sharp and moving glimpses.

In time I shall come back to this book more sombrely, more academically. For now I am left with evocations. One of the stories that affected me most is the paradoxical emotional response a woman can feel when she succeeds at last in a man’s world. In 1910 Freda du Faur stood on the top of Mount Cook, having defied all attempts to stop her career as a mountaineer. And at the moment of achieving her ambition she felt, she says, ‘very little, very lonely, and much inclined to cry’.


Shelagh Duckham Cox is a Wellington sociologist and writer who is the editor of ‘Public and Private Worlds: Women in Contemporary New Zealand’.


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Posted in Biography, Gender, Non-fiction, Review
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