Paula Wagemaker: ‘Celebrating the Past, Challenging the Future’
We live in an age of slogans – quick statements dreamed up to promote an idea, sell a product, launch a campaign. Most are glib and irritating, but some, like certain clichés, hide truths behind the seeming triteness. One such slogan is that used for this year’s commemoration of women’s enfranchisement in New Zealand. For me, ‘Celebrating the Past, Challenging the Future’ sums up why we are commemorating the passing of the Electoral Act 1893. In 1993 this event provides a focus around which we women (and men) can pause, look at what we have accomplished over the past 100 years and at what we need to work on in the future.
‘Celebrating the Past, Challenging the Future’ also has relevance for this issue of New Zealand Books. Many – by no means all – of the reviews are of books by and about New Zealand women, and most of these are listed in the top twenty or supplementary lists for the Listener Women’s Book Festival in late September. Taken together, the reviews highlight many of the issues that New Zealand women have confronted over the past 100 years, and may continue to face over the next. Some century-old comments about women’s role in society could have been said today, as Rosemarie Smith shows in her book (reviewed by Margaret Lovell-Smith on page 8) on the franchise debates that took place in Gore in the late 1880s and early 1890s.
Some reviews also document women’s under-recognised contribution, through their voluntary and unpaid labour, to New Zealand’s development; a contribution that is still not given due recognition in economic indices. Anne Else’s book, Women Together, reviewed by Margot Roth on pages 1-2, draws together a huge amount of information on this area of women’s endeavour. Other reviews point to the challenges facing women of the various cultures that make up our society. Although the challenges may be shared, the way they are regarded from one culture to another may differ, as Marivee McMath points out in her review of Superwoman: Where Are You? Most of the reviews, though, implicitly or directly, indicate how opportunities for women broadened between 1893 and 1993, thereby throwing up new challenges not just for women (and often young women, especially, as a couple of the reviews on the children’s pages attest) but for all society.
The reviews also highlight the contributions that women make to our literary culture. Some of these women are well known: Katherine Mansfield, whose latest collected volume of letters is reviewed by Jane Stafford on page 11, remains for many an icon of New Zealand literature. Several of the reviews, particularly in the fiction section, indicate the wealth of female writing talent and the often fresh perspectives that this brings both to women’s lot and how we look at ourselves as a nation. The very topics that publishers have chosen to publish say something of what interests women today, and of the extent to which women contribute to book publishing in New Zealand. Although women are still under-represented at management levels in the bigger publishing houses, they play a very major role in the design, editing and promotion of New Zealand writing. The number of women who have set up their own publishing houses or publishing-related businesses in the past few years is an indicator both of women’s role in writing and their growing confidence in themselves.
Readers may wonder why some of the ‘suffrage’ books published this year are not reviewed here. The answer is either that review copies were not ready in time (as with Sandra Coney’s Standing in the Sunshine or Dame Mira Szaszy’s Te Timatanga – Tatau Tatau) or that we didn’t have space – government departments alone have produced a significant number of books as part of their contribution to suffrage year. We would also like to have renewed readers’ acquaintance with some of the classic novels by New Zealand women (Janet Frame, Robin Hyde) that are being re-issued by such publishers as Oxford University Press, Otago University Press and Random House, but again space was a problem. Nevertheless, we hope that the books reviewed in our spring issue of New Zealand Books encapsulate something of the spirit of celebrating the past and challenging the future in this commemoration year.