An important piece of social history, Ruth Fry

Redbrick and Bluestockings: Women at Victoria 1899-1993
Beryl Hughes and Sheila Ahern,
Victoria University Press, $29.95

This is not a book for dipping into in order to check whether the achievements of one’s aunt at university are properly recorded. It is a book to read and digest from cover to cover. The authors, both experienced historians, show how women university students and staff in Wellington over the last century have been affected by social change. Far from being isolated in an ivory tower, they appear to have been closely affected by two world wars, economic fluctuations, expanding educational opportunities, political swings and society’s expectations of women. The reverse process, the influence that university-educated women had on social change, appears to have been a halting advance which had to wait until the sixties before gathering real momentum. By using carefully selected archive material and personal reminiscences, the authors trace changes in women’s experience of being students and in the academic and career opportunities available to them.

The period is more or less sliced in two. Beryl Hughes deals with the earlier years and Sheila Ahern with 1950-93. Use is made of photographs and comments sent in by former students, and these give a lively appeal, particularly to the first half, for which documentation was sparse. Hughes creates a vivid picture of student life in the early days, when women requested a separate section of the debating club in order to have a chance to speak, went on tramps in gym slips and did most of the outdoor cooking, and campaigned for basketball to be included in the Easter Tournament. In spite of apparent equality, women were still having to fit into a male world. There were influential women students like Edith Miller, who stepped into the office of the president of the Students’ Association when the male president was called up in 1915, but it was not until 1969 that a woman, Margaret Bryson, was elected to the office. The writers place the book firmly among the gorse-covered hills of Wellington, with familiar references to climbing up Boulcott Street, running along The Terrace, sprinting from the cable car to be in time for evening lectures, time-tabled to suit the numbers of part-time students. No other university was quite like this. Women gained no social capital from enrolling at Victoria, and many had to manage on limited money. They took pride in their political activism.

The middle of the book is written by Maori women, with an overview by Lorna Kanavatoa, pointing out the inadequacy of earlier records and clearly showing the advance of Maori women, particularly in the last ten years during which the academic world has been more prepared to accommodate their special needs and aspirations. Tania Rei highlights the experience of a student parent (ever more difficult with rising fees) and looks to Maori solutions; Mere Boynton emphasises the gains in confidence from coping successfully with student life. These are experiences which Maori share with other students, but their circumstances are often vastly different. Miria Simpson, the first Maori woman on the staff, vividly tells her own story of the social and supportive links that Maori students have sought and developed.

For the later period, a plethora of material was available, mainly in the Students’ Association records, and Ahern makes use of these to discuss student political activities from the ‘student power’ of the sixties to efforts to combat fee rises in the nineties. The political drive of women, particularly staff members, in campaigning for equality at the student level, equal employment opportunity, a university crèche and other matters stimulated by the women’s movement, is amply documented, and most of the participants are still active.

Apart from some slight awkwardness when inserted biographical details accompanying photographs are insufficiently distinguished from the text and repetition occurs, the book achieves a unity which might have been elusive. The authors are fortunate in the high standard of individual contributions. One from Fleur Adcock captures the climate of the middle years and echoes the mood of the cover photograph taken on the main steps of the Hunter Building: ‘living so far away means that I haven’t watched the site of these memories changing. In my dreams, though, the steps, the entrance hall, the slightly alarming central staircase, still recur, simultaneously banal and loaded with significance: a setting for a lost play.’

But don’t expect a sentimental book. It is a very readable and important work of social history.


Ruth Fry has written on topics related to women’s education and history. Her book on a curriculum for girls, It’s Different for Daughters, was recently re-issued by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research.


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Posted in Education, Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review
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