Writing herstory, Margaret Lovell-Smith

Women’s History: A Short Guide to Researching and Writing Women’s History in New Zealand
Bronwyn Labrum,
Bridget Williams Books/ Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, $17.95

Women of Spirit
Barbara Sampson,
The Salvation Army, $9.95

The Ladies Are At It Again! Gore Debates the Women’s Franchise
Rosemarie Smith,
Women’s Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, $19.95

‘Women’s history,’ says Bronwyn Labrum, in her Short Guide to Researching and Writing Women’s History in New Zealand, ‘begins with the assumption that women are half the human race, not a minority group. It recognises that there are many largely female experiences that are not part of the existing historical record, and that their omission from historical accounts is a distortion of knowledge.’

Each of these three books represents an attempt to improve women’s visibility in the historical record. While Labrum has written an encouraging how-to-do-it guide, the books by Rosemarie Smith and Barbara Sampson provide practical examples of some of the points which Labrum makes about writing women’s history.

Rosemarie Smith’s case study of the women’s franchise debate in Gore in 1892 and 1893 is a marvellous demonstration of how a segment of women’s history can be largely recovered through a careful reading of contemporary newspapers. The fact that women are often almost completely absent from the newspaper pages is discussed by Smith and adds to the interest of her story.

To set the scene, Smith makes use of statistical information and newspapers to depict what life was like for women in Gore in the early 1890s. It is a good demonstration of how these sources – sometimes the only ones available when researching women – can be used.

A description of the major women’s franchise meeting, which took place in Gore in June 1892leads on to an analysis of the very lively debate that followed. Smith also describes the steps which Gore women took to organise around the franchise question. Here again she was hampered by a lack of records or reports of the activities of the Women’s Franchise League, and she is not able to explain such mysteries as why women’s franchise, so hotly debated in 1892was not discussed again in the local newspapers until September 1893The 187 signatures collected for the 1893 women’s suffrage petition provide about the only evidence that the women of Gore were still politically active.

An afterword adds a discussion of how historians have written about women’s franchise in the past, for, as Smith says, claims of writing objectively, or of ‘saying just what happened’, are likely to be expressing the ‘dominant taken-for-granted viewpoint’. Following her assertion that historians ‘must be more self-critical and attempt to make the position from which they write and the theoretical measures they are using more transparent,’ she says that her own position was ‘to make gender a central issue’.

Smith’s use of a wide margin to reprint many amusing snippets from contemporary local newspapers, and the inclusion of a liberal number of photos and some line drawings, adds up to an appealing visual presentation for The Ladies Are At It Again!

Labrum’s Short Guide aims to help and encourage potential researchers and writers of women’s history. Bringing together, as it does, information not hitherto available in any one source, it will also be a helpful reference book for those who are already engaged in a women’s history research project.

Beginning with a discussion about what women’s history is, and why it’s essential that more of it should be recorded, Labrum goes on to offer a wealth of helpful information about choosing topics, doing the research, and then writing it up. Under the ‘choosing topics’ heading, Labrum not only suggests areas of investigation, but frames possible research questions and lists further reading in each topic area. To help with the research process, advice is given about taking notes and managing the research material, as well as how to locate likely sources. Appendices add further lists of information such as a select bibliography that includes university theses of the last two decades, and the names and addresses of relevant institutions and organisations.

Barbara Sampson’s Women of Spirit is made up of twenty-eight life stories of women who have devoted their lives to working as uniformed officers for the Salvation Army. The title has an intended double meaning: all of the women described in this collection have displayed a courageous spirit, but they have also been women of strong faith. Sampson, herself a Salvationist, has clearly written the book mainly for women within the Salvation Army church, and some of her language and concepts sound odd to the rest of us. Her subjects never die, for example, but are always ‘promoted to Glory’. Comparing this book with the advice given in Labrum’s guide, one quickly becomes aware of shortcomings, such as the absence of references to source material. An introduction giving an overview of the role of women in the Salvation Army, perhaps comparing this with other denominations, would have given the book more general appeal. However, the compilation of the biographies still represents a remarkable achievement. Readers from within the church will find these women inspirational; for other readers, Women of Spirit provides a glimpse into a sub-group of women we know little about, but who appear to have achieved a measure of equality within their denomination well ahead of other churches. Salvation Army women also feature in The Ladies Are It Again! Mrs Captain Dixon, for example, was one of the speakers at the June 1892 franchise meeting in Gore.

This centenary year of the gaining of women’s suffrage has been a boon for women’s history in New Zealand. One reason for the flurry of activity has been the availability of financial support from the Suffrage Centennial Year Trust which contributed towards the costs of both Rosemarie Smith’s and Barbara Sampson’s books. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait another 100 years before more funding becomes available for books of this kind.


Margaret Lovell-Smith is a Christchurch writer.



Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category