Paying the price of principle, Margaret Wilson

Stick Out, Keep Left: an autobiography by Margaret Thorn
Elsie Locke and Jacquie Matthews (ed)
Auckland University Press/ Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 1 86940143 3

She Dared to Speak – Connie Birchfield’s Story
Maureen Birchfield
University of Otago Press
1 877133 531

One of the advantages claimed for MMP was that it would increase the number of women in Parliament. After the first election under MMP the number of women did rise from 21% to 30%, though the number of women in Cabinet fell from four to one. Of course the fact that that one woman in Cabinet is the Prime Minister may be seen by some as counting for more than one. The achievement of women in public life has long been assessed in tens of numbers, rather than the influence or power that those women may exercise. There is also an implicit assumption that being a woman will effect a qualitative difference in politics.

I confess to some sympathy for this view on the grounds that women’s life experiences are different from those of men and therefore their presence and input into political decision-making must reflect that experience and make for better policy. Experience however has taught me that while numbers are necessary for change, they are not sufficient. An understanding of how economic, social and cultural power is created and exercised, and how women’s lives are influenced by those forces, is essential for women to effect change through politics.

Of course not all women in politics want change. Voting patterns would indicate that until recently most women have voted conservatively. This is not surprising. When you have little control over events, you attempt to conserve what you have for fear it could be worse. Women have traditionally been confined to the private domestic role, with little expectation of influencing the forces that controlled the matters for which they were responsible. The practical matters of bearing children, feeding, clothing, housing and educating them has been the stuff of most women’s lives. Whether they fulfilled these needs through a strategic marriage or employment, women were rarely in control. It should never be forgotten that the women of the French Revolution were influenced as much by the lack of and price of bread, as by revolutionary principles. As is well known, women’s emergence into public life was accompanied by the capacity to be economically independent. A key factor in women’s voting patterns has been their experience of paid employment. As more women have entered the paid workforce, they have exercised their vote for an agenda of change. The feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s did much to raise the political awareness of women, even if it was divided on how to translate that awareness into political action. A lack of experience of the institutions of politics meant many feminists of that era underestimated the power that opposed their agenda for change. The naivety of those times is best expressed by the ease with which economic restructuring rolled back the few concessions feminists had won in recognition of the right of women to equality.

As a political activist and feminist during that turbulent period, I was driven more by present conditions than those of the past. As a student during the 60s, it was inconceivable to me that my gender would be a determining factor in my life chances. A short time in legal practice taught me that the power of rational argument and debate was limited when uttered by a woman. You were only seriously listened to when you had the capacity to bring about change, whether that change be legislation, a budget allocation, or influencing who got voted into a position of power. These were undoubtedly the lessons learnt by generations of Left women, but we were disconnected from our political heritage and therefore had to learn those lessons anew.

The links within the Labour Party and the trade union movement to women activists of the past were there but tenuous. Frequently we failed through a combination of ignorance and arrogance to recognise the value of those women who still struggled for the rights of women within the trade union movement and the various political parties of the Left. It was only through my involvement in the equal pay and equal employment opportunities campaigns of the early 1970s that I came to appreciate the lessons to be learnt from the women who had struggled since the First World War for the equality of women.

My ignorance may be forgiven to the extent that we are a country that is exceedingly careless of its oven history. Although more is now being recorded, debated and analyses, women’s history, and especially women’s political history, is still a marginal activity. Thanks to publishers such as Bridget Williams and the Women’s History Association, women remain a subject for study. The centenary of suffrage produced research and publications relating to women that have helped mask the growing backlash against women as a separate category. This backlash is driven by polices of economic restructuring according to which the market is gender-neutral and equality an inefficiency that cannot be tolerated in a world where efficiency is prized above all. It is also supposed by the ever-present underlying tensions and ambivalence that characterise gender relationships.

My concern about this determined effort to silence women again is that it condemns to ignorance about half the population. How can we hope to reconstruct a society from the devastation of democratic values left by economic restructuring unless there is recognition of equality as a fundamental value. The publication of these two books therefore is a useful reminder of the reality of the lives of two political women who fought all their lives for the principles of democratic socialism. Little is written about the achievements of Left women or their influence on policies that have come to be identified with male leaders. Liz Gordon attempted to reveal the hidden contribution of women to the Labour Party between its formation and the 1960s. Unfortunately much of her invaluable research remains unpublished. A reading of it however vindicates the observation that without women’s activism and support, the Left would never have achieved an established position in New Zealand politics.

The publication of Margaret Thorn’s autobiography and Maureen Birchfield’s biography of her mother Connie Birchfield provides valuable material to fill that gap in our political history. Although there are similarities between the two women, there are also differences that reflect the divergent path taken by the Left. Both women were born in Lancashire in the late 1890s, had emigrated to New Zealand and worked politically before they met their husbands, married men involved in politics and formed political partnerships with them, and continued to work politically throughout their lives. Their differences lie in the political paths they followed.

Margaret Thorn, whose family had arrived in New Zealand in 1912, encountered her formative political experiences through the Waihi Lockout of 1912-13 and the anti-conscription movement of the First World War. She joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP), where she met Jim Thorn whom she married after his release from a term in prison for sedition. She actively supported his political career as he progressed through the Labour Party organization to a seat in Parliament in the 1935 election. When he lost his seat and was appointed High Commissioner to Canada and to the United Nations, Margaret went with him and played a full part in the life of a diplomat. Although this account is given through the significant events in her husband’s life, she fully participated in the practical work of politics – the meetings, conferences, the writing, the advocacy, the taking care of the needs of constituents. This work was in addition to her primary responsibility for the family and her husband’s well-being.

The strength of her book is the insight she gives into the events through which she lived. The hardship and poverty endured for a set of principles resulted in her nervous breakdown after the death of Jim Thorn, and eventually earning a living as a cook aged 66, the same occupation she had at 15. There was no Parliamentary pension because Jim did not complete the required 12 years. There was in fact no public or political role for her apart from her husband. The weakness of the book is its lack of analysis and context that might have explained why her obvious contribution to the political life of the Labour Party and the country has gone unnoticed. To be fair, the book was never intended to contribute to political analysis. It will however provide material for those who want to understand women’s contribution to the formation of the First Labour Government in 1935 and its struggle to deliver its ideals into practical policies.

The story of Connie Birchfield does not lack context or research, though it too lacks analysis. Again the book was intended to present the life of a much admired mother whose influence was much wider than her immediate family. Connie Rawcliffe arrived in New Zealand later than Margaret Thorn. She was alone and older when she arrived, and with great determination she set about creating a life that was informed with a deep commitment to socialism and social justice. Involvement .in the trade union movement and an experience with unemployment during the 1930s depression led her more by accident than design into the Communist Party. Through her political involvement she met and married a comrade, Albert James Augustus Birchfield known as “Birchie”. It was as much a political partnership as a marriage and endured until Birchie’s death.

Connie’s courage was considerable. To live the life of an active prominent communist during this period could not have been easy. Even more difficult however was the expulsion from the Communist Party in 1957. One of the greater challenges in any life must be to face the reality that your belief in an individual or organisation has been misplaced. Connie faced this challenge through a return to basic socialist principles and therefore emerged with her belief intact, but without organisational expression. Birchie appeared not to fare so well when disconnected from the organisation to which he had devoted his life. Through their lives an understanding is given of how political commitment can place you at risk. It is interesting to speculate on the contrast between a life without belief in anything and one devoted to belief in a principle or cause. On reading this book, you get a sense that whatever the pain and poverty endured in this life by Connie Birchfield, the risk of belief in principle was worth it.

It is obvious from both accounts that neither Margaret nor Connie would have described themselves as feminists but they did pursue a feminist agenda. Their commitment to social justice for all made that inevitable. Their lack of analysis of the causes of women’s inequality made it difficult to pursue policies that freed women from their dependence on men. They themselves lived lives that were intimately connected with their men and their children. They were women who assumed all roles – political activist, wife, mother, cook, dressmaker, leader of protests. These were not dependent women, but they were women who arguably could not achieve full independence. They were constrained by the appropriate role for women at that time, though they pushed it to the limit. Their activism was welcomed but within limits. As Jacquie Matthews observes, Peter Fraser would have proposed Margaret Thorn for membership of the New Zealand delegation to the United Nations had it not been “undesirable to have both the husband and wife on the same job”. Connie was also treated with ambivalence by those who worked with her. It was little wonder she broke down after the expulsion.

Connie and Margaret also worked within political movements that are characterised by their capacity to split and divide over matters of principle and personality. The Left has retained this capacity, which makes it a difficult site for action for feminists. The structural rigidity of the Left has positioned people to make choices that might have been unnecessary if the questions had been redefined. It is this inability to accommodate difference because of the need to maintain a unified position that alienates many women whether or not they are feminists. At the same time, it is obvious that networking has limited effectiveness as a political structure when seeking to produce institutional change. Without effective organisational structures, political influence is limited and political power impossible.

The Labour Party of the 70s and 80s attempted to accommodate the feminist agenda through a strengthening of separate organisational structures, such as women’s policy conferences, and through consciously mainstreaming feminist women into party positions and electorates. The success of that strategy was an increased number of women in Parliament and the election of Helen Clark as the Parliamentary Leader. The strategy ran into trouble however when the Parliamentary Party was co-opted by those who pursued an economic restructuring programme that ignored social justice concerns of both men and women in the many. The feminist agenda of employment equity was characterised as a major threat to the economic stability of New Zealand.

The split in the Labour Party and the formation of New Labour faced many feminists with a difficult decision. Individual choices were made for a variety of reasons, but the feminist policy agenda has remained fundamentally intact in both parties. Both Margaret and Connie would have been familiar with the dilemma faced by many Left women who continue to work within the trade union movement and political parties. Both also recognised however that it is more important to maintain the ideas than organisational purity. Margaret Thorn might have summed up the sentiments of many Left women wherever they chose to work politically, when she concluded her writing with the following observations on the political situation:

I believe in the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. I believe the raw materials, the resources and the labour of any country are for the use and benefit of that country in something like equal shares for its people. A government which allows foreign holdings, unhampered exploitation and investment is only building up crises for the future.

Margaret Wilson teaches in the Law Faculty at the University of Waikato. She is a founder President of the New Zealand Labour Party.

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