Good keen women, Ginette McDonald

Stroppy Sheilas and Gutsy Girls 
Sandra Coney
Tandem Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 87717 829 2

In a memorable scene in the 1973 BBC TV drama series Shoulder to Shoulder, an evocation of the suffrage move-ment in Great Britain, Lady Constance’s brother, concerned that her TB has been fatally exacerbated by her public struggle for women’s rights, asks, “Was it worth it Connie?” She replies, “Have you ever seen locusts try to cross a river? One by one they try, and one by one they fall in and drown. But eventually, there are so many dead locusts in that river that their bodies form a bridge over which the live ones may pass.”

In her surprisingly light-spirited social anthropology Stroppy Sheilas and Gutsy Girls, Sandra Coney gives us a splendid variety of locusts, dead and alive. The exploits of some singular women are presented here in manageable pocket biographies. They are all, New Zealand-born or otherwise, brave and robust of character.

The no-nonsense cover, featuring the redoubtable granny Teddy Glynn, the first and finest woman of New Zealand rifle shooting, clearly signals the sort of stroppiness to be found within. While none of her subjects are self-avowed do-gooders, Sandra Coney has presented a broad range of admirable women – admirable even for their criminal tenacity, as in the case of Miss Amy Bock (“A Marvellous Masquerade”) who disguised herself as a man during a lifetime of fraud. When apprehended, Amy’s total lack of remorse demonstrated at least grittiness of spirit and a certain flair in the confines of a rigid Victorian colonial society.

The gutsy girls and stroppy sheilas are loosely arranged in categories: Feisty Foremothers, Shocking Sheilas, Shoulders to the Wheel, Cross Dressers (!), A Very Big Adventure, Sweet Smell of Revenge, Courage of their Convictions, Rowdy Women, Gutsy Girls, and so on. They are all fairly self-explanatory, but the excellently detailed index and major source references whet the appetite to learn more about, say, the young Ellen Baker (“The Gutsy Picannine Wahine”) who married in 1858 at the startling age of fifteen. Ellen bore her sea captain husband four children and inventively saw off raiding parties of Hauhau on several occasions, using humour, pluck and youthful righteousness as her weapons. Some years after the Hauhau decapitated her husband, Ellen returned from a sojourn in England to work as the Maori superintendent of the Women’s Christian Temperance movement, bearing no grudge towards her former tormentors. She is quoted as saying, “There are many of us who really wish to join hand in hand with them in the struggle to be good”.

Many feats of valour by Maori women are also documented in this pick ‘n’ mix of interesting women. Various heroic wahines have rowed, swum or run like the wind in defence of their people. And women like Iriaka Ratana (“Fighting for Free Speech”) determinedly broke the mould of traditional Maori patriarchy by running for electoral office in 1949. She was bluntly told that she was breaking the kawa of various tribes. “If the hen crows, screw its neck!” her critics said. Iriaka’s response: “When the men bring the fish home, who cooks it?” Too right. You can’t keep a good woman down.

Though this is a cheerful book, there is an underlying theme that these women are battling, consciously or not, for more recognition, acceptance and an easier life for their sex. And the struggle for women goes on, in this far-off, raw and necessarily innovative island, where the indigenous preoccupation is male superiority, and the main attractions are scenery and sport rather than culture and conversation.

Everyone should read this book, if only to be reminded that while New Zealand may have been one of the first countries to give women the vote, they were still not welcome in public bars in the 1970s. It is no wonder we produced so many female cross-dressers. If you can’t beat ‘em …

And this book should be given to all our daughters, to remind them that we women have come far but must remain vigilant. The river is aswarm with dead locusts but Stroppy Sheilas and Gutsy Girls shows us that the bridge is still delicate and hard-won. We should pay attention to the words fiery little Irishwoman Emily Gibson (“Wives’ Liberation”) wrote in the New Zealand Herald in 1907: “Don’t neglect yourself. A woman owes a duty to herself quite as important in its way as that she owes to her husband and children. You have only one life; make the most of it.”

Ginette McDonald is a Wellington actor and producer.

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