The Heritage Collections pay tribute to 125 years of New Zealand women’s suffrage in their latest exhibition. We showcase early women writers and other creative women of the times to complement the story of the women’s suffrage movement.
The exhibition features books starting from the 1860s by women such as Isabella Aylmer and Charlotte Evans, whose writings bore a distinctly British flavour, with an emphasis on romance, adventure and faraway lands. In the 1870s, the popular writings of Lady Mary Anne Barker offered a vivid portrayal of life in colonial New Zealand. The enigmatic Mrs Corlett, writing under the pseudonym of Silver Pen, wrote pugnacious political sketches in doggerel verse as well as sentimental poetry.
Many New Zealand women writers from the 1880s onwards were known supporters of women’s suffrage. These included Thorpe Talbot, a popular author of fiction and travel literature, who was a signatory to suffrage petitions; Edith Searle Grossman, an active suffragist of the 1890s, whose novels examined the role of women in marriage; Jessie Mackay, a poet and journalist involved in the suffrage movement as a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; and her friend, poet and travel writer Blanche Baughan, suffragist and prison reformer.
The novels of Louisa Alice Baker (writing as Alien) are prominently featured. The lot of a lone woman was her most enduring theme, and her novels have strong feminist overtones, as did her Otago Witness column ‘Alice’s Letter to her Readers’. Another author with strong feminist convictions was Edith Howes, a steadfast advocate of educational reform and women’s participation in public life - although best remembered as an author of fairy-themed children’s literature.
The exhibition includes creative women who rose to prominence in the field, such as the Dunedin-based bookbinder Eleanor Joachim. It also features women whose careers were limited by the conventions of the time. Ellen Wright Blackwell, co-author of Plants of New Zealand, struggled to gain due credit for the book in a male-dominated field. Emily Cumming Harris was a teacher and artist who lived in straitened circumstances, tied to her dual roles in work and family.
Alongside this celebration of literary and artistic talent, this exhibition features texts relating to the suffrage movement itself. Among these are examples of contemporary reporting of the granting of women’s suffrage, notably from temperance periodicals such as The Prohibitionist and Direct Veto Advocate and Temperance Standard. A range of books pertaining to persons or organisations involved in the suffrage movement also feature.