Helen Watson White
Kate Edger: The life of a pioneering feminist by Diana Morrow (Otago University Press, 2021), 276pp, $39.99
When Kate Edger (1857–1935) won a scholarship to enter university, her studies took the form of night classes in a building that was part of Auckland College and Grammar, described by the chairman of the local Education Board as ‘a disused military hut, the floor of which is not quite safe to tread on, the roof of which is open to the sky’.
Diana Morrow’s richly textured biography of Edger reveals how a few holes in the roof, like notions of male superiority and other forms of bigotry, were never going to deter this young woman from the journey she purposed through higher education and beyond. It is a tale of hopes nurtured, words wielded, values tenaciously held and obstacles overcome. Kate Edger was an unstoppable force, it seems—optimistic, prodigiously hardworking and deeply principled: an evangelical version of the ‘New Woman’, as the liberated female was called in the late nineteenth century.
At first home-schooled by her father Samuel, a liberal nonconformist minister who was both feminist and socialist, Kate absorbed from an early age the view that father and daughter(s) were equal, in the same way as all classes and nations were equal, in the eyes of God. At senior level she studied with boys in the same ‘top class’ and excelled in the same exams, going on first to graduate BA and then, while working full time, MA at Canterbury College. A teacher for most of her life, Edger told the girls in her classes they should have high aspirations for themselves, that they had every right to succeed as she had done—in a society ruled by parliaments and councils that were then 100 percent male.
In 1893 this ‘Founding Headmistress’ of Nelson College for Girls resigned to marry Congregationalist minister William Evans, who shared her views, and together they launched a colonial form of Britain’s voluntary Forward Movement in Wellington. Since Kate always believed in the sanctity of home and family, some records of her life assume that William Evans was the initiator and Kate (for eleven years the sole breadwinner) merely supported him; but Morrow shows that their endeavours were squarely based on a lived equality, a partnership in which they both believed.
The momentum of socially progressive movements in the nineteenth century can be traced back to Britain’s spiritual revival of the late eighteenth century, writes Morrow. Evangelistic zeal fired up women to campaign for things like the abolition of slavery; their motives were non-sectarian, expressed in practice rather than piety. Over half of the British-born feminists listed in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography came from the nonconformist (Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist) denominations, and this is the background that other famous activists like Kate Sheppard shared with Edger.
Throughout the book the author stresses the importance of their faith to those seeking social justice and reform. Although the word feminist was not used until the 1890s, these women were also the leaders of first-wave feminism, campaigning through all sorts of media to improve women’s legal and voting rights, education and employment opportunities. Many went further than that, Edger among them, wanting nothing less than a complete reformation of society: they campaigned for equal pay and better work conditions; for temperance or abstinence to prevent alcohol destroying family and society; for prison reform, with rehabilitation replacing punishment; for an end to the sexual double standard whereby prostitutes could be imprisoned while their clients went free; and for the advent of female police and judges to protect women and children from violence. The list is long.
Many of the causes that were canvassed seem ahead of their times. In the Forward Movement’s journal The Citizen, first issued in 1895, articles on a range of social and political issues include a plea from socialist feminist Louisa Blake for a compulsory government work scheme to banish unemployment and make charitable aid redundant. Morrow even notes a ‘male feminist’ named Basil Stocker, arguing for ‘co-operative housekeeping’, which would mean families cooking in a communal kitchen, the aim being ‘the emancipation of wives and mothers, women and girls, from their present deplorable slavery’.
As men of the time debated every issue from a number of standpoints, so did women. In the course of Edger’s long and active life, the number of meetings, lectures, sermons, discussions and organisations she was involved with is overwhelming, the range of opinions she encountered quite extraordinary. Sometimes a clash of interests is only implied; and Morrow reveals agreement or opposition that underlies events, as well as the events themselves. She imagines, for instance, that the issue of Ettie Rout providing prophylactics for the Empire’s soldiers in World War I must have shocked the middle-class reformers who wanted moral purity for both husbands and wives. The ideal of the preservation of home life, with the wife fulfilling her function in what was always for Edger the ‘noblest sphere’, was of course shattered by the war itself, distancing family members from one another and adding death and disease to the wounding of the nation’s morale. The war brought a great disillusionment for all idealists—feminists, pacifists and socialists alike.
It must have been a shock, too, that not everybody wanted to be ‘improved’ in the way that women like Edger proposed. The reformers had often been seen as Puritan killjoys, Morrow admits, and this led to a marked difference between generations in the early twentieth century. In 1917 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) at its annual convention noted that young women were no longer joining the organisation. Morrow remarks:
Most WCTU stalwarts were now in their fifties or older. Although they held the same aims and ideas that had made them a progressive force in the 1890s, in some respects they looked conservative, attempting to preserve the vision of happy monogamous families living in a progressive, socially pure, alcohol-free utopia.
The strong sense of morality that propelled Edger into activism did, perhaps, reach its match in one particular counterforce: namely, the drive of the partying society of the 1920s for the kind of ‘emancipation’ that meant sexual freedom for both women and men. That had never been part of Edger’s vision—in actuality, it was completely foreign to it—but Morrow shows it was only one of many strands in the complex fabric of her society as it evolved.
There is a remarkable consistency between Edger’s views in later life and the hopes of her youth, because she was following a prepared path, a shared trajectory, in which individual differences did not affect the general trend of improvements for all. When she was only fourteen, in 1871, her father had bought up all available copies of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women for the enlightenment of Aucklanders who, having seen extracts published in the newspaper, might want to read the whole work. It is as if Mill’s radical ideas were percolating through the social layers, meeting sometimes with assent but also with dissent—in the form, perhaps, of Darwin’s opinion that ‘the process of natural selection had left women less highly evolved than men’. One would think that Darwin’s view might have prevailed, given the force of his radical theory, but it didn’t; the eugenics movement that came out of Darwin’s thought also proved that good ideas could be taken in wrong directions. There is a strong sense, in Morrow’s account, that Mill’s observations won out because they were attached to a movement for justice, and Mill was on what more people have seen as the side of right.
Even if you don’t believe in the nineteenth-century notion of Progress, it’s hard not to see Edger’s achievements as on that same side. And she stayed on course: after the death of her husband and also her best friend Lily Atkinson in 1921, she threw herself into the work of the British League of Nations Union, which opened a branch in Wellington in 1922. Morrow’s final chapter, ‘A Just Community in a Happy Family of Nations’, shows Edger’s aims for harmonious living in a family being extended to larger groupings. As head of Nelson College for Girls she had laid down a process of certification by merit, replacing the usual competition for school prizes; in the same way, and in line with her father’s internationalism, she sought peaceful co-operation in place of war. The League of Nations being the precursor of the United Nations, it’s hard not to see her future-changing work as worthy of being continued.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin poet, writer, photographer and critic. A judge for the Dunedin Theatre Awards, she currently reviews non-fiction books for Landfall, and opera for NZ Opera News.