From Suffrage to a Seat in the House: The path to Parliament for New Zealand women by Jenny Coleman (Otago University Press, 2020), 338pp., $45; Crossing the Lines: The story of three homosexual New Zealand soldiers in World War II by Brent Coutts (Otago University Press, 2020), 336pp., $49.95
Two recent books counter commonplace narratives about Aotearoa’s social and political history.
In From Suffrage to a Seat in the House: The path to Parliament for New Zealand women Jenny Coleman traces the stalling of the women’s franchise after the success of the suffrage petition and subsequent Electoral Bill of 1893. From that moment, it took an extraordinary twenty-six years for women to win the right to be elected to Parliament, and fourteen years after that for the first woman to actually win a seat—by which time the country we like to remind ourselves was trailblazing had been overtaken by a number of liberal democracies, including Britain.
The story of this baffling interregnum is structured into a series of distinct phases: a first period in which several attempts were made to reach what Coleman wryly calls ‘the logical conclusion of the female franchise’ and remove the so-called ‘political disabilities’ that barred women from office (wryly, in that successive parliaments clearly saw that conclusion as anything but logical); a second, longer period of ‘political apprenticeship’, when women were called upon to demonstrate their ability as mayors, school board members, civic administrators and, yes, campaigners (again) for political representation; a third phase (1910–19) charting the lead-up to the tortured passing of the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Bill; a further decade-and-a-half of failed attempts, this time at getting the first woman elected; and finally, the account of the all-too-brief parliamentary career of Elizabeth McCombs, from her success at the Lyttelton seat by-election following the death of her husband James in 1933 to her own, grimly fitting death in office in June 1935.
All of the meticulously researched and documented chapters, save for the last one, make for infuriating reading, as one never truly gets the sense that there ever was a great (or greatly organised) opposition to allowing women to sit in Parliament. Rather, the path was obstructed by petty politicking—as the first MPs to champion bills in the 1890s set across the aisle from the governments of the day—or the perplexing contention that the majority of New Zealand women were in fact quite happy to continue electing men to run the country and otherwise get on with their lives; which, even to the extent that it might have been partly true, would perhaps not be seen today as a justification for withholding a fundamental civil right. Although, in a rare pre-World War II appearance of Godwin’s Law, the Reform candidate who ran against McCombs did utter the arresting phrase ‘I believe the same as Hitler believes, that woman’s place is in the home’, the overwhelming impression is of an inertia produced by a sort of national small-mindedness, and in which the predominant slogan was ‘the time isn’t ripe’ as opposed to ‘this should or will never happen’. Coleman gives a precise account of each painful step, and the full flavour of the sometime derisive national commentary that surrounded it.
The most sympathetic characters in the story aren’t primarily the succession of campaigners who eventually saw to the removal of women’s political disabilities, but the pioneering female candidates of the long decade after the end of World War I. Here again the depth of Coleman’s research shines as she chronicles their political platforms and public statements, as well as their reception at the mass-attended public meetings that in those days were the true measure of campaigning.
The author is in no doubt that the supremely qualified, forthright and indefatigable Ellen Melville—who contested five elections and one by-election variously as an independent, a member of the Reform party and a ‘women’s candidate’—is the one that most exemplifies ‘the extent of the entrenched conservatism and bias against women’s full participation in the political sphere’, but she paints the picture of a worthy holder of the title of first woman MP in Labour’s Elizabeth McCombs. It was a bittersweet triumph: the work she undertook, without relinquishing her other civic commitments, likely contributed to the fatal worsening of her health.
While the history told by Coleman is instructive and important, it also often makes, as already noted, for bleak reading. In this respect, the contrast with Brent Coutts’ Crossing the Lines: The story of three homosexual New Zealand soldiers in World War II couldn’t be sharper. With remarkably few exceptions, this is a frankly joyful and affirming book, doubly subverting expectations of a war story and an account of life for gay men in the military and their era.
Although it makes no claim to universality—it paints a different picture, for instance, to the relevant section in Paul Millar’s recent biography of Bill Pearson (who makes an appearance late in the book)—Crossing the Lines explicitly ‘seeks to challenge the overwhelmingly negative and unhappy story of mid-twentieth-century queer experience’. While it’s not set entirely during the conflict, its contribution to the queer history of World War II in particular is a first of its kind for New Zealand military historiography. What ultimately made it possible are a series of interviews that Coutts was able to conduct with two of the protagonists in the years preceding their deaths. That oral history enabled him to obtain and also make proper sense of the astonishing photographic and written archive that accompanies the book. This contributes so much to the brilliance of its colours. The circumstance also serves as a reminder throughout that the book’s chief organising story could so easily have been lost.
The three soldiers alluded to in the title go by the names of Harold Robinson, Douglas Morison and Ralph Dyer. Robinson grew up in Dunedin, while Morison and Dyer met in Auckland, where they formed part of a circle of homosexual friends with a shared interest in the performing arts known as the AdLib Club. As Robinson told another historian, Marianne Schultz, about his fairly similar social experience at the time: ‘[I]n those days being gay hadn’t been invented yet … I have never had to make any excuses about being homosexual. I have never had to apologise to people.’
This is the condition shared by the trio at the war’s outset, as young men who had found a community of peers in which they could not only exist but thrive. As Coutts speculates, Morison and Dyer would likely have met Robinson even if the army hadn’t thrown them together, as the latter would most likely have moved to Auckland to pursue his passion for the stage. But throw them together the army did—initially Morison and Dyer, that is, then all three—into an environment that effectively tolerated homosexuality (the author focuses briefly on the very small number of courts martial for sodomy in the records) and presented in fact some advantages for gay men: chiefly by creating a homosocial space with opportunities for intimacy of which civilian men were deprived, but also the need to perform daily tasks that the heteronormative society of the time set aside for women. These included various forms of domestic work, and Robinson in particular thrived as a batman—a role he fulfilled for future prime minister John Marshall.
The three men pursued those advantages of this ‘world without women’ to the fullest by becoming entertainers, launching themselves not only in the performance but in all aspects of the production of the so-called Concert Parties—theatrical extravaganzas in which they impersonated women both in comic sketches and song and dance routines. These are described in delightful levels of detail, which the reader can enhance by searching YouTube for some of the contemporary numbers from Hollywood musicals referenced in the programmes. The relevant chapters are the heart of the book. Deftly, Coutts follows the diaries and accounts of his protagonists to tell the stories of some of the men they served with or encountered, making the picture of their queer wartime society more nuanced and composite. Then, after the war, he follows them to London, where Morison managed to have himself discharged and was later accepted into the 1946 programme for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). There he was joined by the others, and the three flatted together for a time, enjoying the opportunity to move into another, much larger urban queer community, and again make the theatre a central part of their lives.
Crossing the Lines is perhaps, above all, the story of this friendship between these three men—but it’s a friendship that uniquely reveals an important chapter of New Zealand’s social history.
GIOVANNI TISO is an Italian writer and translator based in Wellington. He is online editor of the Australian literary journal Overland.