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Q & A: Diana Morrow on Kate Edger: The life of a pioneering feminist

Thursday 1 April 2021 12:46pm

OUP recently released Kate Edger:The life of a pioneering feminist. Here, author Diana Morrow discusses how the book came to be and why it's important.

Morrow front cover 1500 pixelsWhy did you decide to write about Kate Edger? How did it come about?

I first discovered the Edgers several years ago, in the course of writing Urban Village (2008) a history of Ponsonby, Freeman’s Bay and St. Mary’s Bay. Kate’s father Samuel spent his later years in Ponsonby and Kate’s sister Lilian ran a girls’ school there for many years. Initially, I intended to write about the entire family. Kate had four talented high-achieving siblings and a fascinating, unconventional father, all of who lived interesting lives. But in the course of researching Kate’s life, I soon came to realize that her contributions were not only remarkable and far-reaching but also much more extensive than I’d previously thought. Her life alone would furnish enough material for a book. She is after all the most well-known person in her family, and justifiably so, because what she achieved influenced the course of women’s history.

Can you explain who Kate Edger is?

Kate Edger was the first woman in New Zealand to earn a university degree, and the first woman in the British Empire to earn a B.A. Her graduation ceremony, which took place on 11 July 1877 in Auckland’s Old Choral Hall, was recognized at the time as an important milestone for women’s rights. At university she achieved high marks and sailed through her courses with ease, thus offering ammunition against the many contemporary figures, from scientists to learned academics, who argued that women were intellectually inferior to men and that higher education threatened their traditional maternal and wifely roles. Those arguments did not fade away, as more and more women successfully earned degrees; instead, as the book shows, they grew more prevalent in the early years of the twentieth century.

Other New Zealand women, following in Kate footsteps, went on to achieve university degrees on an equal footing with men, and this development was an important precursor to New Zealand’s ground-breaking equal suffrage legislation in 1893. After graduating, Kate became a pioneer of women’s secondary education in New Zealand, first as a teacher at Christchurch Girls’ during its first years, and later as founding headmistress of Nelson College for Girls. The creation of these girls’ schools, which took women’s education seriously, and which served as a conduit for women university students, had an incalculable impact on the lives of many New Zealand women.

Following her marriage to Reverend William Evans in 1890, Kate still continued to teach classes for girls, but also engaged in what was effectively nascent social work. From the family home in Newtown, Wellington, she co-founded with William, a branch of the religious-philanthropic Forward Movement, and also played a leading role in Wellington’s Society for the Protection of Women and Children. In the course of decades of unpaid social work on behalf of women and children she helped to initiate a range of legislative reforms, including the creation of children’s courts, and the criminalisation of incest in 1910. She was also, as were many first-wave feminists, involved not only in supporting women’s suffrage but in promoting the cause of prohibition through groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the New Zealand Alliance. Later in life she worked as secretary for the League of Nations Union, which advocated peace through international arbitration. She believed that women as mothers were naturally drawn to endorse this cause.

Kate Edger grad

Why is she still important today?

Kate’s experiences and beliefs provide a window into first-wave feminism: they offer important insights both into what motivated many high-profile feminists in late nineteenth and early twentieth century New Zealand, and also into how the women’s movement was perceived by contemporaries. In addition to being a pioneer of women’s higher education, Kate believed strongly that the vote entailed a duty of active citizenship and service. She wanted what she saw as the womanly values of compassion, moral guidance, sympathy and conciliation brought into play for the good of society. Her life story offers an insight into a range of causes and goals that early feminists endorsed and worked hard to achieve, long after getting the vote in 1893.
Finally, her work to protect women and children from abuse/violence in the home and elsewhere is sadly as relevant and necessary today as it was in Kate’s lifetime.

What might people find interesting/surprising about the book?

Kate is always known by her maiden name, Edger, because her graduation is often portrayed as the defining moment of her life, the culmination of her achievement and the reason she has been remembered by posterity. I was surprised to find that in fact the graduation was just the beginning- she worked all her life not just to improve educational opportunities for women but to enhance their legal status and rights within marriage and the family. Learning about this aspect of her life brought home to me how many other women worked selflessly for no pay to improve the lives of others, long after the suffrage movement had achieved its goal of votes for all.

While researching the book, I also began to appreciate something that I, and most other women born in the developed world in the second half of the twentieth century probably take completely for granted, namely the right to an equal education. The arguments that were invoked, by Kate’s contemporaries, both male and female, against higher education for women, and the perceived threat it posed to women’s traditional domestic roles, were surprisingly widespread and by no means restricted to the Victorian era. The fact that Kate combined higher education and a profession with family life was considered noteworthy: the notion that higher education went hand in hand with ‘spinsterdom’ continued to be widely held. So too did the notion that women were intellectually inferior to men, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Another thing I found surprising and important was the strong religious aspect to first-wave feminism, something that has been noted by previous writers of course but arguably not emphasized or fully examined and its various impacts assessed. A majority of those who led the suffrage and other feminist campaigns and causes during the first-wave of feminism were religious non-conformists: those religious beliefs shaped both the nature of their feminism and the nature of the causes they endorsed. A culture of crusading progressive social reform was part of that religious cultural heritage. Dissenters had a strong feeling for social justice, an antipathy to entrenched privilege, and a firm belief in freedom of conscience. They were activists and highly organised ones at that, willing and able to lobby politicians, organize petitions, advocate for legislative change, and write eloquent letters to the editor. These early feminist nonconformists, and liberal nonconformists generally, had a significant impact on New Zealand’s political and social landscape.

I was also interested by the strongly gendered outlook of many feminists-their feminism, and a belief in equal rights under the law, co-existed with an evangelical domestic ideal that cast women as the nurturing, kind, compassionate moral linchpins of the family. These purported feminine qualities were seen by most feminists not as constrictive but rather as a source of strength and a progressive force, that would help to achieve a more just and equitable society.

Another element of the book that is interesting is just the numerous dramatic changes that Kate experienced in the course of her lifetime. In the early 1860s, she arrived as a child to a remote fledgling colony with few basic amenities. By the time of her death in 1935 New Zealand had become a complex society, with electricity, cars, radio, telegraphs, luxury liners, airplanes and Hollywood movies.
Biographies of first-wave feminists in this country are surprisingly thin on the ground and I hope that this book will spark further interest in the life stories of all those who worked to improve the lives and expectations of New Zealand women.

Read more about the book