I was in the Presbyterian Research Centre today looking at papers in another of Molly Whitelaw’s boxes. A paragraph from a talk she gave to the Glasgow Rotary Club in October 1947, caught my eye and I realised that ANZAC Day was almost upon us. It is another of those occasions when gems can be located in archives collections.

For many New Zealanders, 1942 marked a time of ‘national peril’. Pearl Harbour had seen the Japanese defeated. On the defensive Japanese forces began to head south into the Pacific and so began the Pacific War. With Australia in the line of a direct threat by the Japanese onslaught, New Zealand authorities feared that New Zealand shores would also be in jeopardy and prepared coastal residents for the worst outcome, many experiencing genuine fear.

Molly tells her story: “In 1942 we spent a holiday, down the Marlborough Sounds. As the children played on the beach the Japanese swarmed further and further south. Had they come to N.Z. those glorious deep Sounds would have made a wonderful anchorage for their ships. Fourteen miles inland the town of Blenheim, where lies the finest airfield in NZ and the sunlit plains of Wairau, from where a would-be attack could take place on Wellington, 70 miles away, we were told. Trenches were dug, all plans made in the event of an invasion. Mothers with children were to be evacuated to the hills. We had suitcases packed in readiness. I had been ill, [Molly had had whooping cough]. It was on my mind, going alone with young children, only two and three years old. For, of course, my husband would have stayed with his ‘people’. One day in March I went out on the verandah to think things out. As I looked up to the blue sky I suddenly, “out of the blue” got the assurance that the Japanese would never get to N.Z. I never had any fear again, although the news continued for some weeks to be precarious. Later we learned that about the very time I received this assurance that gave me such peace of mind the Japanese had unaccountably ceased their southern push. It was settled later by the Battle of the Coral Sea.”

When the American air force arrived in Blenheim towards the end of 1942, Molly and Alan Whitelaw  had a constant stream of young men through the manse. With a shortage of ministers in Blenheim and its surrounding areas, the arrival of the large numbers of soldiers at Woodbourne kept them and the Blenheim congregations on their toes.  It was an exhausting time dealing with every stress from homesickness to panic attacks. They resigned from the parish at the end of 1945, to return the two children they cared for to the London.  The Government could not guarantee them a return trip for two years, so they took the opportunity for a long sabbatical.

Woodbourne Air Base 1943

For me ANZAC becomes a day to reflect on our inability to reach our greatest ideal, that of peace. The horrors of war, and the tragic loss of thousands or should I say millions and millions of lives, the break up of families, the immense fear one sees in the eyes of children, the deep sadness in the body language of adults, the devastation of food and shelter and the breakdown of communities and countries, confront us daily through our channels of news. ‘Lest we Forget’ is what ANZAC suggests. Forget what? I ask. Reputedly, Rudyard Kipling was inspired by Deuteronomy 6,12: ‘Then beware lest you forget the Lord which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage’, in his poem ‘Recessional’, for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.

“God of our fathers, known of old
Lord of our far flung battle line
Beneath Whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!”






‘No documents – No History’ : Listening to discover women’s voice in our Church story

I’ve borrowed this title from Anke Voss-Hubbarb’s article in the American Archivist because it sums up the experience of my own frustrations over many years as Archivist for the Presbyterian Church. What you may ask was the root of this frustration? As in ‘No documents – No History’, the historian, Mary Ritter Beard, became more and more disturbed and frustrated at the lack of women’s voice in the various archival collections she was researching. From the 1920s until her death in 1958 she rigorously campaigned to gather women’s papers and records. Not only to be stored in suitable academic and archival institutions but she pressed the need for women’s voice to be integrated into university faculty programmes. A familiar and frequent cry heard from many an Archivist today. Mary Beard made a pertinent observation:  ‘without knowledge of women in history as actual history, dead women are sheer ghosts to living women—and to men’.[1]

Ann Braude forty years later again takes up Beard’s concern when researching women’s role in religious organisations and churches.   ‘We cannot understand the history of religion in [a country],’ she argues, ‘until we know at least as much about women who formed the majority of participants as we do about the male minority who stood in the pulpit.’[2] How true!

What a researcher will discover when first confronted with the Presbyterian Church official collection is the gender-blind, hierarchical and pietistic nature of the church’s historical past. Researchers will find women’s voices are silenced within the dominant historical narrative, which categorised all people as one under the notion of ‘man’. Even though the General Assembly gave its blessing to the formation of a Deaconess Order in 1906, and in 1916, accepted women onto several General Assembly Committees to give advice, with no voting rights, and gave grudging approval for women to serve as Home Missionaries from 1920, their voices remained securely locked on the margins.

It is not that women’s records are lacking in the overall Presbyterian collections, far from it in fact. There is a parallel collection to the Church’s official documents that date back 120 years, located at the congregational and women’s organisational level. During these 120 years, resourceful women sought their own sacred spaces, formed communities, and began to express a gendered spirituality. From that time women’s agency became increasingly more visible and their space more gendered, but at the same time their exclusion from ordained ministries more dogmatically denied them.

In these extensive collections researchers will find women teaching in Sunday Schools, even doctrine to the horror of some critics, leading youth groups, writing hymns and prayers, compiling missionary talks and studies, yes even speaking from the pulpit, leading study groups, and creative means of promoting, supporting and raising money for the Church’s mission schemes. They were called to clean and polish the church, wash the communion linen, arrange the flowers, serve tea, organise fair stalls, raise funds for furnishings and so it goes on.

There are tantalising anecdotes given in newspaper reports of women in large numbers attending theological lectures, following Evangelists from meeting to meeting, weeping as they farewell them at the railway station, and being rebuked for displaying their disapproval by shuffling their feet and shaking their handbags.

But the voices that tell of the callings, faith journeys, beliefs, recollections and memoirs from this vast and diverse multitude of women rarely are heard within the Archives and are therefore omitted from our church and religious histories.

The APW has made valiant attempts in the last two decades to correct this imbalance by capturing women’s voices, literally, through their oral history project ‘Women’s Stories’ and under Nan Burgess’s editorship, four biographical publications, A Braided River of Faith, have reached our shelves, significant, but underused resources.

Is the paucity of documented women’s papers due to women perceiving their experience within the institutional church as falling outside the narrative of what counts as a ‘serious’ church history’? The ‘fathers and brethren’ accepted the women’s organisations as auxiliaries to their more important activities within the church structure. It was taken for granted by the fathers of the Church that women’s work was a ‘service of mission’; it held no recognised status or standing within the male-centred Church’s definition of ‘ministry’[4] The women, were there to serve the Church and its decision making processes.

I was always surprised the number of times my request for any archival records from women active in the spiritual journeys of their congregations and organisations was by and large rejected. Oh there is nothing worthwhile in my papers! ‘No one wants to know about me’! ‘I didn’t do much to make an impression’; even though this woman had 65 years in two congregations and almost 50 active years in the PWMU. Perhaps it is this next response though, that sums up the rejections in general.   ‘We kept dad’s sermons but we didn’t really believe mum’s papers had much in them’!, Do these responses reflect how deeply embedded the prescribed divisions of gender in society and church over many centuries have shaped women’s past lives? How sad for women to consider their experiences as less important and therefore, contribute little to the overall historical narrative and its analysis. The reluctance of women to acknowledge the significance of their voices results in only half of the Church’s story ever being recorded.

‘No documents-No history’ is a slogan we could well use.[5] We cannot tell our story as a Church unless we know who the characters are. I continue to be stunned at the depth of Molly Whitelaw’s remarkable collection. It is a fine example of how the accumulation of women’s stories and voices would recover the many invisible women and place them with pride in the Church’s historical narrative. To voice Psalm 68:11: ‘The Lord gave the word, great was the women who published it’.


[1] “No Documents—No History”: Mary Ritter Beard and the Early History of Women’s Archives ANKE VOSS-HUBBARD American Archivist, Vol58, Winter 1995, p. 19

[2] Ann Braude, ‘Women’s History is American History’, in Religion in America: A Reader, ed David G. Hackett, pp161-

[4] In Good Company: Women in the Ministry edited by Lesley Orr Macdonald, p12

[5] See footnote 1.


A Feast of Music – Mozart Festival – Glyndebourne 1935

Writing back to the Te Awamutu Congregation in June 1935 Molly Whitelaw delighted them with her description of the Mozart Festival held at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera Garden in Lewes, Sussex. Her excitement oozes through every line. Music on this scale she missed hugely since her arrival in New Zealand in 1921. First introduced to Mozart opera while she was attending school in Konigsberg, a welcome change from the regular diet of Wagnerian opera, she became a lover of Mozart’s music; ‘so calming, so melodious, so ‘entūzken’ [full of delight]. Under what she describes as ‘the most superb conditions’, Glyndebourne fulfilled Molly’s ‘feeling-good’ middle-class desires and aspirations in every way.

Besides the sight of the enchanting Sussex village of Glyndebourne, the grand old Tudor Manor house, which carried the name of the village, the gardens were exquisite. Molly had inherited her love of gardening from her father in particular. In each parish they served, Molly left a well developed garden, so the lily pond, the flagged paths with borders of blue and yellow irises, hedged gardens with flowers of numerous colour, large yew trees, velvety lawns, the roses and shrubbery bordering the river at the rear of Glyndebourne Manor filled her heart with great admiration. ‘Wherever you walk’, she wrote, ‘it is beautiful with that rich, tranquil, luscious beauty that one associates with the very name of England.’

As is normal with Molly, she is very aware of those she mingles with; the people attending were ‘in keeping with their surroundings’ she notes.   Good looking, well groomed men in evening dress with ‘white coats and ties’ and women, taller then she remembered from the past, in ‘backless dresses’, beautifully groomed hair something ‘most regal to observe’. She had never entertained such a standard in New Zealand. ‘There is something so distinguished about the appearance a certain type of well-born, well-breed men and women, which nothing but birth and breeding can give’… There is something indescribable which as long as the world will last money will never be able to buy’, she informed her rural church parishioners, many who may well not fully comprehend her enthusiastic observation of a class of people rarely found in New Zealand.

Although the tickets were expensive, Molly was prepared to squander her ‘last shilling on such a feast’. Words failed her when attempting to describe Cosi Fan Tutte and the conducting of Dr Fritz Busch, which was ‘par excellence’. She adored the character portrayal of the fascinating ‘Despina’ sung by the Czechoslovakian, Irene Eisinger, and the beauty of the Austrian, Luise Helletsgruber, who played Dorabella, she described as a ‘daughter of the gods’. Never she believed would she be satisfied with future productions. The production, staging, music, singing, and performance ‘combined [an] effort of unsurpassable completeness and beauty’.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera began in 1934, so Molly was attending its second season. The festival continues to be held annually to this day. Mr John Christie, an English businessman, contributed thousands of pounds to create his home into the beauty of ‘something of that “fellowship of all artists” which Wagner foresaw’. Besides the large garden, he built an Opera House that seated 300, and ‘barn like dining rooms paved with brick, and as Molly describes them ‘delightful in their combination of comfort, good service and rural simplicity.’ Food was served between the second and third acts where you could either have ‘a ‘table d’hôtel’ dinner, a cold supper or even take your own ‘provender’ and have your own servants wait upon you.’

The renowned Music Director Dr. Fritz Busch was appointed in 1934 after his politically motivated dismissal from his position at the Dresden State Opera in 1933. He remained with the Glyndebourne Opera until the outbreak of World War II; there were no performances through those years and he returned to Buenos Aires. After the war he conducted the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony. Busch returned to Glyndebourne for two further seasons in 1950. He died September 1951.

Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography— A Review

Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography

The Faith of the 20th Century’s most Influential Woman — A Review

by Harold Ivan Smith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

I enjoy pondering on an author’s dedication. Some can open a window on any number of emotions experienced by the author at the conclusion of a completed text. Others can be coded messages to those closest to the writer, they can also be witty, they raise questions for the reader about the context of names and places, and they can often set the tone for the forthcoming read. The dedication written by Harold Ivan Smith author of Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography, The Faith of the 20th Century’s most Influential Woman, [Eleanor Roosevelt]  sets the tone of this biography for me, at a number of levels. He thanked ‘the Archivist ‘par excellence’ for his ‘sage advice’ to set himself the task of exploring ‘the spirituality of Eleanor’ Roosevelt. Archivists are aware of potential areas of their collections that are under researched. That ‘moment of indecision’, which many writers experience, myself included, meant he was advised to, “Write the Book!” and another wise counsel with a head full of stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, helped him ‘clear hurdles throughout the entire [writing] process’.

Harold Smith sets the perimeter of his focus from the outset. ‘Eleanor’s faith was personal but never private’, he writes. She never hesitated to share in her conversations, writings, speeches and activities, her ‘reading of scripture, the examples of Jesus, her own prayers and the divine call to work for a more just and peaceful world.’ By opening with ‘What Religion Means to me’, an article Eleanor wrote in 1932, in the magazine Forum, Smith conveys Eleanor’s faith as central to her role as First Lady during her years in the White House and those that followed until her death in 1962. Spirituality, to Eleanor, was ‘that feeling of having something outside of one’s self and greater than one’s self to depend on.’ An Episcopalian, her evolving ecumenical spirit meant for her that ‘all people are one in Christ’. This resulted in a broad and liberal faith in which social justice was an imperative, especially for those most vulnerable. She held a deep love for the Bible and learned off by heart the New Testament, in French. This held her in good steed when challenged and criticised by the conservative Christian community. Framed on her bedroom wall were the words ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace’; words she also carried on her person. These words became her prayer for action evidenced in all her activities.

Growing up in such a diverse and gathered population as found in the United States, it is difficult to escape the biases and prejudices that can evolve and become rooted in a culture. Eleanor was confronted by many of these in her comfortable and elite environment. Anti-Semitism that surrounded her during her growing up, both within her family and American society at large caused her some angst as she reached adulthood; Jews were viewed as too powerful, too financially and politically influential and were ‘a menace to America’. Despite her latent bias Eleanor, guided by her belief in the God-given worth of peoples regardless of creed or race, stepped out to do all she could for the persecuted Jews of WWII. This is one of the most poignant yet chilling chapters in the biography and is a reminder of how continuing prejudices that emerge as a result of the social affects of modern warfare become deeply rooted in society. Her tireless efforts for rehabilitation of the Jews led to an appointment to the United Nation Delegation on Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Concerns Committee where, as Convener, the same determination saw the Declaration on Human Rights be put in place and her commitment to the creation of a Jewish homeland – Israel. Her greatest regret at the end of her life, one she could not be dissuaded from, was that she should have done far more.

Although Eleanor was heavily criticised and judged for her Jewish stance, so she was on her advocacy for Civil Rights and the ending of segregation. Her unyielding opposition and outspokenness to segregation made her extremely unpopular, particularly in the South. She was much maligned by harsh and often brutal criticism. It distressed her that the Bible could be used in two such opposing points of view, but she did not waiver from her firmly held belief that there was one fundamental law –  to love one another and to care for the ‘least of these’.

Eleanor regularly reminded her readers in the post-World War II era of unrest, that America, as a Christian country did not mean exclusion. ‘Differences in religious belief are inherent in the spirit of true democracy’, she wrote. ‘One’s Christianity and one’s democracy should lead to greater tolerance.’ Her support of the ecumenical activities brought to Americans attention the significance of accepting a diversity of religious practices. ‘I think I believe that the Lord looks upon all His children with compassion and allows them to approach Him in many ways’.

Eleanor, a Spiritual Biography is an insightful exploration of the faith journey of an extraordinary woman who lived through a dysfunctional childhood, a challenging marriage, a political role she did not desire, economic and political upheavals, and shifting societal turbulence. Often the religious motivation that supports a person’s activism is glossed over or taken for granted. Harold Smith however, has gone to considerable effort to draw together Eleanor Roosevelt’s beliefs and Biblical understandings in relation to her activism and American culture during her life time as she perceived it. Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography is a well researched and enlightening read.


The Trout Fishing Holiday that Didn’t Happen – Dr James and Mrs Moffatt in New Zealand.

Rev Dr. Ian Fraser

’I did work hard on the Saturday & Monday & just got everything perfect, silver, flowers, bedrooms, table,’ wrote Molly Whitelaw to her mother in November 1934. Her preparations were in honour of the visit of Dr. James Moffatt and his wife and the Rev. Dr. Ian Fraser. The young Ian Fraser fell under this great theologian’s scholarly spell during his post-graduate studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during 1931 and 1932. It was not only James Moffatt’s scholarship that won the hearts of overseas theology students, however, but the couple’s amazing hospitality, friendship, and support they willingly extended. Mrs Moffatt, Ian Fraser noted, was their ‘mother away from home’. On completion of his time in New York, Fraser managed to extract a promise from Moffatt to visit New Zealand, during his forthcoming sabbatical in 1934.

Their arrival in Auckland was greeted with enthusiasm across the religious community. Auckland city honoured him with a civic reception where the deputy-mayor, acknowledged his theological scholarship and that the people of Auckland ‘were deeply interested in his visit and they still considered the Bible as the greatest Book in the world.’ Three of Moffatt’s past students contributed to the welcome: the Revs James A Thomson and James McKenzie studied with Moffatt in Glasgow 1918-1919, and Dr Ian Fraser with him in New York.

James Moffat commented that he preferred a scarlet covered Bible (1919). He never understood why Bibles had black covers.

The name of James Moffatt was possibly best known among church-going New Zealanders through his translation of the New Testament in Modern Speech, which ‘placed English-speaking people in his debt’, according to James Thomson. The translation, however, touched a number of ‘nerves’ of those lovers of the poetic Authorised Version. His greater ‘colloquial approach and undue freedom’ was not to everyone’s liking. In 1924 he completed the Old Testament translation; his critics were no more impressed then, than they were a decade earlier with the publication of his New Testament translation. By the time of his visit in 1934, Dr James Moffatt’s prolific writings continued to be regularly reviewed in Church and local papers and were no doubt added to many ministers’ theological libraries.

Ian Fraser accompanied the Moffatt’s on the Express train south for a short stay with the Whitelaw’s at the Te Awamutu Manse. Molly in her typical gossipy-style letter to her mother gave the pertinent details of interest. ‘Dinner was perfect,’ she wrote, ‘our well practiced menu of clear soup, turkey with cauliflower, green peas, new potatoes, fruit salad & cream in individual glasses, lemon drink & ginger beer to imbibe & coffee.’

She noted the stress of the Auckland programme over the three previous days had tired Moffatt who retired to husband ‘Alan’s study to smoke & write letters to his children’ while Molly and Mrs Moffatt shared their common Scottish memories. These conversations, along with the evening discussions, including Rev Julian Blanchard, who had joined them for the evening buoyed Molly no end. As she reflected on the visit Molly realised that living in the small rural community of Te Awamutu and since the birth of her son Alastair, she had been starved of the familiar stimulating, intellectual conversation of a past life.   ‘It was like a visit from very old friends bringing back the atmosphere of the Edinburgh days, & all the intellectual as well as spiritual satisfaction of friendship with people … who combined scholarly minds and strong intellects with a simple faith,’ she commented to her mother.

Adding to the delight of their visit was the jaunt to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves the following day. A system of underground limestone caves with waterfalls as well as thousands of glow-worms left the Moffatts’ in awe.   Mrs Moffatt’s appreciation would have been music to the ears of those who accompanied them. ‘It was so marvellously beautiful’, she told the New Zealand Herald. ‘We have never seen anything like it elsewhere’.

James Moffatt and his wife continued their travels to Rotorua for the promised stint of trout fishing. Attractions at the popular tourist centre, where scores of visitors sought ‘cures in its medicinal waters’, included natural hot springs, bubbling mud pools, geysers and the famous model Maori pa at Whakarewarewa, appeared to take priority – no trout were fished for. A visit was also undertaken to the Presbyterian Maori Mission in Whakatane. They then headed south with  two further civic welcomes planned at Levin, where Ian Fraser was the Presbyterian minister, and in the capital city, Wellington. Both were well patronised and in Wellington many people outside strained to hear the speeches through doors and open windows, fortunately on a ‘glorious summer’s day’.

In all centres Moffatt gave a similar message peppered with frank comment and humour. Bearing in mind the sense of unrest emerging out of Germany at the time, he emphasised the need to move beyond the superficiality of language and seek greater understanding, mutual respect and co-operation within countries and between nations in their aims for welfare and peace. With regard to Church and State, he suggested, ‘they should be like strawberries and cream – they should be taken together’. The church he reasoned was ‘the creation of character, which was what the civic authorities relied upon.’

To ministers present at various gatherings he stressed, ‘Preach about God and preach about 20 minutes’, and warned them against becoming ‘maids of all work’. ‘You cannot expect your ministers’, he stated, ‘to do their proper work if they are serving tables’; an interesting turn of phrase considering today’s perspective with its greater focus on a ‘servant’ ministry. Congregations, he continued, needed to be more considerate to their ministers and if they were, ‘would get more out of them in realities’.

It was only in Wellington that acknowledgement of Mrs Moffatt presence was reported. Rev Julian Blanchard emphasised they were also welcoming Mrs Moffatt, as well as her husband, stressing her role as a helpmeet. ‘She had watched over the doctor’s studies, and those who profited by his writings owed her a debt of gratitude because her personal safeguard had enabled him to pursue the studies that had placed the world in his debt’.

In his final interview he side-tracked that importunate question visitors are so often confronted on his impressions of New Zealand. Not interested in voicing these, he responded that ‘it was a wonderful country and that he and Mrs Moffatt had been overwhelmed with kindness’. No, he had not fulfilled his wish to go trout fishing but smiling broadly, instead he noted, ‘I gave six sermons and 23 addresses’. He assured his interviewer, ‘I am coming back again for the trout.’ They left Auckland on 11 December for Vancouver.


Suffragists and Virago Books and Rebecca West

It’s easy to forget what one has on ones library shelves, I realise.  I was reminded of this as I began to sort my bookshelves. What fun I’ve had thumbing my way through forgotten titles. I was particularly delighted to discover a number related to the UK suffrage movement. I noted inside A Guid Cause-The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, by Leah Leneman, that this book was purchased at the Women’s Berkshire Conference, held at Vassar College in 1993.

My most vivid memories from that Conference was being part of a group of women with like-minded interests, being presented with new ideas through some wonderful presentations, meeting historians that I had high regard for, and most of all sharing all this with my son and daughter-in-law. I do recall morning and afternoon tea baskets piled with large and tempting looking muffins only to be reminded that some baking in the US had a tendency to be drier than New Zealand commercial baking. Another memory that has remained with me is the hum of motorway traffic throughout the night and just how far sound can travel. I did get rather carried away with the bookstalls at the Conference and arrived home with a small suitcase filled with some great purchases. There were no excess weight charges, yet it was a heavy bag; maybe weight wasn’t such a problem then?

I stray a little, back to the Suffrage collection in my library. The majority of these books are Virago Press publications, which multiplied somewhat when I studied women’s history at University. The University Bookshop in Great King Street, Dunedin, had periodic sales where I gathered a good many of them. The Press, formed in 1977 as a feminist publishing company, not only brought to our attention women fiction authors that had long been forgotten, women authors popular in their time but out-of-print, but also the writings of feminists thinkers such as Shelia Rowbotham, Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter among others. A series, which covers early women travellers, is totally fascinating and the more recent modern novels of Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters and others have since been included.

Biographies, some covering Victorian women as well as those well-known and not so well known Suffragettes dominate this collection of mine. Names such as May Sheepshanks, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst of course, Lady Constance Lytton, Alice Weldon, Hannah Mitchell, Rebecca West and Margaret Macpherson; most housed on a high shelf that I had rarely stretched up to retrieve. Sadly from the perspective of my current research, most of these biographies focus on women outside Scotland, reflecting very much the focus of previous decades. Militarism versus Feminism; Writings on Women and War, edited by Margaret Kamester and Jo Vellacott is proving significant however, highlighting  a non-militant and pacifist approach, which Molly Whitelaw and her parents supported.

It is Rebecca West’s (now Dame Rebecca) journalistic pieces and essays in The Young Rebecca; Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-1917, ed. by Jane Marcus, I am marvelling at. What an amazing young journalist who fearlessly expressed her opinions, generally in the radical and feminist press, The Freewoman and The Clarion, and later the Fleet Street, Daily News. [Coincidently, the newspaper where Alastair Shannon, Molly’s brother, began his career in journalism in 1918.] That Rebecca West could offer such frank opinions highlights the shift that had occurred in newspaper journalism towards mass readership during the first decades of the 20th century. News moved from direct reporting to one of journalistic interpretation, where it was heavily edited, rewritten and contextualised. This new approach helped to influence public opinion for or against any single issue.[1] Women’s pages also became a popular feature from the turn of the century. In fact the New Zealand Presbyterian Outlook, under the editorship of the Rev. Rutherford Waddell, introduced a column Women’s Outlook from 1893.

One hundred years on, West’s writing has a resonance that continues to parallel women’s issues even today. So much so, I feel as if we’ve not come as far as we would like to believe. She confronted issues on equal pay; she challenges writers’ narrow and conservative opinions on the issues of, marriage, divorce, education and capitalism. These journalist pieces are all very quotable. In an article on ‘Wages and Women: Black-legging and Timidity’ she takes to task a writer who suggests that the required wireless operators on American coastal shipping could be ‘,a self-reliant woman with cool nerves and efficient brain’.

This alluring argument she declares is ‘powder in the jam, the snake in the grass, the wolf in feminist’s clothing’. ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘this sudden lyric outburst of feminist enthusiasm? Probably she is less expensive… The underpayment of women is one of those “nine-pence for four-pence“ tricks that capitalists have ever loved to play … They say to women “We deduct four-pence from your wages so that we can pay men larger wages, and then they can support you as their wives” … A woman, according to a capitalist, is an air-bubble blown between earth and sky, with no human ties of any sort.’

Her attack on the Labour Party of the day, when they broke their pledge to oppose the Government’s refusal to grant votes for women in 1912, has an altogether too familiar ring to the modern ear as political parties ‘flip-flop’ and backtrack. She considered the decision of the Labour Party a national disaster. She writes, ‘[t]he point lies not in the merits of Woman Suffrage at all, but in the fact that the Labour Party has refused to carry out a principle for which socialism has always stood; that it has made a promise and broken it; that it did it out of cowardice; and that it has sold itself to the Liberal Party body and soul.’

On the surprising recommendation of the Majority Report on changes to the divorce laws at the end of 1912 she expresses some pleasure. But she does consider it’s not the responsibility of the State to decide whether a marriage is unhappy or has become dangerous to the society and therefore should be dissolved. ‘Submission to unhappiness,’ she states, ‘is the unpardonable sin against the spirit just as submission to poverty is the unpardonable sin against the body.’

Although West was not supportive of the militant action of the Suffragettes she was somewhat bemused with the reaction to the burning down of the tea-house in Kew Gardens. She notes ‘it was only a little one’; the tea-house that is. What surprised her most however, was the public’s reaction. ‘I have no idea why the public should suddenly show a maudlin affection, such as they usually reserve for the royal family, for the late tea-house, but I can understand why all those who love the good, the true and the beautiful must unite in deploring the bomb outrage upon the house at Walton Heath’. A house owned by Sir George Riddell owner of the conservative imperialist The News of the World, a journalistic ‘fertiliser’ … that nourishes the imagination of a million and a quarter Englishmen every Sunday morning.’ Lloyd George, an ardent anti-suffragist was about to move into this now shattered home so in effect the suffragists ‘killed two birds with one stone’ to put it rather crudely. After dipping further into other militant acts and the resultant punishments, West begins her conclusion by considering the causes behind such militant acts and their programmes of hunger strikes and punishment of forced feeding. ‘Perhaps’, she wonders, ‘I over-rated the orchids. Perhaps, so long as the country tolerates a state of things which drives women of fire and honour to seek such torturing ways of death, it is right to destroy all the lies of beauty that pretend that the world is a fine and lovely place. Perhaps it is right to punish the gross for their destruction of the spiritual beauty of revolt by destroying the tangible beauty, which is all they [the Government and authorities] can understand’.

‘… We are paying the price for our toleration of a Government that upholds the cause of anti-suffragists and the will of the parasite women’.

Her articles ‘were serious and unsettling no less for radicals than the rest of the population’. Her comments at times especially regarding men could be ‘acid and cutting’. ‘English women are handicapped by the fact that men have passed laws encouraging female morons’. She was an outstanding critic whether through her book reviews, essays or her political commentary, especially if socialists were falling short of their values. Her journalist writing reflected her breadth of reading and her ability to get to the core of the issue being debated.

Rebecca West would continue to write fiction, biography, critical essays and reviews, even travel books until her death in 1983 at the age of 91. I found her reflection on the Nuremberg trials A Train of Powder, which I read twice, to be astonishing as she explored the ‘nature of crime and punishment, innocence and guilt, and retribution and forgiveness’; a truly evocative piece of journalism.

[1] Donald Matheson, Media Discourses, Open University Press, England 2005.

1960: ‘A Thrilling General Election’

Keith Holyoake and Walter Nash are both trying to enter the House of Representatives at the same time, Nash trying to push the revolving door to the left and Holyoake trying to push it to the right. Arnold Nordmeyer and Jack Marshall are amongst the bystanders. Reference Number: B-056-104, Minhinnick, Gordon (Sir), 1902-1992. New Zealand Herald, 25 November 1960.

Being a somewhat ‘political animal’ my curiosity as to where Molly Whitelaw sat on the political fence has been at the forefront of my mind as I research her life. Finally, all has been revealed! A letter written to her son, Alastair, 22 November 1960, gave me further insight into her values and beliefs as they have formulated from the outset of my research.

Molly heads this letter:

‘WELL! NATIONAL IS IN, with 39 certain, 2 probable.

LABOUR IS OUT, with 31 certain, 2 probable.

In doubt 6.’

She continues, ‘A very thrilling election. Daddy in the Middle Room with his big wireless; and mother in kitchen, Election spread, out on table so she could mark in Progressive Reports, with her little wireless … The result was a wonderful relief, although rejoicing was tempered by sympathy with Mr. Nash [the Labour Prime Minister 1957-1960]… Such a valiant protagonist for the old ideals of Michael Joseph Savage [a founder of the Labour Party in New Zealand]… Socialism is, fortunately, not to be the ruling power in NZ. I think the day of fighting for the “under-dog” is over in NZ. The Welfare State is well established and the danger of increasing slackness in all personal effort and initiative was apparent. Freedom in individual enterprise is absolutely essential if NZ is to be encouraged to work hard as other countries especially near-by Australia. Paternalism was sapping strength.’

Molly acknowledges that she can’t ignore the personal element in their vote and their pleasure at National’s success. Is the crux of her pleasure a long-seated belief based on her Scottish Presbyterian understanding of the deserving and undeserving poor? Her concluding sentence points in that direction.  ‘Mr Holyoake’, the new Prime Minister, ‘will be at least more understanding of the rights of the hardworking “haves” as well as the laziness of many of the “have-nots … they act like spoilt children.’

Whether her son agreed with his mother’s sentiments is another matter. A letter earlier in 1960 from her brother Alastair suggests otherwise. ‘ He [son Alastair] seems to belong to the Liberal leftish persuasion.’ The two Alastair’s apparently ‘always had tremendous arguments’. Son Alastair ‘implicitly believes in the power of ‘Democracy’ to solve all ills on the political plane’, writes Molly’s brother, who considered Democracy was in decline, dying in ‘seeds of its own defeat.’ What was lacking, he considered was ‘True leadership, GOD-inspired Rulership…’ in fact, along with a ‘united Christendom’, and ‘a stability of character in the people’, which was dissipating he concluded.

I have found myself pondering on both Molly and her brother’s comments in light of New Zealand’s most recent General Election and the possible outcomes from the MMP process of electoral parties negotiations and compromises. For most who participated in the democratic process, these negotiations create tension. There will be many who will be delighted with the final decision – if it agrees with how they voted; there will be those who will express apprehensive as to whether the compromise reached are to their satisfaction;  and those who feel let down even angry, and many emotions in between. We cannot avoid acknowledging that political decisions influence us whether we want to recognise it or not and these decisions and the results will have some affect on our view of the world around us.

But what is it that influences our personal political decisions? They are, of course, many and varied and generally founded on a multitude of influences that impinge on our everyday personal and public lives. Our innate ‘tribal’ instincts come into play; where and what we have taken on board from our parents and their parents; how well we have prospered or not prospered in our daily life and when, where, why and how this occurred; how we perceive our own place within our families, communities, society, the nation and the world. Our responses will also reflect the values we hold about the ‘other’ in relation to ourselves.

As I delve further into ‘finding’ Molly, these avenues of influence will require considerable exploration, further reading and analysis. But what a lot of fun!