Dionne Chris­tian looks back at New Zealand’s pi­o­neer­ing fem­i­nists and why they fought for the right to wear pants

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Dionne Chris­tian looks back at New Zealand’s pi­o­neer­ing fem­i­nists and why they fought for the right to wear pants

It was the pho­to­graph that stunned Vic­to­rian New Zealand.

Less than eight weeks af­ter New Zealand women went to the polls for the first time (on Novem­ber 28, 1893), Kate Walker and James Wilkin­son mar­ried and their Jan­uary 1894 wed­ding photo was shared with the world. Why? Be­cause the bride wore “trousers” and wasn’t even blush­ing about it.

In fact, all the women in the wed­ding party wore pants — knicker­bock­ers, re­ally — and looked staunch in their choice of at­tire. That pro­pelled the pho­to­graph into lo­cal, na­tional and even one over­seas news­pa­per. Right to vote granted or not, women were still ex­pected to be guardians of home and hearth, vir­tu­ous and de­mure, moral and gen­tle, with th­ese qual­i­ties re­flected in a fem­i­nine, some might say sub­servient, style of dress.

Along with the right to elect their own rep­re­sen­ta­tives, women’s calls for free­dom were ex­tend­ing to all ar­eas of their lives and on ev­ery front, it in­volved a fight. This in­cluded bat­tling for the right to wear pants — or, at least, loosen their bodices and corsets, dis­pense with bus­tles, wires, pads and lay­ers of pet­ti­coats and take some of the swathes of fab­ric out of their skirts.

By mar­ry­ing and be­ing pho­tographed in knicker­bock­ers, Walker quite pos­si­bly clocked up another New Zealand first: the first woman to marry in pants. Walker and Wilkin­son were found­ing mem­bers of the New Zealand Dress Re­form As­so­ci­a­tion, set up in May 1894, and jointly au­thored a 35-page pam­phlet on dress re­form, calling for women to adopt “ra­tio­nal dress”.

Like over­seas dress re­form or­gan­i­sa­tions, the as­so­ci­a­tion ar­gued if women wanted to truly shake off the shack­les that in­cluded re­ject­ing so-called fash­ion­able dress. If you weren’t to be weighed down in your po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, so­cial or do­mes­tic life, then your per­son couldn’t be weighed down by im­prac­ti­cal, heavy and un­com­fort­able cloth­ing and pinch­ing shoes.

Less­en­ing re­stric­tions on, for ex­am­ple, the look and mea­sure­ment of their waist­lines would widen their free­dom in all as­pects of their in­creas­ingly mod­ern lives — not to men­tion im­prov­ing health and well-be­ing.

Dress re­form­ers were of­ten sup­ported by doc­tors who feared in­ter­nal or­gans were be­ing dis­placed and dam­aged and breath­ing re­stricted by overly tight corsets and bodices. Some pos­si­bly alarmist dress re­form lit­er­a­ture spoke of women suf­fer­ing mis­car­riages, still­births, rup­tured liv­ers and dam­aged spines be­cause of their re­stric­tive cloth­ing.

Whether this was true is prob­a­bly de­bat­able, but one thing’s for sure: it was dif­fi­cult to ride a bi­cy­cle — and here we come to the lit­eral turn­ing of a wheel — or wheels — of re­form.

If there was one piece of vi­tal equip­ment in the suf­frage fight, it was the bi­cy­cle specif­i­cally built not for two but with equal-sized wheels, pneu­matic tyres and lower frames. No more climb­ing up lad­ders to reach the top of your penny-far­thing or wor­ry­ing about any­one look­ing up your cum­ber­some skirt when you were atop the “bone shaker”.

In 1892, the Ata­lanta Cy­cling Club started in Christchurch af­ter a sug­ges­tion from one Alice Burn who, 18 months later, would be glo­ri­ous as one of Walker’s knicker­bocker-clad brides­maids. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Burn cam­paigned for more sen­si­ble women’s cy­cling clothes — bi­fur­cated skirts (a bit like cu­lottes) for starters; they set­tled on de­mure skirts and blouses in club colours.

The club, named in hon­our of a Greek mytho­log­i­cal vir­gin huntress re­put­edly one of the first fe­male ath­letes, was the first all-women cy­cling club in all of Aus­trala­sia. It or­gan­ised day-trips, tours and pic­nics in which women could cy­cle to­gether per­haps be­cause there was safety in num­bers.

Fe­male cy­clists had been taunted and abused; some had stones thrown at them and oth­ers were pushed off their bikes. It led to women some­times cy­cling with their brothers or hus­bands to shield them from such at­tacks. Burn hoped the more women who cy­cled, and the more the pub­lic saw them do­ing it, the less abuse they’d be sub­jected to.

All across the world, women did, in­deed, hitch up their skirts and, by cy­cling up­hill and down dale, ex­pe­ri­ence a free­dom hith­erto de­nied to them. A prom­i­nent mem­ber of the Ata­lanta Cy­cling Club? None other than Kate Shep­pard her­self, show­ing that suf­fragettes recog­nised pedal power. Suf­frage cam­paign­ers clocked up thou­sands of miles trav­el­ling to meet­ings, tak­ing their mes­sage to the streets of New Zealand and, even­tu­ally, col­lect­ing and trans­port­ing the pe­ti­tions calling for women to be given the right to vote.

GIVEN SHE went to univer­sity in the 1870s, it is un­likely Kate Edger cy­cled to her lec­tures. But she was as pi­o­neer­ing as our first women cy­clists, be­com­ing, on July 11, 1877, the first woman in New Zealand to ob­tain a univer­sity de­gree and the first woman in the whole of the Bri­tish Em­pire to earn a Bach­e­lor of the Arts. Her fa­ther, the Rev­erend Sa­muel Edger, taught Kate and her three sis­ters at home but when it came to sec­ondary school­ing, he had to ask Auck­land Col­lege and Gram­mar head­mas­ter, Far­quhar Macrae, for per­mis­sion for his daugh­ter to study with a top class of boys.

When she ap­plied for per­mis­sion to sit for a Univer­sity Schol­ar­ship, Edger gave her age but not her gen­der. The story goes that the Univer­sity of Auck­land, not want­ing to court con­tro­versy, let her in with­out com­ment. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Edger be­came a teacher work­ing first at Christchurch Girls’ High, then study­ing for an MA at Can­ter­bury Col­lege and even­tu­ally be­com­ing the foun­da­tion head­mistress at Nel­son Col­lege for Girls.

New Zealand had to wait a lit­tle longer for its first fe­male law grad­u­ate. That was Ethel Ben­jamin, born in Dunedin into an ortho­dox Jewish fam­ily, who achieved top marks at Otago Girls’ High School be­fore study­ing at the re­gion’s univer­sity. All the while, she didn’t know whether she’d even be granted per­mis­sion to prac­tise law when — if — she suc­cess­fully com­pleted her de­gree.

Ben­jamin grad­u­ated in July 1897; two months later, on Septem­ber 17, she be­came the first fe­male lawyer in the Bri­tish Em­pire to ap­pear as a coun­sel in court, rep­re­sent­ing a client for re­cov­ery of a debt. At the head of her own law firm, work­ing mainly as a solic­i­tor, she han­dled many fam­ily law cases and did so in the face of con­sid­er­able op­po­si­tion from the Otago Dis­trict Law So­ci­ety.

The so­ci­ety re­stricted ac­cess to its li­brary, did not in­vite her to its of­fi­cial func­tions and — sur­prise, sur­prise — even tried to tell Ben­jamin what to wear. But she may have played them at their own game, though. In speeches, Ben­jamin ap­peared to play it ever so slightly coy.

She’s quoted as giv­ing this gem of a pos­si­bly Machi­avel­lian quote: “It is true that the le­gal pro­fes­sion was not then open to women and that the fran­chise had not yet been granted, but I had faith that a colony so lib­eral as our own would not long tol­er­ate such purely ar­ti­fi­cial bar­ri­ers. I there­fore en­tered on my stud­ies with a light heart, feel­ing sure that I should not long be de­barred from the use of any de­gree I might ob­tain.”

Ben­jamin fared bet­ter than the first woman to study medicine in New Zealand. Thir­teen

If you weren’t to be weighed down in your po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, so­cial or do­mes­tic life, then your per­son couldn’t be weighed down by im­prac­ti­cal, heavy and un­com­fort­able cloth­ing and pinch­ing shoes.

years be­fore Ben­jamin grad­u­ated, in 1885, Mary Tracey, from Gore, en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Otago Med­i­cal School but gave up a year later af­ter be­ing forced out. In 1890, Emily Siede­berg, sup­ported by her ar­chi­tect fa­ther, en­rolled and was be­grudg­ingly ad­mit­ted. At times, the school sep­a­rated her from male stu­dents so Siede­berg could have les­sons on “cer­tain as­pects” of anatomy alone. She later joked about her class­mates throw­ing pieces of flesh at her dur­ing les­sons in the dis­sect­ing room.

While Siede­berg was our first grad­u­ate fe­male med stu­dent, her friend Margaret Cruick­shank was the first woman to be reg­is­tered in New Zealand as a doc­tor (Siede­berg headed over­seas for post­grad­u­ate stud­ies and work). Cruick­shank’s home­life was slightly more un­set­tled than Siede­berg’s. A twin, Cruick­shank at­tended school on al­ter­nate days so that she and her sis­ter, Christina, could take turns car­ing for five younger sib­lings af­ter their mother died. Catch-up les­sons, from the twin who at­tended school that day, were held in the evenings.

THEN AGAIN, look­ing af­ter chil­dren while try­ing to work was sim­ply part of a woman’s lot. Take Elizabeth Pul­man, re­put­edly our first pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher. She came to New Zealand in 1861 with her hus­band Ge­orge and, in 1867, they set up a pho­to­graphic stu­dio in Auck­land’s Short­land St.

Four years later Ge­orge died, leav­ing Elizabeth with the busi­ness — and eight chil­dren. She mar­ried again, had another child and, with a fam­ily of nine, con­tin­ued to head Pul­man’s Pho­to­graphic Stu­dio un­til a few months be­fore her death in 1900. Although it’s not pos­si­ble to say with cer­tainty whether it was Ge­orge or Elizabeth be­hind the cam­era, the legacy of their busi­ness is a col­lec­tion of por­trait and scenic shots now held in mu­se­ums and pub­lic li­braries be­cause of their Kate Edger (right) was the first woman to grad­u­ate with a BA, in1877. He­len Con­non (cen­tre) was the first MA grad­u­ate (1881) in the Bri­tish Em­pire to gain a de­gree with hon­ours. Left, Kate’s sis­ter Lillian Edger. his­toric im­por­tance. One of their scenic col­lec­tions was sold to the Gov­ern­ment to pro­mote tourism in New Zealand; their Maori por­traits dis­play the moko of many North Is­land chiefs and can there­fore be used in ge­neal­ogy re­search.

SO, THERE it is: the legacy of some of our lesser­known women who had to fight for some of the most ba­sic free­doms. How far would they think we have come? Per­haps, those who lead “slut walks”, where some­times scant­ily clad pro­test­ers point out that a short skirt and be­ing out alone at night is not an in­vi­ta­tion to sex­ual preda­tors, are the de­scen­dants of dress re­form­ers.

It’s taken decades for women’s sports teams to be ac­corded some of the ben­e­fits, not to men­tion re­spect, of their male coun­ter­parts and here it’s worth not­ing that the first try to get women’s rugby off the ground was in 1891 when a Mrs Nita Webbe ad­ver­tised for prospec­tive play­ers. The idea was roundly con­demned. Thirty years later, Christchurch doc­tor Wil­liam Simp­son de­clared that foot­ball for girls would “prove dele­te­ri­ous from both the phys­i­cal and tem­per­a­men­tal stand­point”.

Tell that to the Black Ferns who this year, af­ter five back-to-back World Cup wins, were fi­nally of­fered of­fi­cial con­tracts.

New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Jour­nal.

Kate Walker (stand­ing, cen­tre) and James Wilkin­son (seated be­side her) af­ter their 1894 wed­ding. Walker and her brides­maids the all wore knicker­bocker cos­tumes. Among brides­maids are Alice Burn, first pres­i­dent of the Ra­tio­nal Dress As­so­ci­a­tion, and Miss Mered­ith, the trea­surer. The pho­to­graph was pub­lished in the

Dr Margaret Cruick­shank of Wai­mate, the first woman to be reg­is­tered in New Zealand as a doc­tor.

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