18 September 2009
According to Chris Trotter in today's Dom-Post, it's high time Labour got back to its male working class, er, roots. Labour, he says, now has to reconnect with "the dream of thousands of young and idealistic working class men. To conquer, if not the world, then at least the social evils which disfigure it. To protect and defend the weak and oppressed - and to earn the love and respect of their female comrades in the process....Can Labour, once again, become a party with balls?"
He must be joking. Surely. If, as I fear, he isn't, then that ominous noise beneath his feet is Elsie Locke turning in her grave. Ironically, tonight (on the eve of Suffrage Day) her biography (Looking for Answers, A Life of Elsie Locke, by Maureen Birchfield, Canterbury University Press) was launched in Parliament's Grand Hall.
By the time Chris was born, Elsie had been fighting social evils for a couple of decades. All too often, she had to put enormous energy and effort into persuading her male comrades that women were able to do more than keeping the home fires burning and bestowing love and respect.
Chris makes great play with the idea of Labour under Helen Clark as a reincarnation of the upper-crust "ladies on the hill", talking down to their inferiors. This is very odd, because it was the Right who cast Labour, so conveniently led by a woman, as running a nanny state.
Apparently, protecting the weak and poor is an exclusively masculine role which women are unable to claim as their own, despite them doing most of the actual caring and protecting. No, they have to stay in the background, patting their menfolk on the back with one hand while serving dinner with the other.
It's fine for the "female comrades" to be unpaid or grossly underpaid caregivers, or even fund-raisers and tea-makers. But woe betide them if they try to usurp men's sacred territory and work directly for change through a union or a political party - let alone rise (through enough hard work and talent to overcome the huge handicap of not having balls) to lead that party.
But Chris's history is badly astray. The party Phil Goff's grandparents voted for wasn't a "feminine construct" (any more than the last Labour-led government was), but it wasn't exactly hyper-masculine either (unlike the Fascists NZ would soon be fighting). If it had been, it wouldn't have survived.
In his haste to rescue Labour from the dreaded (ball-less, ball-breaking) women (who can't possibly be true defenders of the faith), Chris is completely ignoring early stalwarts like Elizabeth McCombs. The DNZB says, "Elizabeth supported [her husband] James in his leadership of the Woolston branch of the Social Democratic Party, which he founded in 1913. When he became the first president of the second New Zealand Labour Party in 1916, she was elected a member of the executive. Elizabeth McCombs became a political figure in her own right in 1921 as the second woman to be elected to the Christchurch City Council."
But she was also flat out protecting and defending the poor and the weak, as a member of the hospital board's benevolent committee from 1926 to 1934, and on the committee administering the Mayor's Relief of Distress Fund. "As a member of the North Canterbury Hospital Board from 1925 to 1934, she insisted on hygiene and nutritious meals for patients and nurses and campaigned to improve nurses' working conditions." In 1926 she was one of the first women in New Zealand to be made a justice of the peace. Doesn't sound like a lady on the hill to me.
She was also the first woman to be endorsed as a candidate by the Labour Party, standing unsuccessfully for Kaiapoi in 1928. (If Chris has been there he would no doubt have tried to stop her from polluting the party's pure manly construct.)
"Elizabeth was conscious that her sex was an obstacle, and in her second attempt to win a seat, at Christchurch North in 1931, she faced the issue squarely by using as her slogan: 'Vote the first Woman to the New Zealand Parliament'; she admitted publicly that this distinction was, indeed, her ambition." Poor misguided creature - she obviously didn't understand what the party was really about and who it was really for. Chris could have put her straight.
Her husband James McCombs, MP for Lyttelton, died in August 1933. But "Labour leaders had reservations about Elizabeth's replacing him because he won with only a slender majority. Women's groups backed her, and although one of her opponents [a Trotter forebear, no doubt] argued that 'the difficulties of the country are too great for women to grapple with', she was elected with an overwhelming majority and took her seat in the House in September 1933." Sadly, she died two years later, but her son Terence succeeded her.
So on Suffrage Day tomorrow, 19 September - in case you'd forgotten, it commemorates the day when NZ finally became a true democracy by allowing women to vote - spare a thought for Elizabeth McCombs and Elsie Locke. They had nothing at all against balls - they just didn't think that having or not having them had anything to do with standing up for social justice.