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Honouring Gisborne's ambitious women

Jean Johnston’s latest completed research project has resulted in the Ambitious Gisborne Women exhibition at Tairawhiti Museum and a book of the same title. She talks to the Herald’s Wynsley Wrigley about her research, her findings, motivation and her interest in the ‘often hidden lives’ of women.

Prominent Gisborne suffragist Margaret Sievwright is still wielding influence in Gisborne 125 years after Kiwi women won the right to vote.

Academic, researcher and women’s studies enthusiast Jean Johnston and husband John recently visited the Scottish village of Pencaitland where Mrs Sievwright came from and made contact with a distant relative David Richardson.

Mrs Johnston was delighted to be shown Sievwright family photographs which revealed a different woman from the austere Margaret Sievwright images known to New Zealand historians and history buffs.

“When you see pictures of Margaret Sievwright in any publication around the country, there is this grim-looking lady wearing a bonnet.

“We now have lovely family photos with Margaret cuddling her own daughter, there are photos of her two step-daughters, and some of her Richardson family, her sisters and father.”

“It was just crying out for some kind of place to show these.”

That led to a discussion with Tairawhiti Museum director Eloise Wallace and her decision to hold the Ambitious Gisborne Women exhibition to mark the 125th anniversary of New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to introduce universal suffrage in 1893.

Mrs Johnston, the Tairawhiti Polytechnic representative on the Gisborne Suffrage Committee in 1993, was fully aware of the 125th anniversary coming up fast in 2018.

The exhibition was held from November 9, 2018 to March 31, 2019, and featured Tairawhiti Museum images, costumes and artefacts supporting Mrs Johnston’s research.

Ambitious Gisborne Women proved popular and some descendants of the women featured came forward and provided photographs previously unknown to Mrs Johnston.

The title of both the museum exhibition and Mrs Johnston’s subsequent book, launched at the museum on November 8 of this year, refers to the members of the Gisborne Women’s Political Association, who in December 1894, were acknowledged as Ambitious Gisborne Women in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

The association petitioned for law changes showing the women were determined to have an equal share of citizenship after winning the right to vote on 19 September 1893.

Mrs Johnston said the museum exhibition was “very much a team effort”, but the intent was never to focus just on Mrs Sievwright.

“What about all the women who helped her in the various organisations?

“So the exhibition became a history of how New Zealand women got the vote — Maori women and Pakeha women.”

Mrs Johnston started her research by looking at prominent organisations including the Gisborne Ladies Benevolent Society, Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Waiapu and Gisborne Women’s Political Association (GWPA) where Mrs Sievwright served as president, before going on to look at others.

Mrs Johnston’s  book goes beyond universal suffrage and covers numerous organisations and their participants who were active  in Gisborne between 1875 and 1920.

Mrs Sievwright’s national prominence suggested she may have organised many of these entities as she later become president of the National Council of Women.

But Mrs Johnston’s research indicates this was not the case.

Agnes Scott one of the local ‘stars’

There were many other Gisborne women who provided leadership in the Gisborne Ladies Benevolent Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Waiapu and the Free Association of Women Electors.

Asked to compare the suffragist movement in Gisborne/New Zealand to the class-divisive suffragette movement in Britain, Mrs Johnston said the Gisborne organisations she looked at were non-denominational and open to all women.

“One advertisement in a 1893 newspaper said the Free Association of Women Electors was for ‘all creeds, all classes, all colours’ ”.

Mrs Johnston said one of the “stars” in the Gisborne movement was Agnes Scott who described herself as one of Mrs Sievwright’s “lieutenants”.

She was born in a Scottish poor house, trained as a nurse and married Francis Scott, a blacksmith working in the Kaiti works.

Mrs Scott was the first Gisborne woman elected to public office becoming a Cook Hospital Board member in 1925.

Mrs Johnston said one driving force for her research was finding what values and experiences these women took from working with Mrs Sievwright to ensure the organisations “continued to benefit Gisborne, benefit the community and benefit New Zealand”.

They had left a legacy.

The National Council of Women still exists, on a national basis, if not in Gisborne, and is widely consulted on national policies.

The Cook County Women’s Guild was a unique local humanitarian organisation which campaigned, raised funds and established child care facilities and a maternity hospital.

The Elizabeth Townley Maternity Hospital, built in Childers Road, was opened by Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward in 1910.

Today’s Heni Materoa Children’s Trust is the successor to the child care facilities established by Cook County Women’s Guild.

“Gisborne women took an early political stance in promoting equity, educational opportunities and greater independence,” said Mrs Johnston.

“What is clear is their willingness to take on leadership roles, use problem solving skills, raise funds and evidence supportive dedication to the people of this district.”

Mrs Johnston has completed a major task, but is not resting on her laurels.

Only last week she was in Wellington working on her next project which will hopefully lead to another exhibition and publication at Tairawhiti Museum in 2022.

In May of next year, four stamps will be released by NZ Post featuring the 1880s botanical paintings of Gisborne settler Sarah Ann Featon.

Mrs Featon, created an album of her paintings of New Zealand flora accompanied by text written by her husband Edward.

“Hardly anyone today would know who she is. I guess that’s another reason why I am doing this.”

The exhibition of her art work along with the publication will include a history of the Featons’ time in Gisborne from 1875.

Today Te Papa in Wellington has 95 of Mrs Featon’s paintings while the Alexander Turnbull Library has others.

LABOUR OF LOVE: Jean Johnston proudly displays her book Ambitious Gisborne Women. Her publication looks at the role of women and the organisations they worked in to increase the role of women and to benefit wider Tairawhiti society between 1875 and 1920. The book is on sale at Tairawhiti Museum. Picture by Liam Clayton
TWIN CAMPAIGN: Researcher /author Jean Johnson is pictured with displays from the Ambitious Gisborne Women exhibition held at Tairawhiti Museum from November to March. The exhibition was the forerunner of her book, with the same name, which was launched at the museum two weeks ago. Picture by Liam Clayton
Heni Materoa Children's Home is one of many organisations examined by Jean Johnston while researching Ambitious Gisborne Women. This Tairawhiti Museum picture captures the committee of 1919.