A pioneering New Zealand Feminist: Wilhelmina Bain

Included in this NCW photograph are, standing: Jessie Mackay (fifth from left), Jessie Williamson (second from right); seated: Amey Daldy (second from left), Anna Stout (fourth from left), Kate Sheppard (fifth from left), Annie Schnackenberg (sixth from left), Margaret Sievwright (seventh from left), Marianne Tasker (eighth from left); and, seated on floor: Ada Wells (centre) and Wilhelmina Bain (right).

Today is the 125th anniversary of the Electoral Act being passed in New Zealand; the first sovereign nation to recognise the right for women to vote.

While figures such as Kate Shepherd will be spoken of and remembered on this day, the work and exploits of one of the pioneering spirits of New Zealand’s social history will most likely be overlooked and even forgotten entirely.

Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain on the occasion of her marriage to Robert Elliot, 1914

Wilhelmina Bain was born into a family of seven in Midlothian Scotland near Edinburgh in 1848.

By the age of ten, her family made the decision to follow their firstborn son, James Walker Bain to Invercargill in the newly developing colony of New Zealand in the hopes of making a new life and hopeful prosperity.

Wilhelmina became fascinated with knowledge at a young age and, turning aside from marriage, made a decision to become an early spinster to focus her energies towards education, becoming a teacher and librarian in 1879 at the age of twenty-three.

In 1894, at the age of forty-six, her father passed away and she moved to Christchurch where she joined the Canterbury Women’s Institute which within two years she became president of.

She chaired the meeting of the first National Council of Women in 1896 and was duly elected treasurer.

Kate Shepherd was elected president and Ada Wells secretary.

She made herself very unpopular amongst all quarters in her vehement stand against New Zealand’s involvement in the Second Boer War.

In a speech she made, which was published on page 2 of the Otago Daily Times on May the 11th, 1900 she said that: Quote.

The current Government had thrown itself headlong into a melee of an old-world turmoil. We have selected from our young men those of the very finest physique to be sent them across the Tasman Sea and the Indian Ocean to slay boys of 16 and old men of 70, to be slain in the attempt.… our poor British boys were led through the black night … that they might bayonet to death Boers slumbering within their tents, and the horror was justified.… But when the Boers committed any special atrocity, our language failed to express enough reprobation. End quote.

Her vehemence was directly felt by those holding the purse strings in her home colony, and her name was ill spoken of within the official base of the Feminist cause whose primary concern was maintaining a practical working relationship with the establishment of the time.

Kate Shepherd chose to keep her at arm’s length politically and her voice was very much sidelined in the pragmatic long game towards greater overall parity that Shepherd’s strategy focused towards.

After all, women in New Zealand already had the vote and what was to be gained by railing against a foreign entanglement concerning people and property of little consequence at home?

But Wilhelmina was a person of substance and integrity who viewed injustice, irrespective of what level it was administered through or where in the world it was found, as something to fight against.

From early on she could see the real reasons for the war: the British Empire’s aggressive economic policy regarding the two Boer Republics in South Africa.

The following war against the Boers on the High Veldt involved eight successive contingents of young men from both the North and South Islands who fought in two main engagements: the relief of Slingersfontein Farm in January 1900 against Koos Del Le Rey and the action on the 29th of November 1900 at Rhenoster Kop in the Northern Transvaal.

The remaining contingents were allocated ‘sweeping duties’ in the intervening years of ‘dirty war’ where troops were mostly consigned to herding away women and children into concentration camps and burning Boer farmsteads in an attempt to deny the mobile Boer Commandoes a source of relief and intermittent refuge.

The last major action concerning New Zealand troops occurred in late February of 1902 when the seventh contingent met the desperately hungry commando of Christiaan De Wet as he attempted to break through into the northern Transvaal.

The proceeding engagement at Langverwacht in the northern Orange Free State cost the lives of twenty-three of the eighty New Zealander troops in the field and seven of the eight officers in the contingent were amongst those killed.

As the troops began to come home carrying the inevitable knowledge of what had actually occurred, the real truth began to be swept beneath a carpet of national pomp nestled amongst a growing economy and promises of good times ahead.

But as far as the annoying presence of Wilhelmina was concerned, well what of it?

After all, being honest is more often than not a fast ticket to political oblivion, especially during the excitable times and levels of patriotic fervour within the new dominion of New Zealand where such critical dissent was easily discredited.

In late 1899, Bain moved to Auckland where she taught at the Queen Victoria School for Maori Girls and in 1902 she moved to Taranaki.

In 1901 she was elected New Zealand’s representative for the International Council for Women and attended an international conference in Berlin in 1904 followed by the thirteenth Universal Peace and Arbitration Congress in Boston the following year.

Bain carried on her career as a journalist and organised the Aparima Peace Union and later on the Women’s Peace Society in Invercargill.

In 1914, at the age of sixty-six, she married a shopkeeper by the name of Robert Elliot who died six years later.

While she never had children she wrote voraciously and published two books in England, both in her seventies: ‘From Zealandia’ a collection of poems and a novel titled ‘Service: a New Zealand Story’.

In her later life, she lived in Riverton, Southland where she publicly campaigned for: gender equality; equal pay; prison reform and female representation on official juries.

She passed away in Auckland on the 26th of January 1944 at the age of 94.

 


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