Lively history of feminist pioneer

Mary Ann Colclough. Photo: supplied.
Mary Ann Colclough. Photo: supplied.

In Polly Plum: a firm and earnest woman's advocate, Jenny Coleman documents the life of a New Zealand feminist pioneer.

Jenny Coleman
Otago University Press

If she had lived longer than her 49 years the  face of Mary Ann Colclough could well be adorning our $10  note instead of  Kate Sheppard.

Colclough (pronounced in the Irish fashion "cokely") was one of the feminist pioneers energetically battling for women’s rights 30 years before the watershed 1893 general election which saw New Zealand women vote for the first time.

Born in London in 1836 and already an established teacher when she arrived in Auckland in 1857, she topped the education board examinations. It was her marriage in 1860 to Irish remittance man Thomas Colclough which changed her life from one of comparative ease to one of constant battle.

She established a girls’ school at Otahuhu and was the family breadwinner. Thomas’ death in 1867, after two children had been born, was more of a blessing than a setback.

Mary Ann supplemented her income by writing for newspapers as "Polly Plum", the nom de plume suggested by Julius Vogel who, having lost the editorship of the Otago Daily Times, had moved to Auckland to edit the Daily Southern Cross.

Polly Plum’s columns promoted the rights of women with such energy that during the 1870s she was described as "the best abused woman in New Zealand". She was vilified and parodied but, along the way, with her columns and letters to the editor she built up an influential group of supporters.

Her training in elocution boosted attendance at her public lectures as her audience could actually hear her, even if many then resorted to heckling and ridicule in reaction to her pleas for women’s financial independence, voting rights and fairness in a dozen other spheres.

Mary Ann Colclough also found time to write a novel, the partly autobiographical Alone in the World, but it was in the practical world that she made the most impact. She was appalled at conditions for women at Mount  Eden Prison and offered help to prisoners after their release, often accommodating them in her own home.

This was no drawing-room feminist, supported by an indulgent, well-to-do husband. Mary Ann Colclough promoted her cause while running schools (later in Thames and Rangiora), bringing up her own family under financial pressure and giving help to any women who sought it.

She left few personal records and, like many historians of recent times, Jenny Coleman has made extensive use of digitised newspaper collections (Papers Past in New Zealand, Trove in Australia). Judicious reproduction of newspaper letters and editorials provides a contemporary background to the public wrangling which followed Polly Plum wherever she went.

In Auckland, Thames and Melbourne she attracted support and derision in pretty well equal amounts. The Otago Daily Times hoped she would lecture in Dunedin (surely as much a hot-bed of feminism as Auckland) but the nearest she got was a quick stop in Port Chalmers when she sailed back to New Zealand from Melbourne.

History has been infinitely compartmentalised in recent times but "women’s history", at least in the case of Polly Plum, is shown as something rather more all-embracing. Mary Ann Colclough lived in a world awash with debate about education, penal reform, personal liberty, politics and any number of issues which transcend the limitations of gender. As a writer, reformer, ragged-skirted philanthropist and mother, hers is the story of all of colonial society.

Her early death in 1885 meant she missed the events of the next 10 years, which saw the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the establishment of the Tailoresses’ Union and petitions to parliament for women’s franchise culminating in the 1893 election breakthrough.

This lively biography gives the impression that, had she lived, Mary Ann Colclough would have been in the thick of it all, wielding a powerful pen and speaking common sense in a clear voice rising above the babble.

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.


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