Collecting our women’s stories

Each year International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8. This is a special day to mark the importance of women for their economic, political and social achievements.

Yet how can a museum reveal the important contributions that women make – and have made – to society?

Is it even possible to tell women’s diverse stories through the kinds of items that come into collections?

Working in museums is often a reminder that women’s stories have frequently been hidden under the veil of their domestic lives. Collections such as that at Ashburton Museum are rich in household items primarily used by women, as well as their most fashionable garments and those made by women for others.

This is partly due to quirk of timing, as many New Zealand collections grew considerably from the mid twentieth century. Many people were keen to preserve examples of everyday ‘folk’ histories. At the same time, centenaries were being planned and celebrated across the country – spurring locals to collect ‘bygones’ and evidence of Victorian settler histories.

The smaller nature domestic items made them easier to collect in regional museums, and very easy for visitors to relate to, due to their intimate and human scale. That many Victorian items used by households were decorative and pretty adds to a perception that all these items relate to women, when scrolls and detailing were also common masculine items made during the period.


Hidden roles

Uncovering women’s histories takes a bit more work – but many accomplished, successful and contributing women were active in Ashburton. They played an important, but often hidden role, in Ashburton’s history. From town founder, Mrs Turton, who provided food and lodgings for travellers through the district; to many years of board, committee and businesswomen, these busy women have helped make Ashburton the town it is today.

‘Significant’ ladies may have been more visible but that shouldn’t imply that ordinary wives and mothers didn’t do as much. Women took part in fundraising, especially for local projects such as schools and churches, as well as during war. For example, mothers baked cakes and made costumes for children’s fairs.

2. Dorothea Brown

The large proportion of men in hospital and old people’s homes registers is evidence that women largely looked after the sick and old at home – it was only when they had no one that would people go to such institutions.

During wartime, women managed farms and other businesses, and also provided many comforts to soldiers overseas, by baking, knitting and making items for care parcels.

They were business people – running businesses on their own right, or as part of a family business (where often they wouldn’t get paid). They were professionals – such as teachers, nurses.

They were also very brave. Local women, such as Emily Peter and Matron MacAndrew, volunteered to nurse overseas during overseas wars. There were also numerous WAAFS (the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and WAACS (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) stationed near Ashburton during World War Two.

Politics and rights

It is well-known that women in New Zealand were at the international forefront of politics and human rights. They affected great change, such as by actively promoting suffrage and prohibition.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was particularly active in this district. They were vocal, not only against drinking but also concerning domestic violence and health initiatives. They also gained important rights for women under the Married Women’s Property Protection Act 1880. Previously women couldn’t inherit money directly so were forced to remain associated with a male relation or husband. Now they could better manage their own independence despite unfortunate circumstances.

Ashburton women were often the instigators of social change and developments. They were active petitioners, and backed by supportive local men. It is little known that New Zealand’s suffrage bill was moved and seconded by two local men, Thomas Hall and Alfred Saunders. Of course, women couldn’t propose the motion until they could be elected! It was no doubt through their many contacts with successful and capable local women that they lent support to this landmark proposal.

Importantly, during debate, there was majority support for the enfranchisement of Māori as well as Pākehā women. The Electoral Act 1893, gave all women in New Zealand the right to vote. It is an important framework through which we can well remember and uncover women’s stories.

Two lady chemists

1. Jean Livingston

 Jean Livingston

Jean became a registered chemist in England in 1909. She migrated to New Zealand in 1913, with her mother Grace and two sisters. After a brief time in Christchurch, the family had moved to Methven, where Jean at least stayed until 1920.

Jean’s shop was part of the two storied building known as the Methven Emporium. She sold pharmaceutical medicines, toiletries and stationery; and hosted travelling specialists such as dentists.  Very keen on photography, a large part of her business was selling photographic supplies and arranging film developing.

Jean was an earnest worker for St John’s Presbyterian Church. On leaving it was said she was the life and soul of the church societies. She also was a singer at many concerts and a regularly exhibited flowers and embroidery at local A&P shows. She left Methven for Scotland, where she was married. Jean died in 1966.

3. Pheobe Totty

Phoebe Totty

During her career, Phoebe was well supported by her husband Robert. She was born in 1884 in Waihakeke and later trained as a teacher.

Robert had been educated in Ashburton and was apprenticed to the Ashburton Drug Company. After qualifying, he spent a year in Wellington furthering his studies. He then returned and worked for a year, then in 1905 established his own shop.

The couple were married in 1911, then returned to Ashburton, where they opened a chemist shop. Phoebe assisted Robert and continued to run the shop after his death in 1945. She employed a dispenser to assist her. Having a keen interest in things medical, she also became an Ambulance Officer for St John’s. Phoebe died in 1972.

By Kathleen Stringer and Tanya Zoe Robinson


1. Pheobe Totty with her husband Robert

2. Jean Livingston

2. Dorothea Brown

3. Pheobe Totty in her pharmacy

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