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Elsie Andrews – The Making of a Feminist

by Virginia Winder  

Andrews Family: Elsie is at left in the back row wearing a tie. Image: P.2.4560
Andrews Family: Elsie is at left in the back row wearing a tie. Image: P.2.4560

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Education turned an apathetic Taranaki farm girl into a champion for women's rights.

But the evolution of Elsie Euphemia Andrews was no blinding flash from ignorance to insight - it was a long, slow journey, with knowledge gathered up like golden apples.

The fruits of her learning made Elsie outspoken in her beliefs. She sought equality for women, peace not war, education reforms, pay equity for women teachers, resolution of Maori land grievances and racial equality.

This is her early story. 

Elsie was born on 23 December 1888, a time when strict Victorian values were still in place; women were still wearing corsets, full-length dresses with bustles and were considered the fairer (weaker) sex. Men controlled the fates of women, whose expected aim in life was to marry well.

But attitudes were evolving in colonial New Zealand. Immigrants were breaking down the barriers of class so prevalent in England, and gradually the lot of women was taking a turn as husband and wife worked side by side to clear farmland and milk cows.

Suffragettes in full cry

The year of Elsie's birth in Huirangi, North Taranaki, was the same as writer Katherine Mansfield, who was born in Wellington. As these young babes came squalling into the world, the suffragettes were in full cry, campaigning for a say in running the country.

On 19 September 1893, when Katherine and Elsie were both nearing their fifth birthdays, the women of New Zealand became the first in the world to gain the right to vote in a general election.

Despite being timely contemporaries, and future women of influence, these two shared little else in common and there are no records showing they met. Katherine was born into a middle-class family of genteel nature. Elsie came from rugged pioneering stock, the type with hands forever in soil. "My parents were thoroughly honest and equally poor," writes Elsie.

"My father was one of the first half-dozen white children born in New Plymouth, some weeks after the arrival in March 1842, on the barque, Timandra (382 tons, and 101 days out from Plymouth), in which my grandparents had sailed."

Fearless great-grandmother

They were Jane and Simon Andrews, whose story is passed on in person by New Plymouth woman Judy Maiden, the niece of Elsie Andrews.

Judy even remembers her great-grandmother - a tiny woman with a huge presence. "She had been stone deaf from the age of 16. She was absolutely fearless."

Simon and Jane farmed at Huirangi, near Waitara. During the Taranaki Land Wars of the 1860s, Maori tried to burn down their home. But Jane had other ideas.

"They (Maori) were stacking brush against the cottage and she went out and kicked it here and kicked it there..."

Judy says the would-be attackers were so surprised at Jane's courage they never bothered the Andrews' family again.

Little 'Florence Nightingale'

Another time Jane revealed her brave, but stubborn personality was also during the land wars. Instead of evacuating to the safety of Marsland Hill in New Plymouth, she stayed in the war zone to look after a family suffering from diphtheria.

"She refused to go unless arrangements were made for hospital care for this family," Judy says.

Once these were put in place, the Andrews' did head to town. "When they arrived, the soldiers formed a guard of honour for this little 'Florence Nightingale'."

Elsie, who typed a large chunk of her autobiography before she died in 1948, has another tale from those times about her gutsy grandmother. "...when women and children were being evacuated for safety to Nelson, across Cook Strait,... she refused to leave her husband, and only when she was tricked into the township and locked in the guardroom, could she be forced to take her place in the boat."

Judy, who now lives at the Molly Ryan Retirement Village, is able to conjure up a vivid image of her ancient great-grandmother. "Apparently, Jane fell and broke her hip and, in those days, she was confined to a sort of wheelchair thing. She had this great sort of speaker thing she held to her ear.

"Right to the end she was a little feisty woman," Judy says, admitting she was a tad frightened of the diminutive figure.

Green-fingered and far-thinking

Without a doubt, Elsie Andrews inherited her grandmother's determination. She was also influenced by her open-minded parents, John Andrews and Emily Young (from Canterbury).
"He (John) was a very community sort of person. He was on the school committee and education board in those days. He was a person always looking for improvements that could be done," Judy says of her grandfather.

The Andrews family lived on the Huirangi property, which had flourishing gardens. Simon was a horticulturalist, whose green-fingered ways have been handed down through the generations.

Amazingly, some of the camellias he planted around the cottage still put on a colourful show as the weather cools. But family members no longer tend the dairy farm.

It was here that Elsie grew up, the youngest of 12 children. Sadly, two of her siblings died in childhood.

Right from the age of 11, Elsie was sturdy of frame and brain.

A reluctant student

She fared so well at school that her teacher suggested she sit a scholarship exam to attend secondary school.

Less than enthused about the idea, Elsie stayed after school to study facts and figures. "I was lazy; I had no ambition: a scholarship meant nothing to me: and I must have been the most unsatisfactory material my long-suffering teacher could possibly have chosen to work with. I was by no means apprehensive or highly strung, but frankly bored," she writes.

"At that time I think my simple philosophy of life embraced these facts: one went to school and left as soon as one could, thus escaping at once the twin evils of corporal punishment and undesired information; and grew up, married, and had children; and at some future time, so remote as to be devoid of all reality, one died and went to heaven. I did not wonder - as well I might have done, in view of the total lack of music in my soul - what possible instrument would be found for me in the heavenly choir."

Later, Elsie would discover within herself an entire orchestra of beliefs and talents. She chose to walk an extraordinary path, leading a whole slipstream of women to a fresh way of thinking, of being.

Rehearsal reaps rewards

But first came education, starting with the scholarship exam at the end of 1900. Elsie travelled to New Plymouth to have a ‘preliminary skirmish’, or rehearsal for her proper shot at the exam the following year. Neither Elsie nor her teacher expected great things from the first attempt, and afterwards, the student was non-committal about her performance.

When the results were finally printed in the newspaper, Elsie had topped the lot.

Off she went to New Plymouth High School, suffering from extreme shyness and self-consciousness. And so began her slow awakening.
"A new and marvellous world had opened for me; a world full of girls whose companionship was most congenial, of sympathetic and helpful teachers, of unaccustomed standards of honour and courtesy, and I revelled in it."

Carefree high school girl

While she topped her form in 1901, Elsie admits she did the minimum amount of work to get her through. "Of personal ambition I possessed none; I had no sense of duty and no conscience; I saw no reason in doing anything that I did not want to do."

But she sailed through school, earning a second scholarship after her first two years were up. When she writes of those ‘carefree’ days, Elsie talks of playing tennis and rounders, of amazing herself - and everyone else - by winning a sewing prize and in passing, mentions the segregation of boys and girls in the co-educational school.

"Sports day and breaking-up day were the only two occasions during the year when we met the boys face to face," she says.

Girls and boys had separate playgrounds, divided by a fence. "It was a heinous offence to have anything to do with the opposite sex…Boys had no interest for me. I had no young brothers, was not used to boys' companionship and did not desire it, so was never involved in any scrapes connected with the boys' side of the school."

Finding her wings

In 1903, Elsie's third year at high school, she suddenly found her wings and the possible realisation of a dream. "...I acquired a degree of muscular control sufficient to enable me to write and draw with extreme neatness."

For her this meant more than beautiful handwriting, it meant she could pursue her dream career. "With my slovenly writing, how could I become a teacher? The problem puzzled my brain for years. And now, hey presto, the miracle was accomplished - the grub had become a butterfly - the teaching profession was open to me. I could write!"

And she did.

Elsie's diaries, poems, speeches and memoirs are all held in the Puke Ariki archives. These documents trace her career as a teacher, political activist, pacifist and feminist.

In terms of the latter, she has an energetic claim to fame.

Continuing education cycle

After completing her scholarship years, the rules had changed, allowing free high school education for those who completed their primary school years with credit. Those who gained an inferior pass went to technical school for two years and those who failed ended their education at that point.

While Elsie disagreed with the system, she did benefit from the changes and was able to attend high school for a fifth year. Because her parents could only afford to pay her boarding fees for the winter term, the rest of the time she biked the 12 miles to New Plymouth and 12 miles home to Huirangi.

In 1901, when she first got her bicycle, the contraption was a rarity. "My own was bought secondhand and, when new, was the first lady's bicycle in New Plymouth. It had wooden rims and no free wheel, but I thought it was a wonderful possession."

She can remember no other girl at that time riding a cycle. "Everyone walked to school from whatever quarter of the town she lived in; there were neither trams nor buses to patronise."

Failure and farewells

That final year of school was filled with friendships and fun, but not a lot of study on Elsie's part. The results of her university entrance examinations reflected this. "I failed in French, and failed in English, and felt as if I had been hit with a sledgehammer," she says.

She also failed her entrance exam for teacher's college.

At the end of the year, she received a tribute from the headmaster and a telling off from a teacher.

While Ernest Pridham gave her public praise for general excellence, Miss Drew took her aside and said: "Elsie, your school-days have been a disappointment to me."

The result was that Elsie left school feeling sad about ending those wonderful years and bad that she hadn't shone in her studies. "Always in my memory I have balanced those two farewells; I knew I had disappointed Miss Drew, and I have never lost a sense of shame at the wasted opportunities of those years."

Later, she was to make amends by becoming a champion for education. First, she had to do her time.

Learning to teach

On 29 January 1906, Elsie found herself back in the classroom. Instead of going to college, she was attached to Waitara Primary School for two years' training as a teacher. "I was 17 years old and probably thought I knew everything."

While she did most of her training at Waitara, she also spent some time teaching at country schools around Taranaki - Strathmore, Waitui, Kaimata and Tikorangi.

In 1912, she got a job at Fitzroy School in New Plymouth. In 1928 she became the infant mistress, a position she held until her retirement in 1935.

During her Fitzroy years, Elsie became involved in the politics of education, in the women's movement and spoke out fiercely against the horrors of war. That is all in another story.

Elsie's early years began with education - of herself.

First published on 26 May 2004




Elsie Andrews papers 1930-1945: contains personal diaries, speeches and poems (2001-503)

Elsie Andrews MBE papers 1963, complied after her death (2001-423)

Belle Allen manuscript: member of the North Taranaki branch of the New Zealand Education Institute. Elsie Andrews was also a member of this (2001-22)


Puke Ariki is not responsible for the content of these external websites.

Female Friendship in Aotearoa/NewZealand - A paper discussing the friendships of Elsie Andrews and Muriel Kirton (PDF format).

Elizabeth Fry - A Quaker who became famous for her work to reform the prison system in Britain in the early nineteenth century.

National Council of Women - The Council aims to serve women, the family and community at local, national and international level through study, discussion and action.


Zona Wagstaff Never Gives Up



The Elsie Andrews Diaries - visit the on line exhibition here to read from her diaries, poetry and speech notes.


National Council of Women of New Zealand
PO Box 12-117
10 Park Street
Phone: 04 473 7623
Fax 04 499 5554
Email: contactus@ncwnz.co.nz
Web: http://www.ncwnz.co.nz/

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