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Tribute to trailblazers

Today marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. JAN MCLAREN pays tribute to the lives of three Masterton women who ensured Wairarapa women’s voices were heard.

 

Sylvia Howden, Margaret Christensen and Helen Dashfield were strong advocates for women’s involvement in education, community, local politics, the arts and health.

They were all members of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in the 1970s and 80s working in local campaigns which argued for better health services and gender equality, especially in employment and representation on boards and committees.

All three women were awarded the Queen’s Service Medal (QSM) for public services.

Their efforts helped forge change in Wairarapa and improved the lives of Wairarapa women.

They were role models, leading by example and influencing others to take a more active part in the community. Today, on September 19, the Suffrage celebration is an opportunity to remember them and the trail blazers who fought for women’s right to vote 125 years ago.

 

Sylvia Howden

Sylvia Howden. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Sylvia Howden helped set up the first Women’s Refuge in Masterton in 1984.

At the time she was president of the Wairarapa branch of the National Council of Women (NCW) and it was a strong organisation under her leadership.

Along with Danna Glendining from WEL, and others on the steering committee, she established a safe house run by volunteers to protect women from domestic violence.

Sylvia was also instrumental in setting up a Family Planning clinic in Masterton in response to an increasing number of teenage pregnancies at the time, the lack of advice on contraception, and the reluctance of some women to go to doctors for cervical screening.

With Trish Taylor as patron, the clinic opened in 1987.

It was an uphill battle to get GPs involved but in spite of obstacles, the National Council of Women sponsored the training of two nurses and the Clinic opened and lasted for 13 years until Public Health continued the work.

Sylvia was always modest about receiving the QSM in 1987 but these were important achievements and they happened under her watch as president of NCW.

She was also an excellent golfer and worked hard behind the scenes as Captain and President of Women’s Golf at the Masterton Golf Club to develop and support women’s golf locally.

 

Margaret Christensen

Margaret Christensen. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Margaret Christensen. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Margaret Christensen, who died in April this year, also contributed in many ways to make the world a better place, especially for women.

She was honoured with a QSM in 2001 for her service to the community she loved.

Margaret was born in Masterton and lived until the end of her life in the same house she grew up in.

She was a radio announcer, a speech teacher, a writer and columnist for various publications, and a reviewer of plays, musicals, dance performances and books.

Margaret had great knowledge of many subjects especially ballet, music, opera, art and literature, and her house was filled with books.

She was involved in many organisations including Creative Communities, Glistening Waters Storytelling Festival, Access Radio, Women’s Electoral Lobby, the Freelance Writers Association, Probus, Speech Teachers’ Association and U3A.

During the 1970s and 80s, she supported many campaigns seeking to get more women elected onto boards, committees, and the council, and she served three terms as a Masterton Borough councillor from 1980-1989.

 

Helen Dashfield

Helen Dashfield was the founder of the Wairarapa branch of the National Council of Women and was honoured last year when the local branch of NCW disbanded and they erected a memorial seat at Henley Lake in her memory.

Helen was a strong advocate for women’s involvement in politics, education and community and was relentless in her quest to improve the lives of girls and women.

As a teacher, community activist and the wife of a vicar she was a role model and inspiration to many.

She set up Wairarapa NCW in 1967 and was a founding member of Soroptimists and WEL in Wairarapa.

In 1980, after a lively campaign she became the first woman elected to Masterton Trust Lands Trust in 108 years.

Helen was on the Trust for more than 20 years and was very involved in the building of Aratoi.

Previously she had been the president of Wairarapa Arts Centre and later, patron of Aratoi.

Helen was also on the board of Wairarapa Community Polytechnic, and was involved with Makoura’s teen parent unit, and ARLA (now known as Literacy Wairarapa) as an adult reading tutor.

She received a QSM in 1995.

Helen had 54 years of involvement at St Matthews College as pupil, teacher, headmistress and board member. She taught girls to be assertive, to take pride in themselves and to love language and literature.

She taught English at St Matthews for 11 years and supervised the library which is now called the Dashfield Library in recognition of her dedication.

She later taught at Rathkeale College.

An original wit and raconteur, an artist and writer, an articulate champion for women, and a person very involved in her community, Helen Dashfield is remembered for serving her community so well.

2 COMMENTS

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Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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