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Tim Mcvicar

Connie Purdue – Activist and “Anti-Feminist”

Communist to Catholic, Labour to National – how Connie’s later perspectives contrasted years of advocacy for equal rights. “I learned very early not to put up with things … you can change things.”

Communist to Catholic, Labour to National – how Connie’s later perspectives contrasted years of advocacy for equal rights. “I learned very early not to put up with things … you can change things.”

Connie Purdue dedicated her life to agitating for social change. Her ideological positions shifted during her long life. Once an avowed communist, trade unionist and member of the Labour Party, she became a committed Catholic, National Party member, anti-abortion advocate and ‘anti-feminist.’[2] Throughout her life, the rights and duties of women were at the forefront of her activism. As a confrontational activist, she played a crucial and clarifying role in second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when movements championing social liberalisation conflicted with her conservative morality.

Constance Miriam Purdue (née Soljak) was born in 1912 and grew up in Northcote, Auckland. Her father, Peter Soljak, was a Croatian-born gum digger and restauranter while her mother, Miriam Soljak (née Cummings), was a notable leftist political activist and founding member of the New Zealand Family Planning Association. Purdue credited her interest in political activism to her mother and the challenges she faced being married to a Dalmatian during the First-World War.[3] Soljak lost her English citizenship because of her marriage and was forced to register as an enemy alien.[4] With her seventh child on the way, Soljak registered as an alien but made the constable witness she did so, ‘under protest.’ Soljak subsequently joined the Women’s Branch of the Labour Party and the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom and had the law changed. Motivated by her mother’s political idealism, Purdue spent her life protesting injustices in New Zealand society.

At the age of five, she was hospitalised after she contracted tuberculosis in a knee joint from unpasteurised milk. Later in life, she noted that “most of life has been pain[ful]” due to the TB.[5] She spent some time in Auckland hospital on a charitable bed and recalled that “it was here that I learned my class early and also my difference”[6] She attended a convent school, where she received prizes for theology. She left formal schooling at the age of eleven.[7] Purdue was married at the age of twenty. There is little public information about her two marriages, although she described both as ‘unhappy marriages’ ending in divorce.[8] Purdue had three children.

At sixteen, she became the secretary of the Young Communist League, sold their books and distributed materials about sex education.[9] Her support for communist ideology eventually gave way to support of Social-Democratic ideas and reforming industrial relations. She joined the Labour Party and, in 1967, was appointed to the Social Welfare office at the Auckland Clerical Workers Union. Confronted with low engagement by female members, Purdue organised social activities such as a luncheon club, self-improvement classes, fashion parades, holiday motels and counselling services to make female members more proactive in the union.[10]

In the late 1960s, Purdue joined the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity as secretary and was effective in advancing the cause through campaigns.[11] Although the Government Service Equal Pay Act had passed in 1960, women still faced challenges, particularly in the private sector. As one woman, interviewed by Television New Zealand, stated at the time, “I don’t like the idea of equal pay for women. I feel that the male has to have something left, even if it’s just a little bit of extra money in his pay packet every week. I think we are going to rob him of his ego.”[12] Purdue championed the right of women to enter the workforce and that they should have the same pay and opportunities as men. In her own words, she sought to challenge the idea that there were ‘jobs for women and jobs for men.’[13] She hoped to change the attitudes of women about education and work. She wanted women to take the ‘long term view, that you are going to have a long working life, so that they see that as important and do become skilled.’[14] Purdue was influential in the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1972.

In 1969, she joined the women’s liberation movement at Auckland University and in 1971 assisted with Australian feminist Germaine Greer’s tour of New Zealand.[15] In 1972, Purdue and Sue Kedley formed the National Organisation of Women (NOW), with Purdue the first president of the Auckland Branch.[16] In 1972 and 1973, she led protests against gender segregation in ‘situation vacant’ advertisements and for women to be allowed to work as newsreaders on TV and radio.[17]

However, by the early 1970s, Purdue’s beliefs about abortion conflicted with emerging trends in second-wave feminism.  Despite NOW branches in Wellington and Christchurch being responsive to abortion reform, Purdue’s influence meant that NOW did not have an official policy and she encouraged pro-abortion members of NOW to join other organisations.[18] In 1974, Purdue was replaced as president. Subsequently, the Auckland Branch of NOW supported the free availability of contraception and the right to abortion in line with other branches in the country.  Many members of the Auckland Branch, encouraged by Purdue, resigned in protest.

By this point, Purdue’s increasingly religious and socially conservative views alienated her from most feminist and reform orientated political organisations. She was concerned that the State was becoming increasingly involved in the private affairs of the family. Purdue described abortion as a ‘dividing line’ and believed feminists had lost credibility supporting the sexual revolution of that period.[19] The researcher Robyn Reynolds described Purdue as an ‘anti-feminist’ but noted that if it was not for the abortion issue Purdue would be a staunch feminist supporter.[20]  

 In 1973, Purdue became an active member of the New Zealand branch of Feminists for Life which aligned agitation for women’s employment rights with a Catholic-flavoured overt anti-abortion stance.[21] In reaction to a pro-abortion march advertisement in Auckland University’s student magazine titled ’Ladies, Lose Ten Pounds Excess Flesh,’  Purdue wrote an open letter to the editor, suggesting the title be changed to ‘Fathers And Mothers, Lose By Poisoning, Burning or Dismemberment Your Full Time Daughter or Son.’[22]  

As President of Feminists for Life and Vice President of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, Purdue attended the first national gathering of the United Women’s Convention in 1973. She was a vocal and combative critic of section 15 of the proposed ‘Working Women’s Charter.’ Section 15 of the charter called for ‘all, financial, social and medical impediments to safe contraction, sterilisation and abortion to be removed as to allow the individual concerned to make their own decisions.’[23] Purdue believed that section 15 should be scrapped. as it was beyond the scope of the charter. [24] Purdue and 25 other anti-abortionists walked out of the convention.[25] Purdue subsequently submitted a ‘Mother’s petition’ and a ‘Concerned Citizen’ petition to Parliament in objection and to show support for ‘life and family.’

In 1974, she was elected to the Auckland Health Board and was the women’s representative for the Labour Party from 1974 to 1978. In 1975, Broadsheet ran an article by Christine Dann, attacking Purdue’s claim that she was a feminist.[26] In the same year, Purdue received an MBE for services to the public and the community.[27] Catholicism was increasingly important to Purdue as were traditional family structures and gender roles.[28] Her concern over the dangers to society by social practices against Christian values such as homosexuality, abortion, pornography and Māori cultural revitalisation shifted to safeguarding and/or protesting activities that would encourage the moral decline of society. She became celibate and advocated for the lifestyle.[29] In 1983, Feminists for Life changed its name to Women for Lifea signal of the organisation’s focus and rejection of then-current feminist and other social libratory perspectives. At odds with the pluralistic and socially liberal direction of the Labour Party, she left the party and became a member of the National Party, even as the National Party introduced anti-union legislation and the Employment Contract Act, which eroded worker rights.

In 1985, as a committee member of the Auckland Health Board at an employment appeal by Rina Rata (Ngatiwai, Ngapuhi) over institutional racism in employment policies, Purdue stated that she was not going to be intimidated by numbers when Rata’s extended whānau attended the proceedings. The proceedings were postponed.[30]  She also criticised Ngahuia te Awekotuku (Te Arawa, Tuhoe), who had once been a pallbearer at the mock funeral procession at Queen Albert Park in 1971 for attempting to align the lesbian rights movement with feminism, stating that she had put the women’s liberation movement back fifty years in doing so.[31] As a Spokesperson for ‘Women of Faith and Family’,  she described the 1990 screening of the choreographer Douglas Wright’s work Gloria on TVNZ as ‘the first step to pornography.’’[32]  

In 1993, she received the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal[33] and after a long period of limited mobility, died at the age of 87, on March the 16th, 2000. While Purdue’s later perspectives may be alienating to modern sensibilities, she remains an important figure in union activism for women’s employment rights.  She is a case study of the challenges faced by women with conservative religious values confronting broad social changes in the 1970s and beyond. 


Tim McVicar

Tim McVicar is a Te Tai Tokerau based content writer and researcher who has lived and worked in the Republic of Georgia, Sudan and Palestine. He holds an MA from Victoria University of Wellington and a Master of Teaching and Educational Leadership from the Mind lab…

Recommended Further Reading:

Else, Anne (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 98-99

Rowland, Robyn (ed) Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: London: Routledge Kegan Paul: 1984

 ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

Bibliography:

 ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

Else, Anne (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 98-99

Rowland, Robyn (ed) Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: London: Routledge Kegan Paul: 1984

Reference List:

[1] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[2] Rowland, Robyn ‘Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: Issues for Conflict and Collaboration’ Sex Roles 1986 14 n 6, p 679 -692

[3], Page, Dorothy. ‘Soljak, Miriam Bridelia’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s36/soljak-miriam-bridelia (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[4] Page Dorothy. ‘Soljak, Miriam Bridelia’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s36/soljak-miriam-bridelia (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[5] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[6] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[7] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[8] Purdue, Connie. Oral History Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NOH-AAA-0086 https://soundcloud.com/auckland-libraries/connie-purdue-class-action (retrieved 6 July 2021)

[9]  Hall, Lesley ‘The Personal is Also Political: The Relationship Between Political Activism and Family Life Among Members of the Communist Party of New Zealand’: Oral History in New Zealand: 17: 1-11

[10] Nolan, Melanie ‘Employment Organisations’ in Anne Else (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 202-203

[11] Nolan, Melanie ‘Employment Organisations’ in Anne Else (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā Rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 202-203

[12] TVNZ ‘Connie Purdue talks about the Setting up of NOW.’ NZ History Videos, date unspecified. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMFwZyy6e8o. (retrieved 5 July, 2021)

[13] TVNZ ‘Connie Purdue talks about the Setting up of NOW.’ NZ History Videos, date unspecified. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMFwZyy6e8o. (retrieved 5 July, 2021)

[14] TVNZ ‘Connie Purdue talks about the Setting up of NOW.’ NZ History Videos, date unspecified. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMFwZyy6e8o. (retrieved 5 July, 2021)

[15] ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[16] ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[17] ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021), (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Nov-2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[18] Dalziel, Raewyn ‘National Organisation for Women 1972’, in Anne Else (ed.) Women Together: a History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand. Ngā rōpū Wāhine o te Motu, Daphne Brasell Associates Press and Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993, p 98-99

[19] Rowland, Robyn ‘Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: Issues for Conflict and Collaboration’ Sex Roles 1986 14 n 6, p 679 – 692

[20] Rowland, Robyn ‘Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: Issues for Conflict and Collaboration’ Sex Roles 1986 14 n 6, p 679 -692

[21] New Zealand Herald. Kiwis who left their mark on the Nation 29/12/2000. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/kiwis-who-left-their-mark-on-the-nation/5JTFQ2JDEQ5G2LKE4ZB6MUJAGE/ (retrieved, 5 July 2021)

[22]  ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[23] Welsh, Robyn, ‘Working Women’s Charter’ in Macdonald, Charlotte (ed.) The Vote, the Pill and the Demon Drink: A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand, 1869–1993, Briget Williams Books, 1993 Wellington p 211-212

[24]  Welsh, Robyn, ‘Working Women’s Charter’ in Macdonald, Charlotte (ed.) The Vote, the Pill and the Demon Drink: A History of Feminist Writing in New Zealand, 1869–1993, Briget Williams Books,1993  Wellington  p 211-212

[25] ‘Sue Kedgley’ New Zealand History  https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/sue-kedgley Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 5 Mar 2019 (retrieved 6 July, 2021)

[26] Dann, Christine. ‘Connie Purdue – Self Styled FeministBroadsheet, Auckland, Dec 1975; n 35:p 1

[27] “No. 46595”. The London Gazette (3rd supplement). 14 June 1975. p. 7407.

[28] ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July, 2021)’

[29] Rowland, Robyn ‘Women Who Do and Women Who Don’t Join the Women’s Movement: Issues for Conflict and Collaboration’ Sex Roles 1986 14 n 6, p 679 -692

[30] Rata, Rina, ‘Hospital Board’  Broadsheet, Auckland Oct 1985; n 133: p 19

[31] Webb-Liddall, Alice ‘Five wāhine Māori protestors (who other Māori thought were a pain in the ass)’ The Spinoff. Aug 2019‘https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/02-08-2019/five-wahine-maori-protestors-who-other-maori-thought-were-a-pain-in-the-ass/ (retried 5 July 2021)

[32] Purdue, Connie quoted at https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/gloria-1990/quotes NZ On Screen (retrieved 5 July 2021)

[33] “The New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal 1993 – register of recipients”. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 26 July 2018 (retrieved 5 July 2021).

Image Bibliography

Photo Source:  ‘Connie Purdue’ New Zealand History https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/connie-purdue Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 4 Nov 2020 (retrieved 5 July 2021)

Published: August 6th, 2021

Last modified: January 5th, 2022

Cite as: Tim McVicar, Connie Purdue – Activist and “Anti-Feminist”, Womens History of New Zealand, Last modified January 2022, https://womenshistorynz.com/connie-purdue/