Celebrating suffrage: Miss New Zealand 1949, Mary Woodward

From Nine To Noon, 10:09 am on 17 September 2018

From winning Miss New Zealand in 1949 and traveling the world, to dealing with family tragedy, and finally to embracing an identity of her own as an older woman, Mary Woodward, has certainly lived through changing times.

She was an early advocate of sex education and family planning, and at age 90 has written her memoir Shimmer Sea.

She has been named one of 11 Taranaki women being hailed in an exhibition, Hina: Celebrating Taranaki Women, which coincides with the 125th anniversary celebrations for women's suffrage in New Zealand.

She tells Nine to Noon's Kathryn Ryan she became involved with women's rights and feminism after her return from Europe and after her children had grown older.

"Certainly it was in the '70s, with the sexual changes, the whole change in ideas of morality, that really took my by storm. 

"It was a growing sense that I wasn’t being heard because I was a woman that turned me into a champion of women’s liberation."

Ms Woodward was involved in environmental campaigning, and joined Family Planning with the aim of getting education around sexual responsibility into schools, she says. 

"When girls got pregnant before marriage they were ‘sent up north’, you know, and they came back and nothing was ever said about it - but those babies of course were taken off and adopted." 

Miss New Zealand 1949

Before all that however, Mary Woodward was known throughout New Zealand for being named Miss New Zealand.

Back then the competition was in its infancy, and created as a fundraiser for a memorial in England to New Zealanders who flew with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in the Second World War - with no bikinis in sight.

Mary Woodward, 27 Jun 1949.

Mary Woodward, 27 Jun 1949. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: WA-20652-F

"I’m no beauty and anyway it wasn’t … you had to be fairly reasonable looking, you know, but it was really looking for somebody with different qualities. 

It all began when she was a cash strapped student lured by the contest's prize money of £200.

"Some friends of mine a bit further on - boys I’d known from the high school - they had joined the lions club," she says.

"It was a charitable organisation which was run by young people mostly and they said ‘we want you to represent us in this Miss New Plymouth thing.

Mary Woodward - Miss New Plymouth stage

 Mary Woodward on stage for Miss New Plymouth Photo: supplied

"I thought this was a carnivale, a queen carnival thing, I’d probably have to drive on the back of a truck waving or something like that ... the prize was to be £200, which was a princely sum to me in those days, I didn’t think much about it at all.

"Then I won that, and it turned out the £200 pounds was the entry fee for the next step which was Miss Taranaki ... and then I find I’m in this contest for Miss New Zealand, and it was quite out of character for me.

The wake of the war

After winning the contest, she travelled to the United Kingdom as an ambassador for the Royal Air Forces Association, which provided welfare support to air force personnel and their families. It was a role that linked back to her childhood.

"I was actually just a schoolgirl during the war but my involvement in it was that my brother was away overseas serving in the army, and my sister was working as a WAAF - Women’s Auxiliary Air Force - at Bell Block at the airport just out of New Plymouth. 

"She was very very popular and she’d bring in these airmen and often officers to our home in New Plymouth and I got to know them all of course and would play the piano for them … I could play by ear, I could play any of the current tunes. 

"So the war was very real to me really because these boys, off they’d go, we’d say goodbye, and we knew when they were not going to be coming back, so it was really quite a thing in my life." 

Travelling to the UK really highlighted the losses there.

Miss New Zealand 1949 Mary Woodward boards the Tasman Empire Airways aircraft, RMA Australia.

Miss New Zealand 1949 Mary Woodward boards the Tasman Empire Airways aircraft, RMA Australia. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand Ref: WA-20654-F

"I had a car with a driver, and as a party we would be visiting the mayor, often with the mayoress, and then I would be taken to see various sights - and it was often bombed areas, new housing developments and that sort of thing. 

"England was a pretty depressing place after the war. So much industry shifted to Germany, there was so much unemployment especially in the north. There was a great feeling that we won the war but we lost the peace. That was expressed to me many times. 

"I remember that early on I was introduced to an RAF pilot who had jumped from a burning plane and he was grossly disfigured of course through burns. He was under the care of Archie McIndoe, our New Zealander who was doing facial reconstruction on cases like this and I kept being … brought into company with this young man and it was one of the things that they did to get me used to the toll of the war. 

"My function was to go round the different branches of the Royal Air Force Association and provide a focus for entertainment - it could be morning coffee at a small village place, it could be a ball or a party or whatever - but it was in an attempt to bring those men and women who had been in the service, bring them together for a bit of fun and get them re-communicating with each other." 

Her role meant she dealt with many people who had suffered loss in the war, and often people who were closely linked to New Zealanders. She says she provided an outlet for many. 

"People would come up to me and say ‘oh, I knew so and so so well, he came from Featherston', or Eketahuna, or somewhere, ‘do you know him'?’ 

"And I would say ‘no I don’t know him, but you tell me about him', and I would be the listener and I would hear the stories. 

"War time had been a very adventurous, emotionally charged time for so many of them and then the aftermath was just such a let down often - they were back in their jobs - those that got jobs - but there was a different feeling then. A feeling of being let down, I think." 

Celebrity and glamour

That part of her role was perhaps at odds with the glamourous lifestyles and pageantry of the hosts she stayed with, and some of the upper-class people she met - for example, when she first arrived in Britain she met with an MP who was the son of Ernest Shackleton.

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Photo: Supplied

"I felt that I’d played a part because it wasn’t really my nature to be on show, but I was very interested in the people I met.

"Because I’m a very curious person, I always had plenty to ask them about their lives and many of those people I was brought into contact with were New Zealanders or people who had some connection with New Zealand, and they were very interesting people."

She also met with Queen Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother. 

"It was hard work - a lot was expected of me, but I very much enjoyed it and I think I did it reasonably well, but I had to play a part because I really didn’t like that celebrity status. 

Later, she travelled to Paris to stay with a Marquis and his wife, a time that was full of social engagements with glamour and aristocrats. 

"Some of them had had no part in the war at all - my host had gone to Britain and fought in the RAF as many Frenchmen did, but most of them it was just a social thing. 

"My hostess said  to me one time, ‘these people have been collaborateur during the war but they’ve got the money now, so we’ll go and feast on them'."

She says writing her autobiography was partly a way of "turning the celebrity thing inside out". 

"To show you that behind the celebrity, the things that go on in life are often very very painful, they’re not the glamourous show that many young people seem to want to live today." 

Return to New Zealand, motherhood and loss

After travelling in Europe, she returned to New Zealand and finished her degree at university.

"Then I had a brush with [spiritual group] Moral Re-Armament … ended up being not happy with moral re-armament so I was left then without a job, without anything. 

"I fell into marriage and had three children very very quickly - actually three were born within two and a half years ... they weren’t twins either."

"I think I was just an ordinary wife and mother and doing my duty looking after the family as well as I could, and working very hard really because the circumstances that I was in … it wasn’t the life of Riley by any means." 

Mary Woodward memoir 'Shimmersea'.

Mary Woodward memoir 'Shimmersea'. Photo: Supplied

Her family grew up, but was rocked by her son's suicide at the age of 15. 

"It’s very hard to talk about it, but it’s particularly hard for me to see that this is a growing problem in our present community - it’s devastating to me because I know the terrible pain it brings to those left behind." 

The title of her book is partly in tribute to him.

"My son ... was an incredibly artistic child, and he had a fantasy and had written great stories about this race of superhuman people I think - they had their own language, their own culture and history - and he drew these very complicated maps of their territories. 

"It was after I built my little home after having to leave the family home, and I was looking through these wonderful maps of his that he had made of these lands and I saw a little headland  and the name ‘shimmer sea’ - my house looks down over the Manukau, the shimmering harbour of Manukau. 

"I thought ‘that’s a good name for it’ because it was also remembering him, and finding something that was suitable, so yeah, that’s where I’ve lived ever since." 

Women's rights, family planning and environmentalism

She says it was after having children that she got interested in activism. 

"It was after the children grew up that I got into looking about society and seeing what I felt needed changing. 

"I was aware from a very early stage, it was through reading ‘Silent Spring’ in the early '60s that I came to understand what a threat we were all under through the pesticides, chemicals that had been developed during the war, being used in civilian life to try and make life pleasant and better.

She says she got involved in environmental campaigning - sometimes peripherally, sometimes more heavily - and started working with Family Planning. 

"I was on the committee of the local Family Planning, but I decided that what we needed to do was get into schools and talk to the kids about their sexual responsibilities. 

She's modest about her feminism and achievements.

"I was never very involved in it [the feminist movement] but I was always behind it, because it was always in my mind that the situation between men and their wives had to change. 

"It was a time when a number of women I knew, the husband walks away and marries some young bird, and the woman had no claim on the home or income or anything. 

"They were these women who’d had very good lives and they were serving behind counters in shops doing the sort of work that they never thought they’d have been doing earlier in their lives. That was quite common. 

Copies of Mary Woodward's self-published autobiography, Shimmer Sea, are available to purchase from the author: shimmersea28@gmail.com or from www.mebooks.co.nz (Epub, Kindle, PDF)