We lost my mother very recently and in the gentle processes of the following week as we prepared for her funeral we were very aware of the extraordinary strength and contribution women of her generation made in their turbulent lifetimes.
Born in 1924 into a family already shadowed by First World War tragedy, she enlisted and spent much of the Second World War stationed in Algiers as a Wren officer in the dashing world of partying and ever-present death. As the German army was pushed back in 1945, she was in Naples and the campaign north into Italy.
However, civilian resentments and changing social mores made postwar Britain a difficult place for returning service people. Following the navy husband she had first met in Algiers and Italy, she brought her three young children to New Zealand in the bowels of the lurching, £10 emigrant ship Tamaroa.
This was a more spacious place, although here too the insidious scars and demons of world war both in the Pacific and Northern Hemisphere had to be commuted – with modest means and often by sheer grit – into a gracious life.
It was only slowly, and mostly from a trickle of novels, that we women of the next generation could unravel the tangled experience of mothers who, whether managing the family farm or facing a German submarine from a troopship, adventured and suffered to the very top of their abilities and then had to come back to rebuild a life more ordinary and put on an apron to bottle fruit and cook for family life.
With many of the great global fortunes and Old World class boundaries diminished by the war and a more general prosperity, they achieved what is now acknowledged as a brief window of gilded freedom and opportunity in the 50s and 60s.
It gave us, their somewhat questing children, the hippy era of exuberant gender equality, new music and the then ubiquitous eastern philosophies, although even then the days when single-parent salaries provided enough to raise young families were nearly over. Globalisation, big-is-best debt and Rogernomics was just around the corner.
We are currently going into widespread and, one hopes, not just skin-deep public euphoria about this year’s centennial of women’s suffrage that my mother’s generation spanned.
Barely half-a-dozen years before her birth, the emancipation of women (and of many more working men) more than doubled the number of citizens eligible to vote in the UK alone.
As with the four years of First World War centenary coverage, it invites us to dig into the nature of the democracy that universal suffrage in the West has given us, 100 years later and when citizens and nature itself are being squeezed by an increasingly pernicious version of globalisation.
Earlier this year, the Guardian Weekly linked New Zealand’s own admirable prime minister Jacinda Ardern with another rising heroine on the world stage, millennial socialist candidate and former Bernie Sanders volunteer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
This week she won a Democratic primary in New York covering parts of the Bronx and Queens that has a largely working-class population, mostly coloured. The 28-year-old of Puerto Rican extraction defeated a political veteran who was confidently expected to be a future party leader or Speaker of the House and she supports universal healthcare, tuition-free university, and criminal justice reform.
She also wants to abolish US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“We are committing human rights abuses on the border and separating children from their families and that is part of the structure of the agency,” she told CNN.”We can replace it with a humane agency that is directed towards safe passage instead of criminalisation.”
The candidate left Boston University with a degree in economics and international relations and, after graduating, worked as a waitress and bartender to supplement her mother’s income as a cleaner and bus driver.
Speaking at the Obama Foundation in Johannesburg, former US president Barack Obama recently called for more women to enter politics and expressed dismay at what he described as abusive male culture and leadership.
“Men have been getting on my nerves lately,” he said. “Every day I read the newspapers and I think ‘brothers, what’s wrong with you; what’s wrong with us? I mean we’re violent, we’re bullying, we’re …just not handling our business.”
The values of my mother’s generation pre-dated the ubiquitous Yin Yang symbol of the 60s and 70s and I doubt it meant anything to her, but the values engendered by a concept of equality of all creatures (most of which she preferred to humanity) were bone deep and, she believed fiercely, as did many women in Waiheke’s history, in fairness and a clean sense of rightness. • Liz Waters