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After writing on Women of Influence

Our team have been writing stories for Stuff’s Women of Influence series lately.

It’s cool finding out about the powerful women in our proverbial backyard. If there’s one female legend I wish I could’ve met, it’s Janet Frame.

Actually, if I could interview ANY Kiwi from the past, it’d be her. To engage first-hand with the mind that produced such marvellous stories…

One of the most memorable experiences I had while studying in Dunedin was a visit to the old Seacliff Asylum grounds. In response to a column I wrote about passing through the settlement just north of Dunedin, some readers invited me back, this time for a tour.

So I borrowed a car and drove to meet the locals at the edge of The Enchanted Forest.

Were it not for my generous guides, Janet Frame’s tree would have eluded me, as would have the stone cross at the bottom of the garden, and the kidney-shaped pool tucked deep within the Enchanted Forest.

Yes, the Enchanted Forest. What was to be expected of such a place? Perhaps roots of relish sweet, honey wild, manna dew, of an elfin grot. One friend, upon hearing this, offered advice: “If they offer you Turkish Delight, decline! That’s how they got Edmund.”

The garden is indeed enchanted, but – as one local professed – in a “good way”. The reserve is only a backdrop, however, for the vibrant village of Seacliff itself. The houses are tightly knit and so, it seems, are the people. Perhaps it’s this proximity which inspires such collective passionate pride, and fosters such a sense of community.

Gosh I haven’t read that for a while. It’s very verbose, I apologise, please forgive me, I was an English student.

But I met wonderful people at Seacliff, some I still keep in touch with. It was an extra-special trip for me, of course, because Frame lived there, during the 1940s.

Wandering among the trees, we found hers. From that spot I faced the view – beyond the precipice to the sea and sky – the same view she would’ve seen, when she raised her head from writing.

I was glad to find her high on the list of New Zealand’s History Makers.

And, I’m lucky to have been raised by my own woman of influence, my mother, who so valued literature and introduced me to the likes of Frame and others.

It was a good idea for a story: To find female descendants of influential women throughout New Zealand’s history.

What’s happened to the daughters, granddaughters, even great-granddaughters, of our female Kiwi legends?

It’s difficult to say. Out of the top 10 women history makers in New Zealand only three were mothers: Kate Sheppard had one child, Dame Whina Cooper had six, and Kiri Te Kanawa had two.

New Zealand isn’t unique in this regard – all around the world, high-flying women are unencumbered by children.

American political scientist Condoleezza Rice, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, English actress Helen Mirren, to name but a few.

Despite their achievements, these women face stigma for being – to quote a phrase previously directed at Gillard – “deliberately barren”.

Society treats childless women at worst as selfish, and, at best, as anomalies.

But procreating is no longer a safe way to social acceptance, either. Working women are criticised for neglecting their children, while stay-at-home mothers are told to get a job.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote after she stepped down from her job as the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department; “Women still can’t have it all”.

My number one woman of influence is, of course, my mother.

My number one woman of influence is, of course, my mother.

“This story came last night. Everything is always a story, but the loveliest ones are those that get written and are not torn up and are taken to a friend as payment for listening, for putting a wise keyhole to the ear of my mind.” – Janet Frame, “The Lagoon” – from the book that saved its author’s brain.

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