Lesbians and Public/Private Space in New Zealand (1930-1970)

November 7, 2016 in General

Alison Laurie wrote an insightful account of her experiences as an oral historian eleven years ago. She used the opportunity to record the lives and experiences of two elderly lesbians. One was Freda Stark (1910-1999), a dancer who experienced some notoriety after her lover Thelma Mareo (1906-1935) was murdered by her husband Eric. Freda has been the subject of biographies, tribute choreography (related to her routines L’Etoile and the Ritual Fire Dance), and has featured in Peter Wells’ documentary The Mighty Civic. After losing Thelma, she travelled to the United Kingdom where she met a gay man, Harold Robinson, and undertook a marriage of convenience (1947), which lasted twenty years before she returned to New Zealand (1970) and divorced Harold (1973). Freda recorded numerous relationships with married women, but Thelma was the love of her life.

Beatrice Arthur (1915-2002) and Bette Armstrong (1909-2000) lived quite different lives in Wellington. Beatrice was originally from a working class Napier family and eventually became a nurse, which is how she met Bette, from a middle-class Petone family. They lived most of their lives before homosexual law reform and ‘discretion’ was the byword in this context. From this perspective, closetry can be reconceptualised as an act of resistance or defiance, against surveillance, discrimination and interference with lesbian relationships. This discursive hinge provided opportunities for negotiating concealment and revelation amidst a greater social context.

However, according to Alison’s research, lesbian clubs and organisations didn’t exist before the advent of extended licensing hours for pubs and nightclubs in 1967, and they only started to emerge during the 1970s. Lesbian lives were subject to legal, medical, religious and popular discourses which affected lived lesbian existences, although sometimes obliquely. Younger lesbians were subject to some surveillance from child protection agencies, and older lesbians were regulated by restrictions on independent living space and workplace behavioural codes and practices. Bea and Bette escaped from Khandallah to Waikanae, north of Wellington, where they died within two years of each other.

Source: Alison Laurie: “Speaking the Unspoken: Lesbian oral histories in Aotearoa/New Zealand” in Anna Green and Megan Hutching (eds) Remembering: Writing Oral History: Auckland University Press: 2004.

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