Meg de Ronde reviews a portrait of the fiercely independent New Zealand human rights advocate Shirley Smith.

You can’t read the biography of Shirley Smith and not like her. She wore pants, smoked, drank, and talked about unpaid care work. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s. When women just didn’t do that sort of thing. And she was one of the first women in New Zealand to not take her husband’s name when she married, much to the horror of all around her. Even the Secret Service refused to respect her wishes; in their clandestine reports on her political associations, they insisted on calling her by her husband’s last name.

I liked her a great deal. But I’m not sure I entirely liked the book.

Smith was the daughter of a New Zealand Supreme Court Judge. She was also the wife of the clever and infamous Bill Sutch, who was tried as a Soviet spy in the 1970s. As a woman born in New Zealand in 1916 it’s unsurprising that these relationships shaped her life. The themes of feminism and subjugation wind their way through the book as Smith takes on Oxford, the University of Auckland, marriage, and a career in the law. She constantly butts up against the expectations of society, and those that love her, on her place as a woman.

She was the first woman to be appointed to a law faculty in New Zealand, she co-founded the New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties, and set up the Human Rights Organisation. At 36, she went back to university to gain her law degree then went on to set up her own practice and fought for marginalised members of society. But she also married a brilliant and at times difficult man who even on his deathbed was questioning her desire to have her own professional career. She writes later in life of Sutch’s ‘unrecognised urge to take me over, and his resentment that he hadn’t’. Her own father described her as the most stubborn child he’d ever met and stated that she always ‘kicks against the pricks’.

Smith and her husband were both fiercely clever. But despite Sutch’s progressive attitudes, he expected her to stay at home and be his housewife. She struggled with reconciling that a man with a brilliant mind also expected her to accept a traditional marriage. Reflecting on her decision to marry him, she remarked, ‘What never occurred to me at the time was he would put me under compulsion and I would suffer.’

She got a second at Oxford at a time when women were still a relative novelty at the college. Her letters overflow with her love of philosophy, ideology, politics and economics. She seemed to have had a steady stream of interesting, clever men profess their love for her and ask for her hand. She was idealistic, passionate and obviously pined for a life with meaning.

Yet you sense a bitterness as her life is shaped and changed by her marriage. She was denied a second child by her husband. She was denied a functioning kitchen in their architecturally designed house and his lack of interest in socialising meant her own lively social life shrunk. In their later years, she was denied even her ideal of Sutch as a principled hero when she learned about his tax evasion, among other secrets.

But the biography is a book of white feminism. Smith was clearly a principled and courageous woman who fought, especially in her later years, for Māori and Pacific communities. Her background, though, was shaped by privilege. She came from a very wealthy, well-educated, white New Zealand family. The book spends time canvassing the multiple illnesses she endured during her time studying at Oxford, and the treatment she received in the European sunshine in Switzerland. If Smith had been poor or brown she would probably have perished from tuberculosis the first time she got it.

Privilege, too, was inherent in a life that meant she could go back to study a law degree at 36 and that she could surround herself with reading, activism and take political risks. The book notes the friends of her father’s that crop up in high places (the President of the University College Council for instance) and her own father capped her when she received her law degree in his role as Chancellor of the University. This isn’t to diminish Smith’s achievements. But she enjoyed financial support throughout her life to enable her to do what she did, and those options simply were available to very few women born in New Zealand in 1916.

Gaitnos’s biography is thorough, detailed and brimming with Smith’s own insightful words taken from her many letters. It’s also hard going in places. The trial of her husband dominates the book, just as it dominated in real life. The book crams the last 30 years of life, after the death of her husband, into just 100 pages. Conversely, it takes 200 pages to get to the point where she goes to law school. Her engagement with the law and her representation of Black Power and Mongrel Mob members was an epic part of her life, but I was exhausted by the time I got to it.

I could have wallowed for a lot longer in a portrait of the fascinating woman she was from 30 onwards. But perhaps that says more about where I’m at in my life currently, at 34, with some of the same privilege and certainly the same levels of desire for a meaningful life that champions the rights of others. Gaitanos expands on the work Smith did in the criminal justice space and her fight for those who were brutalised by the system. My own work in human rights means I see the worst of humanity but also some of the best of humanity too. Those people that never give up their fight for justice are what keeps hope alive in the darkness. In New Zealand contemporary crusaders like Marianne Elliott, Deborah Manning and Mihingarangi Forbes continue to inspire me. I hope to achieve even a tenth of what they have to advance the rights of people who are marginalised by our society.

I’m most inspired by a woman who has herself been brutalised by the criminal justice system but has fought tirelessly to clear her name. I’ve been working to support the fight of Gail Maney. Maney has twice been convicted of the murder of Dean Fuller Sandys and twice lost appeals. Yet she has never given up her fight for justice. She’s a remarkable woman who has endured more than most of us could bear. Having been part of the team that has analysed the testimony of the four crown witnesses used to convict Maney (two witnesses have now recanted), I feel this case could be one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice we’ve ever seen in New Zealand. Given Smith’s own work and support for the campaign to clear Arthur Allan Thomas, I’m sure Maney’s fight is one that would have captured her attention.

Other aspects of Smith’s life resonated with me. I recognised some of the ache that she seemed to go through as she adjusted to growing older, wiser and more realistic. I’ve recently left my marriage and am living out of suitcases, house sitting for friends. My life seems punctuated by moments of thinking I have Vogels bread in the freezer but realising I’ve actually left it in the house I was previously staying in. Going through my own process of growth and vulnerability, I cherished Smith’s vulnerable, oversharing soul and her desire to reflect on her faults and be better.

It’s a book that will be relished by history buffs polsci nerds. But the real beauty in Gaitnos’s biograhy was the way it acknowledged the grey areas in great people, and the frailness of life with all its contradictions. It also nicely captured the ongoing struggle that women have against expectation – both a struggle against the expectations society puts on us as women, and the expectations we put on ourselves.

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press, $40).

Meg de Ronde works in human rights in New Zealand. She is mum to two young boys and has been involved in politics, campaigning and research for the last 15 years

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