Kate Milligan Edger, the first woman in New Zealand to gain a university degree, was born on 6 January 1857 at Abingdon, Berkshire, England, the daughter of Louisa Harwood and her husband, the Reverend Samuel Edger, a Baptist minister and graduate of the University of London. Kate was the fourth living child in a family of four girls and one boy. This intelligent and musical family, who pronounced their surname 'Edgar', produced a number of individuals who distinguished themselves.
After Samuel Edger was appointed as minister to accompany emigrants to the Albertland settlement north of Auckland, the family sailed for New Zealand on the Matilda Wattenbach, leaving London on 31 May 1862. Later the Edgers moved to Auckland, where Samuel held non-sectarian services for many years.
Kate received most of her early education from her father, probably in company with her sisters. Both she and her younger sister Lilian were able students, but there was no secondary teaching for girls in Auckland. With her father's support Kate obtained permission from Farquhar Macrae, the headmaster, to study with the top class of boys in Auckland College and Grammar School. As the only girl in the class she was required to enter with downcast eyes, and seldom spoke to her classmates who, she later said, treated her courteously. Although Auckland University College would not open until 1883, the school was affiliated to the University of New Zealand, thereby providing her with the opportunity to work towards a degree.
In applying for a scholarship, Kate wrote to the chancellor of the university: 'I am a candidate for one of the Mathematical Scholarships of the University of New Zealand to be awarded at the Examination in May. My age is within the specified limits, and I have received instruction privately and also in Latin and Mathematics at the Auckland College Evening Classes.' She mentioned her age and qualifications but not her gender. The senate, which wanted both to avoid controversy and to increase student numbers, accepted her application without comment and she was then able to proceed to her degree course.
On 11 July 1877 Kate Edger was awarded the degree of bachelor of arts, the first woman in the British Empire to earn this degree. At her graduation in Auckland, which was attended by a crowd of nearly a thousand, the bishop of Auckland, W. G. Cowie, presented her with a white camellia, which he said represented 'unpretending excellence'. No better symbol for Kate Edger could have been chosen.
A few months after graduation she became first assistant at Christchurch Girls' High School, where Helen Connon, the first woman in New Zealand to gain the degree of master of arts, joined the staff the following year. While teaching, Kate Edger studied at Canterbury College for an MA, which she obtained in 1882. Her sister Lilian graduated MA with her.
Shortly afterwards Edger was appointed the first principal of Nelson College for Girls at a salary of £350 per annum, with board and lodging provided. She had to begin by deciding what equipment was needed for the school, which opened in February 1883. In the early days she was responsible for the general supervision of the boarders, a task which she seems to have found uncongenial and of which she was relieved in 1885. Her teaching programme was a very full one. She taught English grammar, composition and literature, physical science, Latin, mathematics, singing, geography and even club swinging. In addition she prepared some of the senior girls for university scholarships and carried out the administrative work of a principal. She was a gifted teacher who commanded the respect and affection of her pupils.
Although she had to carry on her work in unsatisfactory buildings, Kate Edger and her excellent staff, which for two years included her sister Lilian, worked extremely hard. She committed herself to establishing a school which could provide a first-class education for girls. When the council of governors could not afford to provide equipment for the school, she paid for it herself; she also paid for an extra scholarship to allow one girl to stay on longer at school. During this time in Nelson Kate and Lilian Edger edited two volumes of their father's lectures and writings.
At Auckland on 6 January 1890 (her 33rd birthday) Kate Edger married the Welsh Congregational minister, William Albert Evans, whom she had met the previous September. She informed the council of governors that she intended to continue working after the marriage, but in fact resigned two months later, presumably because she was pregnant with the first of her three sons. Her seven hard-working years as the first principal had been of immense value to the school in its formative years.
While living in Nelson she occasionally preached in her husband's church. He resigned in 1893 and the family moved to Wellington, where William became involved in the Forward movement, which combined adult education with charitable and philanthropic work. Since this was unpaid Kate became the bread-winner. Working from the family home in Mount Victoria she conducted a private school at secondary level for girls in the morning and coached adult pupils in the evening. She also found time to help in the Forward movement by giving occasional lectures and working among the poor of the city.
Her husband's appointment to the charge of Newtown Congregational Church in 1904 relieved her of some of the financial strain. It is not clear when she gave up the school but she continued coaching pupils until 1912. Her work examining for university entrance, which she had begun in 1891, continued at intervals until 1929, and during the First World War she worked for two years in the Department of Education. She always supported her husband in his work, teaching in the Sunday school, helping with the choir and learning – when over 50 – to play the organ.
Before New Zealand women gained the vote in 1893 Kate Evans presided over suffrage meetings and made speeches on behalf of the cause. She was president and vice president of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children from 1897 until at least 1928. Until the early 1930s she was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand: in the Nelson branch, as dominion recording secretary from 1916 to 1920 and 1922 to 1930, as president of the Miramar branch, and as associate editor for some years of the union's journal, the White Ribbon. She was a member of the Newtown school committee and was dominion secretary of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, as well as secretary of its Wellington branch. At the golden jubilee of Canterbury College in 1923 she headed the woman graduates' section of the procession through the streets of Christchurch.
Kate Evans was not strongly feminist in outlook. In 1923 she wrote an article, 'The first girl graduates', which asked and answered the question of whether the higher education of women had justified itself. 'It is too soon yet', she wrote, 'for a complete answer to be given to this question, but thousands of university women are proving by their lives that it has not unfitted them for home-making, the noblest sphere of women's work.' In fact, although devoted to her husband, as he was to her, and to her sons, Kate Evans did not excel at housekeeping and sensibly employed help, giving her energies to teaching and voluntary work.
After her husband's death on 6 November 1921, Kate Evans continued to live in Wellington until 1932, when she moved to live with her second son, Elwyn, and his family in Dunedin. Although now frail, she travelled from Dunedin to attend the golden jubilee of Nelson College for Girls in Easter 1933 and told the assembly that it was the power of thought that had enabled her to make the journey. Until her last days she continued to address the wrappers for the White Ribbon.
Shortly before her death in Dunedin on 6 May 1935, she was awarded the King's Silver Jubilee Medal. Obituary articles recognised her importance as the first woman in the country to graduate, and in doing so to demonstrate beyond argument women's intellectual capacity. The significance of her degree and her work in the development of two major schools for girls establish her place as one of the leading pioneers for women's education in the country. Although small and slightly built, with a quiet, reserved manner, she showed throughout her life remarkable stamina and a determination to achieve her ends.