Page 1: Biography
Teacher, educational reformer
This biography, written by Susan Raechel Berman, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Phoebe Myers was born in Nelson, New Zealand, on 13 June 1866 into a large Jewish family; she was the 6th of 12 surviving children. Her parents were Eve Solomon and her husband, Judah Myers, a successful merchant. Phoebe received her early schooling in Motueka. In 1879 the family moved to Wellington where Phoebe attended Wellington Girls' High School (later Wellington Girls' College).
At the completion of Phoebe's secondary schooling her family's financial standing and progressive values enabled her to obtain a university education. She attended Canterbury College and in 1890 graduated BA. She then returned to Wellington and taught for some years at both Hutt and Petone district high schools and at other schools in Wellington. In 1899, when Victoria College opened, she enrolled for further tertiary study. Between 1906 and 1912 she worked at the college as a demonstrator in biology. This was only officially recognised in the university calendar in 1911, when she was one of four women listed as holding a staff position at the college. Myers combined demonstrating with teaching at secondary schools, probably working at the college during the evenings.
Phoebe Myers never married. She committed herself to the improvement of education services for women, taking a particular interest in the status of women teachers and girls' education. She was among the group who formed the Wellington Women Teachers' Association in September 1901. The association grew from concern by women teachers at the lack of real representation of their interests within established organisations. They also had more general concerns about the rights of women and children. In 1914 a national body was set up to co-ordinate the work of the many associations of women teachers formed around the country. On 29 December delegates met at Mount Cook Girls' School in Wellington. Phoebe Myers played a central part in the organisation of the meeting and in the establishment of the federated New Zealand Women Teachers' Association. From its formation in 1914 until 1916, she served as president, and was then vice president from 1916 until 1919.
In 1914, seeking publicity for her views, Myers wrote an article, 'Influence of home and social education on child-welfare', which was published in the Dunedin Evening Star and later republished in booklet form. It called for the reform of many of the country's social institutions (notably health and education), stating that women should be represented on decision-making bodies, from education boards to local and national government. Myers's ability to write fluently and her commitment to the empowerment of women were also shown in letters written to the editors of newspapers. In 1915 she was elected by women teachers to represent women's interests on the General Council of Education, serving until 1920. She worked on several committees which explored issues of particular relevance to the education of girls and children.
During the war years Phoebe Myers assisted with the organisation of the New Zealand Branch of the British Red Cross Society and the formation of the Women's National Reserve of New Zealand, and was founder and president of the Wellington Crippled Soldiers' and Sailors' Hostel. In 1921 she retired from teaching. The respect in which she was held was shown when, in September 1929 while in Geneva, she was asked to represent New Zealand at the League of Nations as a substitute delegate to discuss matters affecting the welfare of women and children. She thus became the first woman to represent her country at the League of Nations. She was appointed a justice of the peace in 1931. Phoebe was not alone in her family for notable achievements: her brother, Sir Michael Myers, was chief justice of New Zealand.
Phoebe Myers died in Wellington on 2 June 1947. She was a formidable and tenacious woman whose ability as a teacher and political activist ensured that women's interests became better represented in the New Zealand education system.