Page 1: Biography
Teacher, feminist, prohibitionist, socialist, social reformer
This biography, written by Edmund Bohan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Sarah Saunders, born on 26 August 1863 at Waimea South, New Zealand, was the sixth of 10 children of Rhoda Flower and her husband, the radical politician, writer, temperance advocate and champion of women's suffrage Alfred Saunders. She was thus reared in a hard-working but successful and quite affluent Quaker environment, and inherited her father's independence of mind and political energy – and many of his most cherished beliefs. In 1876 she accompanied him to England, where she studied at a 'good school' for a time before embarking with him on an adventurous and incident-packed journey to the Philadelphia international exhibition and through the United States to San Francisco. Alfred described Sarah at this time as having a 'fair, flowerlike face' with 'bright, delicate colouring'. They travelled back to New Zealand with William and Sarah Fox, who (Alfred noted) 'took most kindly to Sarah and added much to her enjoyment of the voyage'.
Within a year of their return, in late 1878, financial disaster forced the Saunders family to sell their Christchurch properties and practically begin again at West Melton, 15 miles out of town. Sarah, now 15, became a governess. On her 21st birthday in 1884 she was appointed, ahead of 12 other applicants, first mistress of the newly completed girls' department at Ashburton High School, in sole charge of 25 pupils at a salary of £100 per annum. This rose to £125 and in 1892 she gained a 10 guinea bonus for the 'successful conduct' of her classes. She taught at the school until 1894. Her own amusingly written account of these years reveals a woman of tolerant understanding and advanced opinions.
On 2 March 1896 at West Melton Sarah Saunders married Samuel Page, a science demonstrator at Canterbury College, and like herself a lifelong Quaker. They had two sons, Robert Owen (Robin) and Alfred William (Fred), and lived in comfortable middle-class style for almost 50 years at May's Road, Papanui. She and her close friend, Ada Wells, dominated the Canterbury Women's Institute, originally formed to promote female franchise but turned by them into a formidable socialist pressure group. Sarah Page (also known as Sarah Saunders Page) was secretary in 1904–5, 1908, 1915–16 and 1918, and president in 1902 and 1906. She was secretary of the National Council of Women of New Zealand in 1905–6 and wrote often for the White Ribbon.
Page emerged as one of the most dynamic personalities in both feminist and wider local public affairs. She held especially strong views on education, militarism, temperance and, increasingly as the years passed, the use of municipal management as a means of creating a socialist society. A frequent public speaker, she had a forthright style which shocked some contemporary male sensibilities and brought down on her head accusations of unladylike behaviour.
Sarah Page campaigned tirelessly for prohibition, and also fought hard against compulsory military training. When, in April 1916, Prime Minister William Massey finally announced his decision to introduce conscription, she wrote furiously on behalf of the Canterbury Women's Institute that cabinet was 'filching' democratic freedoms and trying to break the spirit of New Zealand men and boys. Massey and G. W. Russell, minister of internal affairs, contemptuously dismissed these ideas as impracticable and idealistic. However, undismayed, Page and Wells organised large public meetings during the visit later in the year of the English suffragette Adela Pankhurst and developed their anti-militarist campaign to include the wider issues of democratic rights and women's emancipation. Before the 1917 local body elections she worked on the Labour Representation Committee, which united the Canterbury Women's Institute, the local Fabian Society, the Women's International League, the unions and the Social Democratic Party on a platform of national issues and anti-militarism, but she withdrew her own candidature – possibly for family reasons. Her son Robin was imprisoned in 1918 as a conscientious objector and she supported him with all her energy.
In 1919 Sarah Page contested the St Albans seat at the Christchurch City Council elections, campaigning in association with Ada Wells and the Reverend James Chapple for municipal ownership of housing and land, municipal baths, crèches, kitchens, laundries and playgrounds. She was adamant that it was no more efficient for each family to cook its own dinner 'than it was for a man to make his boots'. She failed to convince the voters this time, but in 1922 she won a seat on the North Canterbury Hospital Board.
By now her vision of pure socialism was proving too extreme for the developing New Zealand Labour Party and her influence gradually faded during the 1920s. Her convictions did not: when her son Fred died she took over the No More War Movement he had founded in 1926 and continued his anti-militarist crusade.
Samuel Page died on 18 March 1944 and Sarah died in Christchurch on 20 January 1950 and was buried in Sydenham cemetery beside him. Courageous and outspoken, she was an important, if ultimately isolated, left-wing voice inside the vigorous and colourful radical committees which played crucial roles in the development of the labour movement in Christchurch.