Page 1: Biography
Journalist, editor, community leader
This biography, written by Caroline Daley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
Elizabeth Cumming was born on 28 May 1889 in Fort William, Argyll, Scotland, the daughter of Ewen Cumming, a master slater, and Elizabeth Munro. She was educated in Fort William and Glasgow and then went on to study languages at the University of St Andrews, specialising in French and German. While teaching in Lochranza on the Isle of Arran she met Robert Kelso, a grocer, whom she married in the schoolhouse on 28 June 1920.
They soon moved to South Africa to take up farming, and then, in the mid 1920s, they emigrated to New Zealand. Elizabeth wrote that arriving gave her 'an indescribable glow of pleasure'; she felt that she was home. They settled at Raumati Beach, where they farmed and raised their only child. Although being a wife and mother was central to her notion of true womanhood, Elizabeth Kelso had a strong sense of public duty. She belonged to many civic bodies, wrote for several publications and was involved in adult education. But it was her work with the women's institutes of New Zealand that encapsulated her ideals.
Like many women of her generation, she did not believe that there should be a strong separation between her private home life and her public roles. The women's institutes were perfect vehicles for blurring these boundaries. The institutes had as their aims home-making, citizenship and co-operation. They celebrated women's domestic responsibilities, while supporting their right to join together and use their domestic skills in a public way. In November 1929 Kelso became the inaugural president of the Paraparaumu Women's Institute. The monthly meetings and the library her branch built up were important to her, but it was at the national level that Kelso's real work with the institutes took place.
She was soon writing articles for the institutes' magazine, Home and Country, and after a period acting as sub-editor, took over the editorship from the October 1931 issue. The magazine took its title from the women's institutes' motto, 'For home and country', and under her editorship both aspects were well catered for. The magazine expanded to include recipes and gardening columns (one for the north and one for the south), while also concerning itself with the impact of the depression on New Zealand society and what it meant to be a woman citizen. For Elizabeth Kelso this meant having a say in public, something she did through her editorial column, 'From the Office Window', and in her activities within the organisation.
At the New Zealand Federation of Women's Institutes' 1933 conference, of which she was the organising secretary, she told the hundreds of women present:'It's a bad thing to have no vote, but it's a worse thing to have a vote and not use it…We would be congenital idiots if we did not take an interest and a share in the government of the country'. Like many inter-war women's movements, the women's institutes encouraged their members to stand for election to hospital and education boards. Kelso thought that the institutes provided women with a wonderful opportunity 'to come out and release their pent-up gifts in administrative work'. She herself joined the executive committee of the Wellington Provincial Federation of the movement in 1932, and became the institutes' organising secretary later that year. The following year she was on the committee of the Southern Wellington Federation and in 1934 surrendered the editorship of Home and Country to be the general organiser (later called dominion organiser) of the women's institutes. She held this position for the rest of the decade, constantly travelling the country, visiting local branches and federations, holding training schools for institute officers and voluntary organisers.
She represented the women's institutes in various ways. She attended the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association Conference in Wellington in 1937; gave evidence that year at the inquiry into the increased incidence of abortion; sat on the Joint Council of the Order of St John and the New Zealand Red Cross Society; and was involved, with members of the Women's Division of the Farmers' Union, in the No 5 Committee of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition. In 1939 she was nominated to attend a Women's World Conference on Peace and Liberty in Havana, but the Second World War intervened.
Her work with the institutes also led her to think about New Zealand's race relations. While editor of Home and Country she recognised the need for Maori women's institutes. Once she was no longer editor she spent a lot of time in the north, organising the Maori institutes and persuading the Department of Health to fund a full-time organiser for this work, a goal achieved in 1937. Now Maori women could have the benefit, as she saw it, of Pakeha women's knowledge of health and homecraft.
Despite being so busy she published a book, Meanderings, in 1935; encouraged the collection of pioneer stories, which were published in 1940 as Tales of pioneer women; and held sessions on 2ZB's 'Women's Forum'. Eleven years after her husband's death, Elizabeth Kelso died at Raumati Beach on 7 July 1967. She was survived by her daughter. For the woman with the soft Scottish voice and the grand sense of humour, it had been a full life.