Page 1: Biography
Macpherson, Margaret Louisa
This biography, written by Anna Green, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Margaret Louisa Kendall was born on 19 June 1895 in Headingley, Leeds, England, to Alfred Sunderland Kendall, a linen draper, and his wife, Fannie Gibson. She was educated at a Quaker school and the University of St Andrews, Scotland. While volunteer nursing at the beginning of the First World War, she met her future husband, Alfred Sinclair Macpherson, an engineer's draughtsman. His family considered the liaison undesirable and, following their marriage on 9 March 1916 at Blandford, Dorset, the couple emigrated to New Zealand. With her first-born son they settled in Milton, Otago, where Alfred worked at a mine and Margaret was to have four more sons in quick succession, including twins.
Margaret Macpherson began compiling and writing for the women's column, 'Wahine', in the Māoriland Worker, the weekly paper of the labour movement. Later she was to describe herself as 'a disciple of Marx' and a pacifist; these twin influences were strongly evident in the choice of subjects she included in the column. Macpherson tried to balance material relevant to women's domestic lives (for example, recipes for half-pay pudding) with articles exploring socialist theory reprinted from overseas sources, but the latter predominated. Reports from women's organisations, such as the World's Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, were also regularly included in the column.
Questioning the relevance of such material to working-class women, Jean Devanny, a novelist and communist, led a spirited debate and critique on the content of the column in 1919. Macpherson's choice of material probably derived more from her intellectual commitments than from direct experience of everyday life for working-class women. In May 1920 'Wahine' was reported to be ill. Although occasional articles continued to be published under her name, the column was eventually discontinued.
In the early 1920s Margaret Macpherson successfully applied for a job in Kaitaia editing the Northlander, a progressive weekly newspaper published by Allen Bell between 1922 and 1933. Alfred followed with the boys, buying a farm close to the town. Taking great pride in her achievements, Margaret claimed that she was the only woman newspaper editor in New Zealand at this time.
Despite finding the attitude towards women in the north very conservative, she appeared to relish the battle with entrenched interests. Reflecting upon this period in her life, Macpherson later wrote, 'Oh, how we shocked them…When the infant town needed a sanitary system, they thought that the lady editor who could bring herself to mention so indelicate a subject was certainly no lady.' Margaret's unconventional reputation was confirmed when she parted from Alfred, taking her eldest son with her. Family history suggests that at this point she gave birth to a sixth baby, a son, who was given up for adoption. Margaret and Alfred were divorced on 27 April 1925.
Macpherson's work as a journalist next took her to the women's page of the Kaitaia Guardian, then overseas to Australia, the United States, Britain and Malta, with only intermittent visits back to New Zealand. One New Zealand assignment strongly influenced her subsequent career. When George Bernard Shaw visited New Zealand in 1934, Macpherson was granted the privilege of an interview. She recorded that Shaw rebuked her for complaining that there was no art, drama, music or culture in New Zealand, suggesting that she undertake a New Zealand journey and write about it. This she did, and the result was Antipodean journey, published in 1937. The stories in this book were to be recycled in two later volumes.
In 1942 Macpherson responded to the American desire for information about their new wartime allies by publishing I heard the Anzacs singing. Despite her early pacifism, she strongly supported the American war effort. At this time she was living in New York as the wife of W. T. Albert, foreign correspondent for the Sydney Bulletin. It is probable that Albert was the father of her seventh son, born in Ajaccio, Corsica, in 1938, but their relationship ended in 1949. In 1952, while experiencing severe financial difficulty, Macpherson wrote an illustrated children's story, based once again upon her travels many years earlier, entitled New Zealand beckons.
Her books, consisting of loose collections of stories about people she found interesting, present a rather idiosyncratic view of New Zealand. None the less, certain conventional themes emerge, including New Zealand as 'democracy's test-tube, from which have emanated so many experiments in secure and gracious living'. They celebrate the role of government in ensuring the security of its citizens through the creation of the welfare state. The discussion of Māori life and aspirations is more sensitive than that displayed by many of her generation. In the description of her visit to Te Puea Hērangi in Ngāruawāhia, she recounted the history of land alienation in Waikato and was clearly impressed by the achievements of the tribe.
When Macpherson finally returned to New Zealand in the 1960s, in poor health and difficult financial circumstances, she was given a benefit 'in recognition of her services to this country in the form of publicity which her best-sellers gave the Pacific countries.' Shortly before her death she wrote a series of reflective columns entitled 'Margaret meditates' in the Northland Age, through which she expressed her newly acquired interest in life after death and spiritualism. Towards the end of her life she converted to Catholicism. Unorthodox in her personal life and energetic and irreverent as a journalist, Margaret Macpherson had, in the words of one of her sons, 'a spirit that would be hard to tie down'. She died in Kaitaia on 14 September 1974.