Story: Snow, Sarah Ellen Oliver

Page 1: Biography

Snow, Sarah Ellen Oliver

1864–1939

Political activist, feminist, welfare worker

This biography, written by Melanie Nolan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Sarah Ellen Oliver Murphy was born on 16 February 1864 in Wellington, the daughter of Jessie Flighty and her husband, Michael James Murphy, a corporal in the Wellington Province Armed Police Force, who had arrived in New Zealand five years earlier with the 65th Regiment of Foot. He died in 1874, leaving the family in straitened circumstances. Her father's family were Irish Catholics, and her mother's family Scottish Presbyterians, but Sarah married an Anglican labourer, Clarence Herbert Snow, in the Blenheim Registry Office on 10 February 1892; she later became a spiritualist. The couple had four sons and two daughters; Sarah had earlier given birth to a daughter who was adopted out. She kept a boarding house in Petone in 1907–8, and about 1910 the family settled permanently in central Wellington.

Sarah Snow had three great interests in her life: women's domestic issues, political representation and welfare work. The first arose out of her family activities as a working-class housewife and mother. Four women described as housewives had presented evidence to the 1912 Royal Commission on Cost of Living in New Zealand. Soon after, labour organiser W. T. Mills sought to include housewives in his scheme to unite all labour factions in a single organisation. His wife, Hilda Mills, became secretary-treasurer of the Wellington Housewives' Union, formed in 1912. Sarah Snow became president, and together with vice president Margaret Semple, Jessie Aitken, Sarah Beck and Jane Donaldson, was one of the mainstays of the organisation.

A marriage of domestic and labour concerns, the housewives' union was active in consumer issues, such as co-operative buying to reduce the cost of living. It supported the union movement, protesting against the imprisonment of workers during the 1913 waterfront and general strikes, and opposed compulsory military training of schoolboys. Although two of Snow's sons enlisted during the First World War, she joined the Women's Anti-Conscription League in 1916 and protested against that year's Military Service Bill. Snow's role as a parent also led to her involvement with the Terrace School Committee, on which she served from 1918 to 1924, and she became the first woman member of the Wellington School Committees' Association.

The second main area of Sarah Snow's activity was her vigorous support for women's representation in the labour movement, and in public life in general. She was a prominent member of a close-knit group of Wellington women who used their involvement in the housewives' union, the Wellington Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) to get feminist concerns onto the labour movement's national agenda. Snow was a member of the SDP's national executive in 1914 and, together with Elizabeth McCombs, was elected to the first executive of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1916. She was a leading figure in the formation of the party's Wellington women's branch in 1920, and was a regular delegate to annual party conferences.

At Labour's 1918 national conference Sarah Snow suggested that where an affiliated organisation had both male and female members, and had more than one delegate on the local LRC, one of them 'must be a female'. Although this proposal was toned down, the 1918 conference added a clause to the party's platform advocating 'perfect equality between the sexes in every department of public life', and supported legislation allowing women to stand for Parliament. In 1922 she unsuccessfully sought Labour's nomination for Wellington South. At that year's party conference, when it was suggested that membership of LRCs be limited to bona fide branches of the Labour Party and trade unions, Snow successfully protested that this would exclude women's organisations. The following year women delegates lobbied for the appointment of a national women's organiser. In 1924 they asked the parliamentary party to consult them on all proposals affecting women and children, and lobbied for the introduction of a family allowance.

The proportion of women delegates at Labour Party conferences between 1916 and 1939 peaked at 14 per cent in 1927, when the party adopted equal pay in its platform. That year the Wellington women's branch organised an inaugural Labour Women's Conference, held for two days preceding the main gathering; Snow was elected president. The women, however, later complained that most of their proposals were ignored. Snow was also prominent at women's conferences in 1929 and 1931, and in the latter year joined a deputation to the minister of labour protesting at the growth of women's unemployment. She was delighted at Elizabeth McCombs's election as New Zealand's first woman MP in 1933, but the Labour Women's Conferences lapsed soon after.

Throughout the Labour Party's first two decades a number of women had stood for national office, mostly without success. After serving on the party's executive from 1916 to 1918 Snow was regularly nominated for the central council and vice presidency, but was always unsuccessful. She did not think men could adequately represent women, and together with Annie Herbert, raised the issue of sex equality legislation in 1937. Snow was heartened by the support she received at her last party conference in 1938, when delegates voted to set up an unofficial women's advisory committee.

The third area of Sarah Snow's activism, and perhaps the best known, was her charitable aid work with the Wellington Hospital Board. An unsuccessful labour candidate in 1915 (when three other women were elected), Snow was successful in 1919, serving until 1923 and again from 1933 to 1939. She was part of a sizeable group of women Labour representatives, including, at times, her friends Janet Fraser and Margaret Semple. As a member of the charitable aid committee, Snow demanded the introduction of various social welfare measures. In 1919 she called on the government to raise widows' pensions; the following year she demanded that relief be extended to families of men in lowly paid work; later in 1920 she sought state aid for parents with large families and a universal maternity bonus.

As unemployment began to rise from the late 1920s, Sarah Snow was again a vocal advocate of welfare. In the early 1930s she worked closely with Margaret Thorn, Margaret Semple and their Wellington Unemployed Women Workers' Association, and she helped to run the soup kitchen and relief office at the Wellington Trades Hall. Snow was regarded as a calming influence when, for example, she led an angry deputation of relief workers' wives to Parliament in 1935.

After 1935, when for the first time Labour held a majority on the hospital board, Snow continued to work to improve conditions for staff and patients, and regularly attended national conferences of the Hospital Boards' Association of New Zealand. She believed that with 'all the food in New Zealand people should not have to come to the hospital board for relief', and opposed any 'commercialisation' of the free hospital system instituted by the first Labour government.

Sarah's husband Clarence Snow died of cancer of the throat in 1930. She had also buried two sons before her own death, on 13 February 1939, after being knocked down by a tram outside Wellington Hospital. She was survived by two sons and two daughters. Sarah Snow is representative of many progressive women who worked to build the New Zealand welfare state, and who sought equal opportunities for women to participate in its construction.

How to cite this page:

Melanie Nolan. 'Snow, Sarah Ellen Oliver', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s35/snow-sarah-ellen-oliver (accessed 26 June 2019)