Story: Stuart, Wilhelmina Magdalene

Page 1: Biography

Stuart, Wilhelmina Magdalene

1895–1985

Telegraphist

This biography, written by A. C. Wilson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Wilhelmina Magdalene Stuart was born in Dunedin on 9 August 1895, the daughter of Wilhelmina Catherine Bohning, a tailoress, and her husband, Abraham Francis Stuart, a compositor for the Otago Daily Times. Always known as Min, she attended Kaikorai, Union Street and North-East Valley schools and Otago Girls' High School.

At the age of 16 Min Stuart began work as a dressmaker at Brown, Ewing and Company in Dunedin. She then studied shorthand and typing, and in 1916 joined the Post and Telegraph Department. She was part of a local intake of 25 women, aged between 18 and 21, who were to be trained as telegraphists to replace men conscripted for military service. By mid 1917 over 100 women had completed courses in telegraphy in the four main centres. Their employment was considered a temporary wartime measure, however, and the training of women telegraphists ceased at the end of the war.

On 27 March 1917 Stuart was placed on the Post and Telegraph Department's permanent staff as a cadet at the Dunedin Telegraph Office. As former servicemen returned to their jobs the number of women telegraphists declined. By 1933 she was the only woman among about 40 men in the office. The work environment was at times uncomfortable: there was much heavy smoking, and Stuart faced antagonism from some male telegraphists, a number of whom found it difficult to settle back into office routines after war service.

Stuart initially worked on manual telegraph equipment, transmitting and receiving messages in Morse code; incoming messages were transcribed onto telegrams. In 1925, however, she became the first woman in Dunedin to operate the new Murray multiplex machine-printing telegraph system. This equipment, devised by New Zealand-born Donald Murray, simultaneously transmitted four messages each way at up to 40 words per minute; it was first used in New Zealand in December 1921. The Murray system demanded stamina, dexterity and accuracy, and Stuart was soon an accomplished operator. She often worked the night shift (6 p.m. to 2 a.m.), especially during the Second World War.

Min Stuart became increasingly frustrated at the lack of opportunities for advancement for women in the Post and Telegraph Department. Like other female staff, she remained in the bottom grade (Class VII) of the telegraphists' classification and salary scale. The influx of women into the workforce during the Second World War focused attention on the issues of equal pay and equal access to promotion, objectives that were supported by the Post and Telegraph Employees' Association and the New Zealand Public Service Association. In September 1944 the Post and Telegraph Appeal Board upheld Stuart's appeal against her 'non-advancement'. It was an unprecedented success for a woman public servant.

Stuart was promoted to Class VI, and her salary was increased by £15 to £320 per annum. However, the director general of the department, J. G. Young, opposed the idea of equal pay, and she did not receive the same increment that most men in her grade were granted in April 1945. On her retirement in 1951, after 35 years' service, Stuart fought successfully to obtain the same retiring allowance – six months' full pay – that men received, rather than the half-pay allowance usually given to women. The determination she displayed set an example for other women to follow; after a long campaign, equal pay was implemented by the Post Office in the early 1960s.

For most of her long retirement in Dunedin Min Stuart showed the same vigour and independent spirit that had marked her public service career. She took part-time typing work, served as a volunteer at Knox Church, and was a member of a local professional women's association. In her 60s she took courses in soft-furnishing and carpentry at King Edward Technical College, skills she used to renovate parts of her house in St David Street. Min Stuart never married, and died at Dunedin on 3 July 1985, in her 90th year.

How to cite this page:

A. C. Wilson. 'Stuart, Wilhelmina Magdalene', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s53/stuart-wilhelmina-magdalene (accessed 13 December 2018)