May Edith Evelyn Edwards was born in Islington, London, on 2 May 1891, the daughter of Isabella Rose and her husband, James William Edwards, a compositor. She was privately educated, spoke Italian, French and some German, and was an excellent pianist. Her family lived comfortably, employing a cook and a housemaid. Widely read, May became an intensely political and informed debater. She was a strong advocate of women’s rights and became involved with the suffragettes in London, campaigning with Women’s Social and Political Union activists Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. The tenets of these ‘first-wave’ feminists – that the mother’s role in the home is fundamentally important, that women should be economically independent and that their morally superior influence is needed in politics – were to shape her political activism.
On 1 August 1914, in London, May married Harry Ernest Finnimore, a piano-maker. A daughter was born in 1917 but in November 1918 Harry died during the influenza epidemic. In the early 1920s May, headstrong and independent, left her daughter with Harry’s parents and sailed to Melbourne, Australia. She found employment as a cook in a hotel at Echuca, Victoria, and at night she played the piano as accompanist to silent movies shown in the local hall. Here she met John Patrick Furey, a steady and softly spoken farmer. They were married at Inglewood, Victoria, on 3 November 1924. At this time she converted to Catholicism, her husband’s religion. The couple bought part of a farm that belonged to John’s father, and lived in a tent for six months. When a house was built May sent for her daughter, who arrived shortly before the birth of her son in 1926.
These were happy times, but drought, grasshopper plagues and the 1930s depression soon brought them to an end. Bankrupt, the family moved to Leeton, New South Wales, where John Furey found odd jobs. In 1939 they arrived in Christchurch. John worked in construction and then with the Dominion Compressed Yeast Company; May was employed as a machinist for Lichfield Shirts.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s May Furey had become increasingly attracted to communism, although her commitment to pacifism prevented her from joining the Communist Party. In Christchurch she found an outlet for her leftist sympathies through the Society for Closer Relations with the USSR and the New Zealand China Society. She honed her debating skills at Christchurch’s Round Table, and in 1942 helped found the Canterbury Housewives’ Union, which she was to nurture and drive for the rest of her life. Blunt and forthright, Furey was a powerful force in the organisation, and succeeded Neta Neale as president in 1944. In March 1951 she was forced to resign because of ill health, but she was re-elected in October 1954; in 1956–57 she served as secretary.
Since 1912 several housewives’ unions had been established in New Zealand in response to the rising cost of living and problems confronting women and children, but the Canterbury union, under Furey, was the most radical and political. Members wrote numerous letters to the press and politicians, and Furey and others often travelled to Wellington to present petitions and harangue MPs. Domestic and international issues were debated – the organisation’s concerns a curious mixture of the ordinary and practical and the abstract and idealistic.
After the war there were complaints that manufacturers were producing shoddy, impractical goods and that retailers were selling them at inflated prices. Furey announced that there were ‘some manufacturers at whom housewives would like to throw things’. In August 1947 the Canterbury union protested to the government about increases in the cost of living, the shortage of essential commodities and the ‘non-inclusion of at least two competent working housewives’ on the Price Tribunal.
Furey was concerned that the 40-hour week and the principle of the male bread-winner were under threat. In order to protect New Zealand workers, she opposed the importation of cheap goods and the withdrawal of subsidies. During the waterfront dispute of 1951 she donated money to workers and their families. In October that year New Zealand Labour Party MP Mabel Howard presented a cost-of-living petition to Parliament on behalf of the Canterbury Housewives’ Union, arguing that mothers should not be obliged to go out to work or do piece work in the home. Other day-to-day issues Furey tackled were the need for improvements to public transport and toilets, children’s playgrounds, grocery deliveries, daily visiting by parents in children’s wards and more school dental nurses. Once, during a campaign to have women’s toilets installed, a city councillor said, ‘Mrs Furey, we don’t talk about such things’; May replied, ‘Don’t men function the same as women?’
In June 1954 the Canterbury Housewives’ Union asked the prime minister, Sidney Holland, to prohibit the importation and sale of ‘morally cheap comics’ and literature publicising sex, crime, violence and racial discrimination, and to set up an inquiry into the effects of such publications. In October, however, the union, led by Furey, opposed the posting of the report of the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents (the Mazengarb report) to every household, complaining that committee members were inadequately trained, the study rushed, and the evidence second-hand and unrepresentative. The union demanded an inquiry by specialists in the field and that parents be provided with resources and community assistance.
May Furey was a delegate to the Christchurch branches of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women’s Association. In Wellington in March 1957 the Federation of New Zealand Housewives was formed, and later that year Furey organised a full conference in Christchurch. Active in the peace movement, she was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and opposed peacetime conscription and the Korean War. She also condemned the death sentence and flogging as ‘a return to barbarism’.
May Furey died on 29 December 1962 at Christchurch, survived by her daughter and son; her husband, John, had died in 1958. She was remembered as a ‘sympathetic and deeply sincere woman’, who ‘could not abide injustice and never spared herself to have a wrong put right’. But she also had a great sense of fun. An entertaining raconteur who chain-smoked roll-your-own cigarettes, in the company of friends she would play the piano into the early hours of the morning, a cigarette in her mouth and a glass balanced on top of the piano.