Patricia Bartlett became a household name in 1970s New Zealand. Hers was a celebrity of an unusual kind: she stood against the tide of social change which promoted more relaxed attitudes to sexuality. A petite, neatly dressed and coiffed campaigner for decency and family values, Patricia Bartlett found a ready audience amongst those bewildered by new tenets that seemed to promote individual pleasure and sexual licence above familial and community bonds.
Patricia Maureen Bartlett was born in Napier on 17 March 1928, the only child of a Methodist father, Bertie Edward Bartlett, and a Catholic mother, Ivy Margaret Boult. Bertie Bartlett was a builder, while Ivy devoted herself to the household and to charitable work for her parish. Patricia was baptised into the Catholic faith and educated at Sacred Heart Convent in Napier. Aged 18, she embarked on a primary school teaching diploma at Wellington Teachers’ Training College. She was a well-prepared student and had tennis and lifesaving skills as well piano qualifications at ATCL level. On qualifying, Patricia returned to Napier in 1948, serving her probationary year at Hastings Street Primary School before two years at Marewa Primary School (1949–50).
Patricia had wished to go into a convent as a young woman, but her mother, concerned about losing contact with her only child, asked her not to. Ivy’s death when Patricia was only 22 freed her to enter the convent of the Sisters of Mercy at Hill Street, Wellington, in 1950. She was attracted to convent life because she could both continue teaching and find a home, having lost the mother at the heart of her family. Convent life was governed by simplicity, order and the cultivation of humility. The 1950s and early 1960s saw little change in routine, but from the beginning of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 the Roman Catholic church throughout the world was set on a new path. The 1965 Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life asked religious orders like the Sisters of Mercy to reflect on the vision of their founders and to engage with the contemporary world.
Whereas once the Sisters had been asked to abjure ‘worldliness’, now they were enjoined to ‘reach out and meet its needs’.1 And the world had changed greatly since 1950: female sexuality had been unleashed in a new way following the advent of the contraceptive pill in 1961 and the baby-boom generation, more highly educated than their parents, were adopting secularism and new ways of living. Once united and directed by a common purpose, Sisters of Mercy found themselves wanting to engage with contemporary issues in different ways.
Patricia Bartlett was horrified by the permissiveness she found in magazines, books and films, in which nudity, obscenity and simulated sexual intercourse, including homosexual acts, were becoming more common. She believed that such material was undermining the family and exposing young people to depravity. Other Sisters of Mercy were shocked at her interest in pornography and disapproved of her passion to stem the moral decline of society by writing letters to film censors and newspapers. Patricia left the order in 1969, disappointed that church leaders were doing little about indecent films and literature. She continued to teach, meanwhile waging a campaign to bring readily available ‘adult’ magazines under the purview of the Indecent Publications Tribunal. A singular lack of success in this endeavour, and in promoting stricter film censorship, convinced her that a wider campaign was necessary to make those in power take action.
Basing herself at the YWCA hostel in Lower Hutt, Patricia determined that a national petition was the best way to make politicians take notice of what she saw as a rising tide of obscenity. She took leave from teaching in 1970 to organise a petition that called for amendments to the Crimes Act 1961 and the Cinematograph Films Act 1961 that would refine the meaning of ‘indecency’ to include ‘sexual intercourse, displays of nudity and bare female breasts and homosexual and lesbian love scenes’.2 She sent petition forms to anyone she felt should take a stand, including church ministers and women’s organisations. Soon the media were interested in this vivacious former nun and she was courted to appear on Brian Edwards’ hard-hitting Gallery television programme. That 1970 appearance heightened her profile and encouraged more people to join her cause, and a petition of 49,000 signatures was eventually presented to Parliament. In response to encouragement from her supporters, a second petition was launched in favour of amending the Indecent Publications Act 1963 in order to protect children from displays of pornographic magazines in dairies and bookshops.
The compilation of petitions and oral submissions to Parliament, collecting evidence of indecency, doing battle with shopkeepers, censors and politicians, and a commitment to persuading others to her view became Patricia Bartlett’s life’s work. She found a new family with her formation on 30 November 1970 in Lower Hutt of the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards (SPCS), an organisation that quickly spawned branches in other main centres. At its 1970s’ peak it had over 22,000 members. As national secretary, Patricia was in great demand to speak to community groups, concerned parents, Rotary, Lions, Jaycees and university students, and to take part in public debates against her opponents. In 1971 the Dominion awarded Patricia Bartlett its ‘Man of the Year’ award, noting that she defied ‘derision’, held ‘aloft a moral banner’ and ‘had more impact on New Zealand life than any citizen not assisted by Government or other public office’.3
As her campaign went on, Patricia – or ‘Miss Bartlett’, as she was often known – became a figure of fun for some in the community, and she was the subject of satirical books, television skits and cartoons. Others, including film societies, were concerned about the political conservatism and likely censorship they believed were being engendered by Patricia and the SPCS. She was thrown out of a bookshop, and her meetings were disrupted by protestors and even the occasional streaker. A New Zealand Truth headline about her was the subject of a successful complaint to the Press Council.
Not content to campaign against indecency in magazines, books and films, Patricia protested against the liberalisation of abortion, campaigned against sex education in schools, objected to contraceptive instruction to children under the age of 16, and opposed the legalisation of homosexuality. Her opprobrium was not limited to legislators; in 1982 she publicly scolded Christians for what she saw as their apathy, which had led to the spread of pornography and the consequent degradation of women and marriage.
The SPCS made links with similar campaigns abroad, bringing the Danish campaigner against compulsory sex education Svend Laursen and Bartlett’s English equivalent, Mary Whitehouse, to New Zealand. Of the lessons learned from the latter, Patricia Bartlett said ‘it is imperative never to give up fighting … there will be no victories without great self-sacrifice and effort’.4 That effort showed in the extent of her preparation, tracking down and viewing material to report to the authorities and giving as good as she got in arguments. She also publicly named local magazine publishers, importers and shops she believed were a problem, and posted pornographic material to Members of Parliament to show them what was publicly available. Tangible victories were few, but Patricia Bartlett’s tenacity and sincerity were recognised in 1977 when she was made an OBE for services to the community.
The battle fronts for the SPCS increased in the 1980s with the advent of video, as little control could be exercised over what might be shown in the home. Visiting the United Kingdom in 1984, Patricia Bartlett investigated what was being done there with regard to the classification of video recordings. New Zealand’s Video Recordings Act 1987 promised classification but disappointed the SPCS. Hopes were raised again, however, with the appointment of a Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Pornography in 1987. That committee recommended that all censorship – whether of publications, films or videos – should be carried out by one body. Bartlett was disappointed that having women involved in censorship decisions made little difference to the restriction of sexually explicit material.
In 1995 Patricia Bartlett stepped down from the forefront of the organisation she had led for 25 years because of heart problems; SPCS published a book about her life’s work in the same year. She spent her remaining years travelling, listening to opera and tracing her family tree. Patricia Bartlett died in Wellington on 8 November 2000, aged 72. She made an indelible mark on a generation of New Zealanders. While most did not share her beliefs, many admired her tenacity in upholding her particular vision of moral society.