Lillian Rita Hampton was born in Perth, Western Australia, on 9 May 1912, the sixth child in a family of five girls and two boys. Her farming parents, Ann Bawden Moses and Henry Hampton, had married in New Zealand in 1898 before emigrating to Australia. During the depression in the 1930s Rita’s chosen career of nursing was interrupted, and she became a parlour maid in a wealthy home. This experience was instrumental in forming her lifelong commitment to socialism, opening her eyes, as she later recalled, to ‘the contradictions of capitalism’. In 1936 she joined the Communist Party of Australia.
On 26 December 1935 Rita Hampton married August Frederick (Ted) Smith, a miner and fellow communist, in Kellerberrin, Western Australia. Prior to their arrival in Auckland in 1941, the couple had a son and spent several years involved in Australian miners’ struggles. Rita and Ted quickly became active in the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ), and she was to be a member of its national committee for nearly 50 years – the longest-serving woman. For close to 20 years she worked full time for the CPNZ, and was the Auckland district secretary during the Second World War. In 1947 she conducted a nationwide tour for the women’s national committee, and she was also a founder member of the Auckland section of the Women’s Charter Movement.
In the early 1950s Rita Smith was president of the Auckland Women’s Union and a member of the Auckland district council of the New Zealand Peace Council. She edited a pamphlet, Asian women in the peace fight , and in 1952 attended an Asian Pacific peace conference in China, the first of several trips to that country. She also visited the Soviet Union. These experiences reinforced her commitment to building a socialist state in New Zealand.
Smith stood as a CPNZ candidate in both national and municipal elections on numerous occasions. When standing for the Parnell seat in the 1949 general election she received a rousing ovation at the Auckland Town Hall and was presented with a bouquet of flowers. In reply she was reported as saying that ‘so long as the Party received bouquets from the workers and black eyes from the bosses, they would know that they were doing their duty on behalf of the working class’.
Rita Smith contributed regularly to the People’s Voice as well as writing a number of pamphlets and other journal articles. Throughout her life equal pay, peace, the cost of living, child welfare and affordable housing were her major concerns. She was a state tenant in Glen Innes for over 30 years, and in 1961 wrote a pamphlet for the Auckland district committee of the CPNZ calling for a fair rent – a sum that could be paid out of a 40-hour working week and still leave enough to feed a family. ‘Money for housing and organisation for world peace go side by side’, she argued.
She remained a political activist until the end of her life. In November 1992, when the adolescent ward of the Starship Children’s Hospital was occupied by demonstrators, 80-year-old Rita Smith was the last to be arrested. She demanded to go in the paddy wagon with everyone else and refused special treatment. At her trial she is reported to have given a brilliant speech condemning public health cuts. An executive member of the State Housing Action Coalition, the following year she was a driving force in the campaign to defend state house tenants threatened with eviction under the National government’s market rents policy.
Rita Smith died peacefully in Auckland Hospital on 7 June 1993, survived by her son and three grandchildren; her husband, Ted, had died in 1986. Described as a ‘woman of principles’ and a ‘ceaseless lifetime battler’, she is remembered with respect and admiration by her comrades and friends.