by Mary Bailey
This image endures. Made by Mary Bailey in 1977 and used in a poster by Herstory Press, it’s been exhibited at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand and included in Barbara Brookes’ A History of New Zealand Women, each time without acknowledgement, though Mary will receive a credit in the second printing of A History of New Zealand Women.
Alix Dobkin says (May 2016) that she did not write the lyrics: they come from an old American folksong.
I interviewed Mary. — Marian Evans
When and where were you born?
Newfoundland, an island off the coast of Canada. At the time I grew up there people were very poor. There were a lot of overseas and Canadian companies taking the wealth out of the mines and forests leaving the people impoverished and the butt of jokes by so called mainland Canadians, because we were poor and lived in an isolated place. My joke was that we were so far behind we were ahead. The Canadian government deigned to give back a university and a highway out. I went to one and then took to the other.
Also at that time there was a rise in French separatism, sparking a movement by the Canadian government to hire French-speaking people and I had not had the option of learning French at school so everything was pointing to me finding greener pastures. A history of being sexually abused and being shunned as a result of telling the truth created a strong drive to build a new life, too. Met some Ithacan (New York) lesbians in Canada and on invite visited and eventually stayed there off the books, going back over the border every couple of months to renew visa-free status. Loved the place and the women’s movement between Ithaca, Cornell University, Montreal.
Looking for a new life, I met a woman in Ithaca who was a New Zealander who was returning home, so joined her as a friend (failed relationship) and arrived in Wellington in 1976. We came via Hawaii and American Samoa, my first taste of tropics, Wellington was a bit of a rude shock weather-wise but I liked the similarities to home, an island with independent resourceful people. I had $50 in my pocket and a few clothes.
This photo of me was directed by me. I remember going into the garden and asking someone to shoot the shot but I can’t remember at all who took it. It was at a house in Hataitai and not long after I arrived in New Zealand. It was my emotional response to the turmoil around me, My offering was that I would do my best to be my best. (Often not good enough at that time, for those who I held dear.)
Were you working?
I was working at the old Wellington Hospital in the Clinical Photography Dept. All I had was a degree (BSc) and as was said at the time that was all very well but ‘What could I do?’ I had a little experience in photography as my sister had worked at the university photo club, so I threw myself into the darkroom work there, under a lovely man named Reese. He was an icon.
We processed photos of organs from autopsies and pictures of skin cancers. This experience helped me perhaps save someone’s life. J was an acquaintance of lesbian friends. We were at dinner in a Hataitai house and I noticed a large mole on J’s arm that my hospital work made me think ‘melanoma’. I said as much and she did get checked. It was malignant and she had it removed. It was black and that is not good in a mole.
One of the women in the Herstory photo mentioned you as a musician. What kind of music were you making?
Well loosely speaking, it was really just a lark. Can’t remember the whole story but I was dragooned into a punk rock band lead by Sue Lean, lady drummer. She is apparently in Korea now teaching English. She wanted someone who wasn’t opera-trained, as they had a woman singing who had operatic tendencies and it was too unpunk. I can’t sing but it was punk and I was up for the challenge. I Wanna Be Anarchy, and I remember enjoying immensely doing a punk version of These Boots Are Made for Walking. One of my finest moments if I do say so myself.
What else was happening in your life at the time you took the photo?
Just at that time was probably the best it was going to be for a very long time. I had work, I had a camera, I had a small motorbike. That was good as I was finally mobile. Up to that point I had been trapped with a surly ex. But around the time of the photo I felt optimistic. Gloria Hildred and Hilary King sang at a coffee house and I took photos of them singing. It was my first real commission. I did proof sheets and they ordered about 100 photos. Nice sepia tones, printed in my own darkroom. I was enjoying being a craftswoman. My technical mentor was Reese, my boss at the hospital.
Chris Poland was an inspiration to me as were the Herstory and then Hecate people. Jill and Tilly at Hecate were beacons of fierceness.
There was one funny incident at the consciousness raising group where a woman named R was speaking. She worked as a counsellor with ‘women in suburbia’ and I remember her saying that they were ‘Coming along nicely’. The women in the room were outraged. The image that comes to mind is of a person who has a mouthful of liquid and hears something they can’t swallow, so the water comes out in a spurt. That is the image I get when I remember the reaction to what she said. The very idea that women were seen as almost inanimate objects, tulips in the side garden, was abhorrent to those women who had a raw and clear idea of what ‘women’s liberation’ meant. It certainly did not have anything to do with ‘coming along nicely’. R also did ‘rebirthing’. That was a memorable experience.
I attended the lesbian club and had a few drinks and a game of pool. I attended parties and played cricket because a woman who worked at the hospital recruited me as a ‘trophy’. Anyway it was funny as when the bowler called out ‘How’s that?’ I thought she was talking to her captain who was disappointed with her form. I gave up after a stint in silly mid-on when the ball gave me a swelling the size of a cricket ball on my shin.
I went to parties and dances and remember once dressing as a feminist guerilla for a fancy dress dance. I had dreamed of being a vigilante and killing rapists when I was at high school so I let that fantasy run for a little while under control.
Through it all though there was a feeling of being an outsider, a feeling that no one really cared, emotionally I was bereft. I cried a lot even when in social settings; I would sit in the corner and the tears would stream down my face. I cried for years and years. I felt so much betrayal and pain. It was complicated by a spectacular betrayal by an American woman who I had hooked up with just before leaving Ithaca. I had a torch for her ever since laying eyes on her but despite the sadness was prepared to leave her behind to start my ‘new life’. This woman had been writing me regularly 3 times a week for a year, long love letters putting it on the line that she was coming to New Zealand. Over and over she made that claim. I just took it on board and let her run the line until the time of her arrival was imminent.
Finally I started to believe, to suspend disbelief. I was just about to start looking for a bigger place as I was living in a studio in Everton Terrace that had no bedroom and a darkroom in the corner, when I got a letter that she was now NOT coming. I snapped, it was a cruel joke. I became hysterical crying and laughing and went into a downward spiral for some months, suicidal and deeply depressed. I can’t fit everything onto the timelines but there was a lot of emotional torment. Why would someone do that? I still can’t work it out except to think it was a kind of predatory behaviour.
What else was important to you?
I was involved with Herstory Press just by doing photos and distributing material that Robyn Sivewright and Jill Hannah ran off on the Roneo. I was in awe of Robyn and Jill. I was an emotional feminist, coming to it from a point of view of fighting sexual violence and oppression as well as seeking to overthrow limiting stereotypes. I was always doing jobs that were crossing gender lines, taxi-driving, house painting and at that time pretty much everything including photography. No matter what I wore and how I looked someone always called me Sir or Mister.
Herstory were ideological and I felt I could not keep within the lines, but I was committed to promoting women’s stories, improving the rights of women and improving the position of those who bore and cared for children (mothers). Anti-nuclear was a pet cause as I had grown up in the shadow of the bomb, the Cold War etc and had been just up the road when 3 Mile Island nuclear reactor had a meltdown. I remember leading a protest down the main street of Wellington calling out at the top of my lungs (I had the biggest voice, male or female, in the crowd) ‘2–4–6–8 We don’t want to radiate!!’ Repeat repeat repeat (not sure of the year). I remember surrounding a building downtown with wool with some women protesters at one time too. Michele Dales was one of the organisers I think.
I did a lot of dancing. Never felt up to the mark as a radical activist. There was a postcard going around with the conversation between an older and younger woman: ‘What did you do during the revolution? I danced!!’ I felt that was me. Perhaps the physical outlet was a necessary release of all that poisonous emotion, anger and sadness.
I was a big fan of the Topp Twins and attended as many of their shows as I possibly could. I did a lot of photographs of them including a show called The Dragon’s Egg (as I remember). It was a magical story and quite a good production. Whatever became of those photos I have no idea, I would love to see any of them, don’t know if there are any floating around.
A bit later, I also did, as you know, the photos for the exhibition posters for the Women’s Gallery’s Women and the Environment (co-odinated by Bridie Lonie) and Women and Violence (co-ordinated by Heather McPherson, whom I remember as a kind mentor and leader).
Sharon Alston designed and produced the posters (bless her soul). She was a great mentor to me and a technical guru who set the bar high.
The photo of me hanging from the tree, for the Women & the Environment poster, was taken under my direction by Helen Barlow. It was very comedic as I kept dropping down from the tree and having to climb back up. No digital preview in those days either.
And you know I also did the archival photography for the Women’s Gallery especially for the Mothers exhibition. I was one of a few individuals who built the crates for the show to tour around New Zealand. That was a feat of endurance and a labour of love. I have never drilled and glued and screwed so much in a short period before or since. Anyway that is off topic but worth stating for the record. You inspired me to dig deep at that time. There was a deadline and a show to get on the road. I loved the Women’s Gallery work, the people and the place. A true highlight of my life.
Where were you living when the Herstory photograph was taken?
I think I had moved into the studio in Everton Terrace, living alone. I think I shared that space with Maree Neale for a while but she moved on to much bigger and better things. We did a South Island trip together, Collingwood, Nelson, Blenheim. Great flight over the Kaikoura mountains. My first-ever real holiday as an adult. I loved the natural settings, and a highlight was buying fresh ocean scallops from the wharf at Collingwood and cooking them in the hotel in Greytown on New Years Eve.
I loved Collingwood and have this photo taken on top of Takaka Hill at probably one of my life’s happiest moments. I was in heaven at that time. I directed it as I was aware of the moment and wanted it captured as it felt to me. (I took my camera everywhere, and did so for many, many years.)
Photos of me were for me a form of communication of deep emotions and messages that I wanted to send into the world. At that time I would ask others to shoot a pose that sent a message I wanted to convey.
There were some naked ones taken at Kaikoura on the rocks there, showing the angles that I once had in my body blending with the natural rock formations. I wanted to portray how I felt at one with nature. It was a bit funny as I had to get naked and Maree was worried someone would see us (more social decorum than me). I didn’t really worry too much as like many young women of the time I felt that the body was not something to be ashamed of but to be enjoyed and treated as natural. It was near Half Moon Bay. I think I have destroyed the photos, out of modesty in the case of my death. Hahaha, would it matter then anyway.
Maree didn’t mind that I sang in the car and I loved her for that. Possibly the best road trip holiday I ever had.
Did you know all the other women in the Herstory picture?
I knew some more than others. Can’t remember too much. One called me treacherous, not sure why. But I was desperate so maybe my choices were not always transparent to her. Two others were people I looked up to.
Can’t remember how we got there to that place. I know it was near Chris Poland’s house and next to where Herstory Press operated. I was excited, joyous and had a feeling of intense satisfaction and accomplishment to get that photo.
What time of year was it?
I can’t remember. Hmmmm nothing comes to mind.
What do you remember about the clothes and shoes that you were wearing, that the others were wearing?
I was a desert boots, cords, blue jeans and wooly jumper girl. Had a Fair Isle oiled jumper that I bought in Newfoundland. Some sort of cap or hat. Standard issue clothing, nothing fancy. Practical with pockets, probably a grandfather vest with pockets for my photo needs, film cannisters in those days.
For the Herstory shot, I probably wore the blue jeans or green cords. I had a pair of beautiful rust coloured cords that I damaged in the knee and made them into shorts. Actually they weren’t mine but I wore them on the motorbike and when I fell off they got damaged. Naughty me. Anyway I sprained both wrists in the fall and it was a riot for me at work. I had to take film from the small cannisters, place it on reels in the dark and put all the chemicals measured into the developing container. The thought of doing all that without hands still makes me laugh.
The tie dye singlet gets a fair run as well. The hiking boots were welded to my feet and I had a gold hoodie that I wore threadbare. Comfort and practicality always.
Who set up the shot?
I am pretty sure I set up the shot, I was excited.
What did you think when you saw the poster again?
Now when I look at the poster I feel great, love the expressions and the composition. Proud and in wonderment.
Herstory Press 1974–1980 was a lesbian press that published the New Zealand editions of Monster by Robin Morgan (1974); and S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto by Valerie Solaris (1976). It printed He Said He Loved Me Really by Auckland Women’s Refuge (1979) and issues of Circle magazine, the first issue of Spiral, leaflets and posters.
(note from A Women’s Picture Book, 1988.)
Ages ago, the Armstrong & Arthur Charitable Trust for Lesbians gave me a grant to research the Herstory poster. I thank them for the time it gave me to think about this image and the motivation to interview Mary when she came back into my life after many years, via Facebook. – Marian