Shirley Smith: In Her Own Right

Shirley Smith would say that in her childhood she was known as the daughter of (later Sir) David Smith, then she was known as the wife of Bill Sutch and later as the mother of Helen Sutch. Throughout her life she struggled to be a person in her own right.

There are a number of ways of reading Sarah Gaitanos’s biography Shirley Smith: An Examined Life. In my view – I knew Shirley a little – she would want to you to read it as her struggle to be recognised, as a person.

It is true that she had various privileges in her life. Born in 1916 into the family of a man who would become an eminent judge, she was educated at the University of Oxford. There were downsides though. Her mother died in an unfortunate operation while she was still a baby and her latter time at Oxford was limited by her having TB (she went to a Switzerland sanatorium for a cure). However, her greatest disadvantage was that she was a woman. The biography is a detailed and arresting account of how a woman born a hundred years ago had to cope with that handicap.

Almost certainly a key was her father, himself deeply influenced by his father who was a principled Presbyterian minister John Gibson Smith (he was tried for heresy in 1908). David Smith brought her up, not as we shall see as ‘girls can do anything’, but as a young person. He used to tease her as ‘my little Red Fed’, an allusion to the slightly earlier Red Federation of (mildly) revolutionary trade unions – she may have been rebellious but that was affectionately tolerated. Her stepmother, Meta, whom she acquired when she was seven and who, at first, Shirley resented, must have been a formative influence too. She had been a headmistress before marriage, which presumably taught her a little about dealing with unruly girls. As was normal for her generation, Meta did not return to paid work after marriage.

The rebellion continued through most of Shirley’s life. At Oxford Shirley switched from being a pacifist to actively supporting the republicans in the Spanish Civil War such was her sense of injustice (later she would be national secretary of CND). Shortly after, she joined the Communist Party – a troubled episode in her life torn between it being the sole organised resistance to fascism and the difficulties every independent thinker had with the party. She finally left in 1956 following the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising although she had been largely inactive the decade before. (This economist was amused that after a decade of membership, including teaching Marxist thought – the spy reporting on her obviously did not understand what she was saying – she still had not studied Das Kapital. Her university studies centred on Greek philosophy, as did Marx’s.)

By the age of 35 she had returned to New Zealand with a husband and a daughter who was now at primary school. Her husband did not want her to go into paid work (that was not at all common for married women with children in those days).

Well, the little Red Fed went back to university to do law – against her father’s initial wishes for he thought the occupation dealt too much with the ‘sordid’. She graduated, lectured for a while and then left the safety of a university and went into sole practice as a solicitor and barrister, rare enough then for a woman lawyer.

Her clientele were matrimonial cases and, gangs – sordid indeed. Only some of the cases could be documented in the book but it gives a rich picture of her practice. Generally nobody else would represent them; as a result they would often plead guilty because, unrepresented, they followed the court register’s advice. Typically when she got her ‘boys’ (as she called them) off they did not see why the not-guilty had to pay lawyers’ fees; when they were convicted they usually could not.

My favourite photo of her shows Shirley outside the District Court surrounded by tall and rough-looking boys, with afro hair, from the gang she was representing at the time. The authority structure is inverse to the physical structure and they loved her for it. 

Such was her reputation for fearlessness, there is a story that during a tense hostage crisis, involving a young man with a gun holding a baby, Shirley entered the house alone, talked to him and emerged carrying the child. What I pity we have not got a picture of that.

There was an echo at her funeral from her father’s, showing the distance between them – and the closeness. Perhaps David Smith’s greatest judicial achievement was that when he was representing Taranaki Iwi with their grievances at the Simms Commission in the mid-1920s, he introduced into Treaty jurisprudence the principle of the ‘Honour of the Crown’, the common-law doctrine that requires the Crown to honour its constitutional obligations towards Maori. Almost six decades later, Maori insisted that they spoke at his funeral in remembrance after cloaking his coffin with a korowai.

Maori do not forget. At Shirley’s funeral, a further two decades on and sixteen years after she had given up her law practice, the Maori gangs she had represented gave her farewell a rousing haka. Their leader, Dennis O’Reilly said ‘this is the mother of our tribe who showed us things in this land ... who did her best to balance things and we love her for it.’

I was struck at the funeral of Sandra Moran (dubbed ‘the iron dolly’), how a number of young woman lawyers said that Sandra was an inspiration to them. Sandra once told me that her great inspiration had been Shirley. Those young woman lawyers were Shirley’s granddaughters even if they did not know it. (Described in her Law Society obituary as ‘one of New Zealand's truly great women of the law’, that she was never awarded an honorary law degree reflects badly on her university.)

Yet by today’s standards hers was a different feminism. She wrote ‘what I did anyway, I did as a person, not specifically as a woman: I am allergic to sex specification when (in my view) it is irrelevant. I am a very-old fashioned type of feminist, although a fierce one.’ (I would add ‘feisty’ to her attributes.)

It is the ‘just do it’ philosophy and she did it in many places (including civil liberties, social justice and the environment). One odd one, from today’s perspective, was her insistence that the Wellington Law Society annual dinner should allow woman lawyers to attend – initially she was the only one. Another oddity from today’s perspective was that she saw no reason to change her maiden name when she got married and continued to be Miss Smith in solidarity with unmarried women – ‘Ms’ was yet to be coined.  (However, I once saw her sign herself in a condolence book as ‘Dr and Mrs Sutch’. She could be pragmatic.).

One of the difficulties with Shirley’s life is that for a third and more she spent it with her husband, Bill Sutch. (While the book demonstrates she did not know everything he did, she was certain he would never betray his country.) I was once the person who had written more on Sutch than anyone else (although perhaps I should defer to Tim Bollinger’s magnificent thesis). This book has taken over the distinction. But be warned the book is not about Bill, it has an account of much of his life from Shirley’s viewpoint, but it does not present his perspective.

That belongs to a later book, as it should. For this is a book about Shirley Smith, a person in her own right.