The Doris Gordon Memorial Trust: Honouring Our Prejudiced Past?
By Morgan Healey and Alison McCulloch
Over 2015, the US witnessed a groundswell of campus-based racial justice activism. From Missouri to Princeton University, Black Lives Matter activists and their counterparts honed in on ongoing racial oppression and injustice at universities, and called the institutions’ leaders to account. Activists have asserted a range of mechanisms for addressing these issues, including universities removing the names of historical figures that promoted white supremacy from campus halls and departments.
Internationally, the actions of US activists have had a ripple effect, challenging the memorialisation of people who perpetuated and sustained beliefs in the racial inferiority of non-whites while reaffirming their own supposed racial superiority as white (mostly) men. The tale we tell below draws on these challenges within the historical and cultural location of Aotearoa New Zealand in the context of sexual and reproductive health. As two white/Pākehā authors, we suggest that, in the spirit of cleaning our own house, contesting white supremacy should also be done by those with white privilege and that we must play a role in opposing the ongoing veneration of historical figures that propagated racial and gendered inequalities.
Re-imagining an imperfect past
Our story begins at the most recent conference of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, where a defunct trust in the name of a mid-20th century physician, Dr. Doris Gordon, was relaunched in conjunction with the National Council of Women. According to the Trust rules, it aims “to promote, undertake, sponsor, co-operate in or otherwise further the study and/or the teaching and/or the practice of women's health and wellbeing in New Zealand”. Funding will be used to hold an annual Doris Gordon Memorial Lecture by awarding a chosen lecturer with a medal and honorarium. The honorarium will be used for the study, teaching, and/or the practice of women's heath and wellbeing in New Zealand, exemplifying the spirit of Dr. Gordon’s work.
As part of his Inaugural Doris Gordon Memorial Oration, lauding the work of the renewed Trust’s namesake, Professor Ronald Jones told the audience of Dr. Gordon’s work in setting New Zealand obstetrics on a sound footing, stating that she had “made a greater contribution to the health and welfare of New Zealand women and children than any other individual”. Then, with only a passing and absolving reference, he proceeded to dismiss Dr. Gordon’s indisputably offensive beliefs on contraception, abortion, class and race as artifacts of her time with little or no bearing on her legacy.
For the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) this raised a serious red flag. Is it possible or even prudent to erase the hateful and bigoted aspects of Gordon’s past in order to glorify her positive contributions? Does the past really have such little bearing on the present that we can selectively ignore part of an individual’s complex biography without consequence? And what does it mean for modern obstetrics that a founding member of the profession believed that contraception and abortion were social evils, and professed the racial superiority of white/Pākehā people? We believe it is dangerous to assume that the prejudices of the past have been eradicated and that the legacies of social reformers can be re-imagined anew, their harmful beliefs stripped neatly away.
Paralleling other Western settler-colonial states, Aotearoa New Zealand’s present fits into a long history of efforts to control certain bodies, the effects of which are disproportionately felt by Māori and Pasifika women, poorer women, and gender non-conforming people. This is reflected in New Zealand’s current abortion laws, which still treat abortion as a crime (see the Crimes Act, 1961 and the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, 1977 for more). Criminalisation means abortion is not integrated into the healthcare system and access to services are complicated because of the restrictions imposed by legal fiat. For the most vulnerable and marginalised, this can mean the difference between bodily autonomy and state control; exhibited in policies like neoliberal welfare reform, which has sought to regulate and control the sexual activity and reproductive decisions of women, particularly Māori and Pasifika women. The ubiquity of such damaging disciplinary systems are not new to twenty-first century Aotearoa, but have roots in historical ideologies like the ones promoted by Dr. Gordon and her contemporaries.
While overt eugenicist discourses are no longer acceptable, racial and gendered dog whistling is common, and employed to similar effect today. Consider Dr. Gordon’s discussion in her book, “Gentlemen of the Jury” (1937) – an anti-abortion polemic she co-authored with an ostensibly reluctant Dr. Francis Bennett – of ‘New Zealand’ (read ‘white’) women’s duty to act as the custodian of the race, and her condemnation of them for the “abuse” of birth control:
It is worth remembering … that the abuse of birth control knowledge in New Zealand has already reduced this country to a dangerous state of stagnation, and, coupled with the rising tide of abortions, threatens in a very few years to extinguish its white people.
Have these notions vanished from contemporary society? No. The construction of a distinct ‘New Zealand’ identity typically assumes a de facto white body, and erases or ignores the indigenous Māori. Similarly, while explicitly pro-natalist policies that insist womanhood is synonymous with motherhood may no longer be viable, women in New Zealand continue to carry the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities and suffer from a gender pay gap those responsibilities help cause. All of these discourses, with their deep historical roots, persist in producing gender and racial inequalities that are very much apparent today.
The persistence of these inequities is precisely why the glorification of Dr. Gordon's work is so problematic. It contributes to a false present and a dishonest past. We see the effects around us every day, in the stigmatisation and criminalisation of abortion, and the damage caused by a welfare system that treats single mothers and their daughters as objects that need to have their reproduction controlled. What disappears from national discussions is the fact that the bodies these systems seek to control are overwhelmingly those of poorer women, of Māori and other women of color, and that this control is justified by racist and gendered constructions of non-white womanhood.
An Enlightened Present?
This brings us back to the point made at the outset: that old ideologies are fashioned anew in the present day, neither erased or fixed. Often this is done by constructing linear stories of progress that celebrate our enlightened present, and suggests that race matters less today than it did during our unenlightened past*. Such progressive storytelling often relies on the (re)telling of the lives of influential people who informed the thinking of the time. However, we run a serious risk of perpetuating an imagined ‘post-racial’ present when we lean on the stories of key historical figures (most often white) to justify these progressive narratives.
Today, many in New Zealand live a very different reality from the ideal of a just and equal present. Māori continue to struggle to have their voices heard, their histories acknowledged. Every corner of the country is filled with stories of land theft, of cultural suppression, of punishment for speaking their Reo, for practising traditional healing, and so on. In the mid 20-century, when Dr. Gordon was practicing medicine, Māori infant morality rates were three times those of white/Pākehā, while their overall rates of death and imprisonment, and of diseases associated with poverty also outstripped those of white New Zealanders. Contemporary statistics highlight that these inequities persist, marking the inequality between Māori and non-Māori as a continuing national narrative. It is, as Evan Te Ahu Poata-Smith wrote in “Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis”, an enduring feature of New Zealand society.
We do New Zealand a disservice when we claim an enlightened present that is built on false narratives of progress, including the disassociation of historical figures from their racist or misogynist beliefs. In relaunching the Doris Gordon Memorial Trust and rewarding those who exemplify her legacy, we risk more than simply commemorating an imperfect women; we risk negating the connections between past and present, the linking of structural inequalities through New Zealand’s colonial history. Until we can acknowledge our own history, in discussions about issues like welfare reform, law and order, or reproductive and sexual health, then we will simply re-inscribe anew the racial and gendered prejudices like those held by Dr. Gordon and her cohort. Like Black Lives Matter activists in the US, it is our responsibility to contest these narratives and to hold predominately white institutions to account for the veneration of people and legacies that continue to exact a human toll.
The alternative is allowing gendered and racial inequalities to persist uncontested, as we refuse to interrogate the present within the context of the past.
*The notion of a linear story of progress is taken from book Discipliningthe Poor: Neoliberalism Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race.
Morgan Healey (PhD) recently moved from New Zealand back to her native U.S. She is a sexual and reproductive health advocate and researcher. Alison McCulloch is a freelance journalist and author based in Tauranga Moana. Both Alison and Morgan are members of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand.