Updated: Aug 31, 2021
Over the last few weeks I learned a number of valuable lessons – the plural of vulva is vulvae, Hamilton is the knitting capital of New Zealand (closely followed by Wellington), and also that it’s hard to stand still in a strongly flowing stream, let alone walk against the current. For weeks prior to the opening of the Charlotte Museum Trust’s ANZAC Day exhibition, I was absorbed by a vulva-poppy mania. What newspapers would have referred to in decades past as being absorbed by an ‘orgy of knitting’. Lynda messaged me photos of her knitting from Dunedin, Jacqui handed over a bag of crochet poppies when we met for brunch, Colleen was unsure how to finish her vulvae so I sewed them up, Ineke passed a sample over at bookclub, all the while my partner was overcome with a knitting frenzy resulting in a growing pile of unsewn vulva-poppies piling up higher and higher on my desk. I knew why I was doing this particular exhibition, and wit aside, I believed in it. But as we got closer and closer to ANZAC Day, and I watched the little videos showing the making of Te Papa’s ‘The Scale of Our War’, I began to waver: was my vulva-poppy mania (masquerading as a women’s commemorative campaign) getting in the way of the ‘real meaning of ANZAC Day’? Golly, was it?
On ANZAC Day I drove up to the Charlotte Museum, wending my way north from the knitting capital of New Zealand. A scattering of people in formal regalia were preparing for an ANZAC commemoration at Gordonton, farmers had planted oversized poppies in their roadside paddocks around Huntly, and the ANZAC Day speeches were already being aired on the radio. I began again to feel the pull of public sentiment, a creeping feeling that maybe I was missing out by refusing to attend a dawn service.
When I spoke about the vulva-poppy installation at the Museum later in the day, I dwelt on the tension in feeling a love for one’s country, when you know that the country being commemorated is not the country you love. I love New Zealand, but the New Zealand I love has knitters and mothers and nurses and ambulance drivers and prostitutes as well as soldiers in its history for the period 1914-1918. That is, it has women, too.
During World War One women knitted, and their knitting kept men in the army. Trench foot was a constant threat to soldiers exposed to wet environments, where feet basically began to rot if left uncared for. Soldiers with rotten feet couldn’t fight well, and you know what slowed down trench foot? Clean dry socks. Simple really. Women’s knitting kept the troops on active service. And they knitted a lot.
During World War One mothers were encouraged to ‘give’ their sons to the war. Those little bundles of joy raised and cherished and taught to do good? Now they were being sent to die and you weren’t allowed to say a word in opposition. This was the maternal sacrifice of women. But there was also a second layer to the maternal sacrifice. In New Zealand and Australia maternal mortality was high, and if you didn’t die during childbirth, there was a really good chance you would be left with ongoing pain and debility. In the 1920s when soldiers were fast becoming memorialised as superstars of the ANZAC nations, some women responded, ‘you know what? we die for the good of the nation too, and we do it giving birth to those flaming soldiers’. Or something to that effect. Some reports suggested that while 30% of returned soldiers were on invalid pensions, 50% of mothers were invalided through childbirth, but with far less fanfare.
It must be said, there are no bronze statues to the women knitters and the dead mothers.
Record numbers attended ANZAC Day services on the centennial of our ill-fated landing at Gallipoli on 25 April, services commemorating our numerous soldiers and a scattering of nurses.
Charlotte strode against the current to commemorate the thousands of knitters and, yes, the mothers of World War One.
‘Invulved’ is an exhibition of beautifully knitted poppies, vulva-poppies, and vulva, arranged in the shape of a silver fern, open Wednesdays and Sundays at the Charlotte Museum Trust, 1-4pm, until 13 May.