Agnes Bennett, motorist

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st published in FishHead magazine, February 2015 

Agnes Bennett

Dr Agnes Bennett and friends, ca 1914. PAColl-6972-6-23-1, Alexander Turnbull Library

 Here is Dr Agnes Bennett (1872-1960), photographed with friends on a summer driving expedition in her new car. It was on the eve of World War I and they were off to climb Mount Taranaki. That is her on the right grinning at the camera.

Bennett was born in Australia and trained as a doctor in Edinburgh. After several frustrating years trying to find suitable work in a very  male-dominated profession she bought a private medical practice on Upper Willis Street and moved to Wellington.  Soon she was also appointed as medical officer at the newly-formed St Helen’s maternity hospital, where she helped develop a women-run midwife service. She was a life-long advocate for women in the health professions, and achieved much during a long career.

The expedition shown would have been a welcome break in her busy life. Around this time she was campaigning, with some success, against leaders of the Medical Association who saw no place for women in higher education.  Women should concentrate, they argued, on motherhood alone. Such men, she later said, “were the greatest obstacles to women’s progress and emancipation that New Zealand has known”

Soon afterwards she was off to the war. After a year helping the New Zealand Medical Corps tend to injured Anzacs in Cairo she joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. It was an offshoot of the British women’s suffrage movement, who had temporarily put patriotism ahead of fighting for the vote. Bennett set up a women-run military hospital on the Serbian front, until severe malaria forced her back to Britain.

As the photograph suggests she was an enthusiastic motorist. She got her first car in 1908. At that time, according to Cecil and Celia Manson in their 1960 biography, she was the first woman car owner and driver in Wellington. In the late 1950s the Manson’s teenage son Hugo sometimes accompanied them on their research visits to Bennett at her Lowry Bay home. Young Hugo, himself now one of our leading oral historians, remembers her as rather daunting company. He was impressed by her car though – the latest Mark I Zephyr, ivory, with a green convertible hood.  She was in her eighties then, and still driving in style.

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