Calder: Rebel with many causes

By Peter Calder


The name caught my eye, took me back. Not the surname so much - although it is notable enough when attached to her son Matthew, a pioneer of gene therapy, which may one day make incurable disease a thing of the past.

No, it was Zoe During's first name which had fascinated me when I was a boy in Hamilton in the 1960s, and not just because it began with Z or even because she was a doctor in a time and place when virtually all women kept house. It was because her children went to the same church as our family - but their mother did not.

My perhaps unreliable memory is that her faithlessness was frowned upon, pitied as a reckless apostasy rather than respected as a conscious choice. That it was shared by her husband, Dr Peter During, a leading soil scientist at Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre, seemed only to make matters worse. It might have been a scandal, if I'd been old enough to understand what a scandal was.

So the name Zoe During leaped out of the page when I read that she had been honoured by the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists. This group, more than a century old, is roughly the opposite of the Christian Heritage Party, in that it believes religion - of any sort - should be kept out of public life and social policy. More widely, it promotes unfettered freedom of expression, and for three years it has used the Charles Southwell Award to recognise efforts that have aided its cause.

The first recipient was Te Papa, for withstanding demands by the pious to remove the Virgin in a Condom from an exhibition; the second my colleague Brian Rudman. This year the association's light shone on Zoe During in recognition of her "invaluable contribution" to moral, social, and health debate over five decades.

The award, named for a pioneer "freethinker" who published the Auckland Examiner for four years until his death in 1860, recognised Dr During's career of tireless and outspoken support for liberal causes: abortion, homosexual law reform and Amnesty International's campaigns to free prisoners of conscience.

But her voice was as often raised in opposition - to the American invasion of Vietnam, say, or the nuclear arms race. And in her professional capacity, she was a vigorous promoter of child and family health when bad administration or professional ineptitude were the principal - if not the only - impediments to the delivery of good public health care.

"Oh, God, I'm so embarrassed," she says when I call to make an appointment. "Oh, I shouldn't say 'God', should I?"

The question implies no embarrassment at the slip, rather an awareness that an atheist undermines herself by blaspheming.

The embarrassment is because she can think of "so many people who've done so much more important things." But it is mixed with a healthy dose of caution about talking to a journalist. She recalls the headline in the Waikato Times when she was a medical officer in Hamilton. "You don't need to love your children!" it screamed, and so did the letters to the editor.

"I don't know quite what I said," she says, "but I didn't say that. What I think I must have said was that loving your children was not, on its own, a guarantee of their wellbeing."

Still, she admits me to her quiet bougainvillea-framed clifftop home overlooking Cockle Bay near Howick and smiles when I mention my childhood memory of her as the atheist bound for perdition.

"I did go to church," she says, "I went - very occasionally - with one or other of the children. I wasn't really ever religious, but I encouraged them to go and then to make a choice. I'm not antagonistic to religion unless it proselytises unpleasantly and stops things like a decent attitude towards homosexuality and abortion."

The idea of an atheist mother encouraging her children's churchgoing may seem a contradiction, but Zoe During's life has been full of those. Her father - a teetotaller and "man as short of bonhomie as you can imagine" - was a publican in Dannevirke and later Hastings. She spent much of her own professional life looking after the interests of impetuous young women, yet she was one herself: she married three weeks after meeting the man who has been her husband for 55 years ("He took the afternoon off work - he was driving a bulldozer and it paid well - and we didn't tell a soul").

A family of five followed, of whom Matt is doubtless the most feted, but marriage and motherhood never stood a chance of tying her down.

What is most extraordinary about her six decades of activism - no other word seems apt - is that she passionately advocated causes long before most of those around her knew they existed.

It started early: at the age of 12, at school in the 1930s, she wrote an essay advocating the abolition of the monarchy, and at medical school, in wartime, she passed round to her (mainly reluctant) fellow students a petition calling for conscientious objectors not to be imprisoned.

She was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s, when the nuclear threat was in its infancy ("Peace was a dirty word then," she remembers, "and the CND was regarded as nearly treasonable"), and in the movement to end the Vietnam War in the 1960s ("If you were reading the New Statesman, as I was, you knew how wicked it was. I used to give talks about it. I knew very little about it - I used to read books and regurgitate them - but I knew enough to know it was wrong").

She worked for Amnesty International in the 60s, before it became a darling cause of 70s liberals, and agitated for homosexual law reform and became vice-president of the Homosexual Law Reform Association 20 years before Fran Wilde's bill breached the barricades in the 1980s.

The trajectory of her involvement in that cause is instructive because it is typical. Invited, as a medical officer with the Health Department, to give an orientation address to students at the new Waikato University, she mentioned both drugs and homosexuality. Organisers were outraged, but the speech gave rise to an invitation to deliver a paper at a medico-legal conference.

"I knew nothing about it," she said, "but it's awfully boring doing things you know about, so I went to the university library and there was a nice young fellow there - it took me a while to cotton on that he was gay - who had done a thesis for library school on the bibliography for homosexuality and told me the essential books.

"I ended up being invited to address the select committee, and I made jolly sure that they knew that [homosexuality] wasn't a lifestyle choice."

Her children never asked her to spare them the embarrassment of standing out - although on the issue of homosexuality, she says, somebody must have said something.

"It didn't worry me too much. You've got to put up with those sorts of things. If you've got a peculiar mother, you've got a peculiar mother."

Dr During attributes her lifelong outspokenness to her own atheist mother and an "anti-godmother" (Zoe Wilkie, after whom she was named). But she is modest about her motivation.

"I was a show-off, I suppose. Although I'm not particularly left wing these days, I am a little different ...

"I hope I'm not as self-assured and arrogant now. I've tried to understand the world. But I hope I'm not so smug now."

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