Story: Bloodworth, Rhoda Alice

Page 1 - Bloodworth, Rhoda Alice

Bloodworth, Rhoda Alice

1889–1980

Labour activist, community worker, feminist

This biography was written by Raewyn Dalziel and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Rhoda Alice Aspin was born in Skipton, Yorkshire, England, on 22 June 1889, one of three children of Maria Jane Aspin and her husband James Aspin, a loomer in a cotton factory. The family emigrated to Wellington, New Zealand, on the Whakatane in 1901 and settled in Petone, where James became a dairyman and Maria ran a sweetshop. In 1911 they moved to Auckland, where Rhoda joined the New Zealand Socialist Party. Thomas Bloodworth, a carpenter, was also a member, and they married on 28 February 1912 in the Registrar's Office. The couple were to have one child.

The Bloodworths soon left for a visit to England, returning to Auckland in December 1912 to a Socialist Party in decline. The labour movement was going through a period of organisational turmoil which was to end in 1916 with the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party. Tom was a friend of Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, and Harry Scott Bennett, and he and Rhoda were 'well known and admired in the working-class movement'. Theirs was a community of close friendships and socialist action where men and women worked for the same goals: the education of the people and the equal distribution of the world's resources. Rhoda was a feminist socialist, criticising the Maoriland Worker for its 'Hearth and Home' column for women, which she regarded as trivial, contending that women were concerned with serious economic inequalities and that 'all Socialists believe in sex equality'.

Rhoda and Tom Bloodworth took part in many of the events and organisations that contributed to working-class political life and culture. In May 1913 Rhoda was a founding member of the Women's Progressive Society, formed to educate women and fight for the economic emancipation of working men and women. Later that year the Bloodworths were active in what is sometimes referred to as the first general strike in New Zealand, participating at meetings and assisting strikers. They were great readers, and their convictions about the benefit of education led them to join in the founding of the Workers' Educational Association in 1915 and to become members of the Auckland Fabian Club. In 1918 they both worked tirelessly for victims of the influenza epidemic: Tom joined a team of Labour men cleaning halls and schools used as hospitals, and Rhoda provided endless pots of soup to families stricken with illness. In 1919 Tom unsuccessfully contested Parnell in the general election, but was elected as a Labour member of the Auckland City Council.

Rhoda Bloodworth was involved in a number of women's political organisations. After the Women's Progressive Society collapsed, she joined the body which became the Auckland Women's International and Political Leagues, a left-wing women's group which affiliated with the Labour Party in 1916. In October 1918 she was elected president of the Leagues. In 1919 she was the Leagues' delegate to meetings of the Auckland branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW) and became acquainted with leading clubwomen from across the political spectrum.

Rhoda Bloodworth became a consummate committee woman, known for her wise guidance, ability to bring unruly meetings to order and quick grasp of the wider implications of contentious issues. She was a fluent public speaker, capable of thinking on her feet. However, at first she had not been so confident. Under her presidency the Women's Political and International Leagues stopped meeting in September 1919 and did not reconvene until December 1920. In June 1925 the Leagues became the Auckland women's branch of the Labour Party. In 1928 Rhoda resigned over the decision to rent social rooms, although she later rejoined.

The Bloodworths were teetotallers and, despite being a rationalist, Rhoda belonged to the Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand. In 1934 she became their delegate to the NCW. Almost immediately she became secretary of the local branch. She was vice president (1936–37), a member of the executive (1943–45), president (1945–47), and from 1947 until 1955 served either as an executive member or office holder. The NCW brought together Labour and National women in a relationship that was often tense. Rhoda believed in an overarching unity of women's interests, stating in 1947 that the council was made up of women of 'the widest variation in culture, in sectional interests, and in politics, but if we truly subscribe to the objects of our Constitution we should be able to help each other in gaining our universal objects'. In 1969 she was made a life member of the Auckland branch.

In the 1930s Rhoda Bloodworth's main interest was child welfare. Labour women were critical of the 1925 Child Welfare Act, which they believed persecuted working-class children, and of the Children's Courts, where so many working-class children ended up. Bloodworth joined the executive of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children in 1935 and remained a member until 1948. In 1935 the coalition government appointed her a justice of the peace and in 1936 the Labour government authorised her to exercise jurisdiction in the Children's Courts. Her knowledge of the courts led her to call for improvements in the operation of the Child Welfare Branch and in the environment of the courts. In 1943 she took part in a study of child delinquency for the NCW and in 1954 she was appointed to the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents set up by the government to enquire into teenage sexual behaviour.

Although Tom Bloodworth fell out with the Labour Party in the early 1930s and later took a seat on the Legislative Council as an Independent, Rhoda remained a Labour supporter and represented the Auckland women's branch at many national conferences. In 1955, at a time of acute power shortages, she was elected to the Auckland Electric Power Board. She was the driving force behind the project to establish the Pioneer Women's and Ellen Melville Hall, which opened in 1962, and then to produce a memorial book recording the names of Auckland's pioneer women. Tom Bloodworth died in 1974 and Rhoda at Remuera, Auckland, on 23 December 1980, aged 91. Her son had predeceased her.

Rhoda Bloodworth was at the centre of a network of Labour women in Auckland. She showed two generations of them how to run meetings, helped negotiate their relations with women from opposing political parties, and provided a model of confidence and competence. Although a believer in self-help, Bloodworth's supportive attitude and her willingness to assist those who lacked her confidence and resources, persuaded many other women that they could make a contribution to political life.