Story: Cochran, Joan Embury

Page 1 - Biography

Cochran, Joan Embury

1912–1995

Social reformer, sex educator, teacher

This biography was written by Peter Boston and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Joan Embury Feltham was born in Wellington on 16 October 1912, the second child of Harriett Embury and her husband, Edgar Charles Feltham, a schoolteacher. Her elder sister died in 1914 and her brother required constant care due to brain damage following a birth mishap. Joan grew up in a strongly Methodist household. She attended Kilbirnie School and then Wellington East Girls’ College, where she edited the school’s magazine and was dux and gold medallist for two successive years.

Joan Feltham studied English at Victoria University College from 1930 until 1933. While completing her BA honours and MA degrees she fell in love with her English lecturer, Andrew Bruce Cochran, an active Methodist 10 years her senior. They married at Trinity Methodist Church, Wellington South, on 13 August 1935, and moved to a newly built home in Khandallah. They were to have two daughters and a son. Both were Bible-class leaders and lay preachers and together they established a branch of the Methodist church in the area. Joan developed a strong interest in theology and read the works of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. She also built friendships with prominent members of the New Zealand Student Christian Movement; with Bruce she edited the movement’s magazine, Open Windows (later the Student), from 1935 until 1944. Expressive of their particular brand of liberal Christianity, the periodical addressed major contemporary issues, focusing on pacifism, psychology, sexuality and science in a changing world. Joan also ran youth camps for the Methodist church and worked for the YWCA, serving on its national executive and writing articles for its journal, the New Zealand Girl.

With the outbreak of the Second World War the Cochrans became involved with the Campaign for Christian Order organised by the National Council of Churches in New Zealand and supported their conscientious objector friends through their trials and imprisonments. In 1942 they wrote Sex, love and marriage , while Joan gave lectures throughout the country on sexuality and the family. Her views stemmed from a belief that men and women were equal but different – men had rational qualities, women emotional understanding – and humanity needed both to become complete. Joan espoused a woman’s right to sexual pleasure within marriage and advocated contraception and divorce, views that were unpopular among those who considered that sexuality was not a topic for public discussion. Despite these concerns, in 1944 the Cochrans wrote Meeting and mating , a more thorough elaboration of their ideas on sex and Christian marriage. In 1945, as juvenile delinquency became a pressing social issue, Joan produced Understanding yourself , a guide for adolescents desiring knowledge about sexuality.

In 1948 Joan Cochran attended the first conference of the World Council of Churches, held at Amsterdam, as a semi-official representative of the Methodist church. On her return to New Zealand she sat on the Methodist Church’s Board of Publications and wrote several religious tracts. Along with other church members she lobbied for Ormond Burton’s reinstatement to the Methodist ministry, following his expulsion for pacifist preaching in 1942. With Bruce she helped to establish the Cashmere Methodist Community Centre in Khandallah. Designed by their friend Ernst Plischke to represent a fusion of the religious and the secular, the centre opened in June 1952, replete with a special poem by James K. Baxter.

Cochran continued her involvement with the National Council of Churches, speaking at Home and Family Weeks organised by E. P. Blamires. In 1954, at Blamires’s suggestion, she toured Australia as a guest speaker for that country’s Home and Family Weeks. She became well known to Wellington radio 2YA listeners through a panel discussing social issues, and continued to promote sex education through local marriage guidance councils and the New Zealand Family Planning Association. In 1964 she became a founding member of the Indecent Publications Tribunal. This established a fairly liberal standard: in the first year it judged James Baldwin’s Another country and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as not indecent, and gave the same classification in 1965 to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s lover. Cochran served on the tribunal for 10 years.

She taught at Queen Margaret College, Wellington, in 1956, and from 1960 to 1980. It was a return not only to teaching – she had taught briefly at Wellington East Girls’ College and Wellington Girls’ College before her marriage – but also to her early love of poetry and prose. She became first assistant in 1966. During her time at the college she taught with inventiveness and humour. After Bruce’s death in 1970 she made regular trips to the United Kingdom, where she visited a daughter and maintained a warm and close friendship with Sir Ronald Syme, the eminent Oxford University classics scholar. She frequented a wide variety of art galleries and concerts and later related her experiences to enliven the classroom.

Joan Cochran died at Wellington on 31 July 1995, survived by her three children. A woman of strong moral and religious convictions, she was able to speak with both her heart and her mind. Through her lectures, writings and teaching she sought to make Christianity relevant to twentieth century New Zealanders and left an enduring legacy for many of her pupils.