The “Scarlet Runners” Women Were at the Center of New Zealand’s Six-Month-Long Miners’ Strike
1912 saw one of the biggest battles in New Zealand labor history, a six-month-long miners’ strike that paved the way for the general strike a year later. But it couldn’t have lasted so long without the working-class women who organized to defend their community — the “Scarlet Runners” who fought the strikebreakers.
“You dirty scabby bastard. I will tear your white liver out and belt you over the head with it.” This threat against strikebreakers was just one of hundreds of quotes recorded by police summing up the militant spirit of the “Scarlet Runners,” a group of women and girls who led the resistance in one of the most contentious strikes in New Zealand/Aotearoa history. They were active in the Waihi gold miners’ strike of 1912, a battle that lasted for six months, ending on “Black Tuesday” with the death of striking miner Fred Evans. The crisis it provoked laid the foundations for the General Strike the following year — and was a crucial step in the maturity of the country’s Labour Party.
Often, the role of women is missing from the industrial history of this era. But as part of a thriving socialist community, the women of Waihi overturned the gendered norms of wider society. From the 1890 Maritime Strike to winning female suffrage in 1893, in New Zealand, women were instrumental in key events. But resurrecting this history means not just mentioning women’s participation, but making labor history “as attentive to issues of gender as it is to issues of class.” In trying to preserve their family life, the Scarlet Runners’ story shows us how a strong community fighting for survival can become radicalized — even when fighting in an apparently conservative cause.
A Socialist Town
Today a quiet town of 4,500 people, a two hours’ drive south of Auckland, in 1912 Waihi was New Zealand’s second city. With a population of 6,500 thanks to employment opportunities at the gold mine, the town developed a vibrant, militant culture that centered around the Miners Union Hall. There was a socialist Sunday school for children, with some fifty pupils, and among them was sixteen-year-old schoolgirl Zena Norton. Demonstrating Waihi’s credentials as a socialist paradise was her entry to an essay competition on the meaning of the Union Jack, the British flag incorporated into this colony’s own:
Nature has provided us children with sufficient for all our wants, but this right has been denied us by the greedy people of the world who teach us to sing of the freedom of the Union Jack. The only flag that stands for freedom is the Red Flag of the working class of the world. Under that flag everyone would have enough food to live on.
Though the Miners Union was an affiliate of the NZ Federation of Labour — the “Red Feds” — many miners were influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was more militant and could be considered more feminist at the time; iy supported women playing public political roles and seeking paid work. One local socialist reported in the labor journal, the Maoriland Worker, that “the female comrades are working well, displaying that energy and enthusiasm which makes for success.”
In 1912, the Miners Union had successfully withdrawn from the bargaining system that had barred them from striking and had withheld compensation for mining-related diseases. A few months later, the engine drivers, who were considered more skilled and were better paid, tried to form a breakaway union with the support of the mining company. If successful, it would’ve forced the miners back into the system they’d just defeated. In May 1912, the miners went on strike, and union leaders called a meeting with the town’s women to gain support. Thirteen of them joined the strike committee.
The strike started peacefully with the local head of police, Inspector Wright, publicly commending the strikers’ good behavior. However, in July 1912 the general election brought in Prime Minister William Massey’s Reform government, which “wanted to crush the enemies of order.” The new police commissioner sent a confidential memorandum to Inspector Wright stating that “information has reached here that the Waihi strikers are likely to cut up rough and resort to intimidation and lawlessness.” Wright sent a lengthy reply assuring him that all was calm in the town. But the commissioner, overruling him, increased the police presence from seven to seventy-three — some 10 percent of the entire country’s police force.
By late September, it was becoming clear the company would reopen the mine with workers from outside the town. Sixty-eight strikers were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison, far beyond the standard length and a clear escalation by the state. When the strikers arrived at the prison in Auckland, two thousand wharf workers stopped work to cheer them in. On the following weekend, fifteen thousand people gathered outside the jailhouse walls to sing and support the imprisoned miners.
The Roving Commission
Without strike pay, the women — none of whom were wage earners — were forced to apply to the Charitable Aid Board for funding. The local bodies of the government, the boards were a precursor to the welfare state and were responsible for the provision of relief to the poor. As well as funding health care and institutional support, they gave “outdoor relief” — assistance in the form of money or in-kind services. With a strong cultural foundation that the able-bodied poor had somehow failed to make the most of their opportunities, there was thus a clear distinction drawn between the deserving and undeserving poor. For the women, making these applications was thus a humiliating experience. Some members of the Waihi Borough Council and a reporter for the Evening Post described them as a bluff — and aid was refused. The women and their striking husbands were at risk of being starved back to work.
As the strike leadership called for continuing lawfulness and avoidance of inflammatory language against strikebreakers, the women met on October 1 to form a “roving commission.” As labor historian Bruce Scates observed, the egalitarian impulse in strong mining communities, dating back to the 1890 Maritime Strike when miners and their families joined their waterfront worker comrades on the picket, meant that women and men would take equal part in a strike.
This was especially evident in Waihi, where the women soon took the lead. Jessie Beames was a sixteen-year-old girl who went to court after an altercation with a strikebreaker. She’d called the man a scab, and he allegedly attacked her in return, kicking her in the leg. Both of them faced charges. She was a miner’s daughter who said it was her duty “to follow up and give the ‘scabs’ a hot time” because they had taken her father’s job. The “roving commission” soon attempted to humiliate and harass strikebreaking miners and their families with aggressive tactics. Their motivation was thus rooted in a defense of traditional roles, namely, preserving their family life as wives, daughters, and mothers. The socialist and syndicalist ideologies of the Waihi working-class community, brought in through its links to the IWW, had created a culture where the women fought for socialism alongside the men. So long as they maintained their roles as primary caregivers, which they did, and their families were safe, which they were trying to ensure, then their expanding tactical repertoire was allowed by the union leadership and their community.
The Scarlet Runners
The mine reopened with outside labor on October 2. Fifty women and girls paraded behind a crimson banner that read “Workers of the World Unite.”
They began in traditional support roles of running messages to the picket line and negotiating for community supplies. But as the strike wore on, the women of Waihi began to escalate their tactics. As the men were arrested, the women, with their babies and small children in tow, took their place at the picket line and shouted abuse at the strikebreakers and police. They visited neighboring towns to dissuade workers from accepting work in Wahi and to build support for the strike. Working-class women speaking in public was rare and even then, those that did were usually wives of union leaders. In Waihi though, twenty-four-year-old Katherine Leach, wife of a rank-and-file miner, and mother to two small girls, traveled to Wellington and Auckland to speak. She made an appearance at the Auckland Opera House, which was reported in the Maoriland Worker,
It did our hearts good to hear our Comrade Mrs Leach . . . deliver her message at Auckland Opera House. ‘You can jail all the men, and then we women will fight you!’. . . and the audience yelled and stamped and cheered when the little woman sat down.
The tactics of the women began to diverge from those of the men. As they grew in intensity, the Auckland Star reported that “some of the workers are on the verge of nervous breakdown, owing to the continued annoyance by women, who appear to have a free hand in these matters, and, as a result of such leniency, appear to be getting bolder as time goes on.” The women showered strikebreakers with rotten eggs and intimidated their families with constant noise outside their homes. A letter to the editor of the New Zealand Herald captures the typical opinion of those opposing the strikers, as dismissive and contemptuous of the women,
. . . have faced me with a problem which requires some attention. I refer to the over-tolerant attitude of the police towards a section of feminine humanity-the unsavoury “Scarlet Runners” — who, lost to all sense of every species of decency in themselves, are making life miserable for all law-abiding and self-respecting persons in the mining township.
The press labeled them Scarlet Runners — presumably as a play on the sexual politics of the women who were transgressing gender norms. In reference to both their political color, the red flag, and the attitude of conservative men to women who took roles other than domestic, they were relegated to the role of “whores.”
Women’s radicalism in early twentieth-century labor struggles is not a straightforward story of overthrowing their patriarchal straitjacket — no matter how satisfying that would be from our perspective today. In Waihi, the women were trying to preserve family life. The men earned the income, but that income had disappeared and so they were doing what was necessary to defend it. Temma Kaplan, writing here about the militant female textile workers of Barcelona in 1915, could easily be describing the Scarlet Runners “in the course of struggling to do what women in their society and class were expected to . . . To fulfill women’s obligations, they rebelled against the state.”
Women’s visibility, as protagonists, was also limited in a different, deliberate way, for the women involved were largely successful in hiding their identities from the mainstream press. In photos of them that did emerge, their faces were often covered with umbrellas and photographs of British suffragettes. This leaves us with the enticing picture of international inspiration flowing from the women that first won the vote, in New Zealand, to the British suffrage movement, and then back again. The identities of women that did emerge came from court records and police reports.
Certainly, the rhetoric of the women was vicious. Police recorded tirades against strikebreakers such as “You rotten scab, your wife has got a fancy man,” and “Go and sleep with your prostitute you whisky faced bobby.” Jessica Beames’s friend, fifteen-year-old Bernice Heath, was also active in the strike, and she had “given Sergt Miller a push, so that he would get out of the way.” She explained that “women were now the most aggressive parties in Waihi. The men had been quieter since the arrival of police reinforcements.” Heath’s father, a striking miner, had been sent to prison.
While strike leaders made sure not to publicly condone the aggressive tactics of the Scarlet Runners, it isn’t clear how much they were coordinated and encouraged privately. Union leaders continued to both paint the women as helpless victims to aid fundraising and to praise their militancy at union rallies. It is quite possible that recognizing the gender norms of their time, the women pursued militant tactics, safe in the knowledge that female arrests would be a moral defeat for the police. A clever tactic that activists today would call a dilemma action: putting your opposition into a lose-lose situation.
But the company and police were united, and the strike began to crack. More and more of the strikers were arrested, and more and more miners returned to work, impoverished after nearly six months without pay. Now, it was the turn of the striking families to be chased through the streets. The strike ended on Black Tuesday — November 12, 1912 — when a mob of strikebreakers attacked the union hall, resulting in the death of striking miner Fred Evans. Allegedly beaten by a policeman, he fired his gun in self-defense and injured the officer. Evans was left unconscious in a police cell for hours and later died in hospital. The policeman was cleared of charges. Evans died a martyr, the first person killed in industrial action in the country. Yet the strike would have a lasting impact in galvanizing the labor movement — indeed, many of the men active in the strike went on to become MPs in the first Labour government of 1935.
Kaplan again observes that when “the street became the stage,” it is “proof that female consciousness moves women to take radical action in defense of the division of labor.” In the face of enormous pressure, the women of Waihi did what was necessary to defend their families. As part of a thriving socialist community, they were able to go to ever-more extreme ends to preserve the strike and save their husbands’ employment. On November 18, as the strikers fled the town, a group of Scarlet Runners stood on a train carriage ready to leave. They called for cheers for the federation of labor, but got no response. They called out again, “Are we downhearted? . . . No! You are now driving us out of the town, but we will be back in a few days.”