Margaret Jane Scott, an early fighter for women’s rights.

Margaret Jane Scott: A trailblazer for women’s rights

This week's Times Past column by historian Jonathan Smyth recalls the lifelong work of Margaret Jane Scott who fought for women's rights, and takes a look at the end of her business partnership and marriage...

An article written about the end of a business partnership between Mark Hawthorne and his wife Margaret Jane Scott carried a sub-heading which stated, ‘a woman who would do as she liked’. The main portion of the headline for the article in the New Zealand Truth, on 4 September 1915 read: ‘A factory inspector, who deserted her hubby, missing Maggie Hawthorne’.

The report would have received less attention but for the fact that Margaret Jane Scott Hawthorne was one of the three most influential women on the trade union scene in New Zealand. The two other trade unionists, like Margaret, were Irish: from the province of Ulster. They were Aileen Garmson, from Kingscourt, and Harriet Russell Morison from Magherafelt.

Miss Scott was born in Cornafean, Co Cavan on 17 January 1869, the daughter of Henry Scott and his wife Anne Kenny. Although, her early life was not documented, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography noted that her father was engaged in farming. Later, the family departed Ireland and sailed for Lyttelton, New Zealand, arriving on 29 August 1880. The Scotts lived near Christchurch and when their daughter finished school, she trained as a ‘tailoress’.

Working conditions in the clothes industry were difficult and her experience influenced her to get involved in trade unionism. Scott was the first woman to be appointed secretary of the Christchurch Tailoress’ and Pressers’ Union. Her enthusiasm for helping others meant she rapidly progressed, becoming union representative of the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council. She attained ‘national prominence’ when elected as council vice-president in 1894, and that same year she formed a co-operative to offer employment to thirty ‘tailoresses’ who had lost their jobs when a factory had closed. From 1895, she managed the Women’s Branch of the Department of Labour in Wellington and was well-liked by members. The organisation assisted women in search of employment and posted advertisements to publicise jobs available to women.

Next, Margaret became a factory inspector, being the second woman to have held that position in New Zealand. She investigated factories, shops, and businesses which employed ‘woman and girls’ and would check to see if the Factories Act of 1894 was enforced properly. Employers were legally obliged to adhere to the Act which entitled workers to better ventilation, accommodation, and sanitation in the workplace.

Melanie Nolan in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography notes that ‘just over a quarter of all workers employed in 1896 consisted of women’ and yet, a decade later, the number of female workers had dropped by three percent. Aside from inspecting factories, she highlighted the long hours endured by the nursing profession and waitresses in hotels. By 1909, Margaret was the highest paid ‘female public servant’ in New Zealand on a salary of £109 per annum.

In 1898, Margaret married Mark Hawthorne, the owner of a ‘boot and shoe’ importation business. Mark’s wife soon after became a partner in the company, a position she held until their divorce in 1915. The Hawthornes had one daughter.


Mark Hawthorne’s requested dissolution of the partnership of Hawthorne and Co and his impending divorce were heard before Justice Hoskings at the Supreme Court, Wellington, on Monday, August 30, 1915. According to an article in the New Zealand Truth, Mr Hawthorne told the judge that: ‘he had first marked the charms of his partner’s glance when she was a simple little maiden named Margaret Jane Scott. He ordered the joy bells to be rung, and an up-to-date sample of licence as purveyed by the registrar and booted it off to the holy mat’ factory where the registration of the company Mark Henry Hawthorne and Margaret Jane Scott was duly recorded’. The firm’s partnership came into effect ‘in the cold month’ of June 1898. The report which refers to Margaret as Maggie, notes that she and Mark lived for eight months in Wellington until ‘the queen hit out for the Queen City’ and with sarcasm added that ‘afterwards, at the queen’s rest, the king followed his charmer to the city of crime statistics’.

Margaret intended to continue working , but her husband did not appear to be entirely happy in the matter. He followed her to where she was now living, and she suggested that her husband should take up a job in the same town. But he became ‘fixed’ to the area ‘by his job’ and Margaret moved again, returning to Wellington. A year later she came back to visit her husband who was not too happy. He pointed out to the court that she had addressed public meetings and ‘rumour had it’ that she had been seen in the company of other gentlemen.

An independent lady, Margaret wrote to Mark and told him that she proposed ‘to make her own running’ … that the marriage bed of Mark was ‘of no utility to her’ and that she ‘would do what she liked’. Mark eventually decided it was time to move on, and reminded the court that his wife had never taken any interest in the marriage or the business she had become a partner in. It was heard that a meeting had been organised at one time between Margaret and the company board, but she never showed up. The newspaper noted, Mark ‘might as well have looked for an ice-cream in Hades’, since there was no chance of her attending the meeting. On another occasion, Mark’s jealousy was roused when he saw Margaret addressing a meeting of the Unmarried Mothers’ Rights League; it was the first time he had seen her in over a decade. Mr Hawthorne, the paper stated, had intended to ‘institute proceedings’ several years earlier but did not have sufficient funds.

In 1915, Margaret Scott Hawthorne’s whereabouts were unknown, and the court heard that advertisements had been posted to inform her of the proceedings taken against her by her husband. The final word in the case was left to the judge who said, ‘Very well, I’ll make a decree nisi to be made absolute in three months, when Mark will be able to bestow his partnership interests in a direction where it may be better appreciated’.

In November of the following year Margaret re-married, this time to a farmer named James Smith. She died on 1 May 1958. In New Zealand, Margaret Jane Scott was a celebrated trailblazer who fought passionately for women rights in the workplace.


Brigadier General Eric Dorman O’Gowan and Ernest Hemingway