Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain was a feminist and peace activist who gained notoriety for her outspoken views against New Zealand’s participation in the South African War. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1848, her family immigrated to New Zealand in 1858 where they chose to settle in Invercargill.
In 1879 Bain became a teacher and worked in the Invercargill region. She remained in this profession until 1893 after which she eventually moved north to Christchurch to work as a librarian. It was there, in 1896, that she became the president of the Canterbury Women’s Institute. In this role she hosted the first meeting of the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW). Despite moving to teach in the Auckland and Taranaki regions, Bain remained involved in the NCW and in 1901 she was chosen to represent New Zealand on the committee of the International Council of Women. As New Zealand’s representative she attended the 1904 meeting of the ICW held in Berlin.
In 1914, at the age of 66, Bain married business owner Robert Archibald Elliot. Sadly their marriage lasted only six years as Robert died on 7 July 1920.
Throughout her life Bain supported many causes such as prison reform, equality for women and worker’s rights. As a peace activist she was forthright in criticising New Zealand’s involvement in the South African War. Speaking at the 1900 conference of the NCW in Dunedin she earned the ire of the local newspapers after voicing her opinions on the war effort. In order to avoid public criticism of its organisation, the NCW was forced to distance itself from Bain’s viewpoints. Despite this negative publicity, Bain remained committed to opposing war and militarism. She believed that while warfare had played a necessary role in the past, human civilisation had reached a point where it was no longer required.
Bain was also an accomplished writer and from 1910-1913 she had worked as a journalist in Riverton. Later in her life she travelled to London where she had two of her literary works published; a collection of her poems entitled From Zealandia and her novel Service: a New Zealand story. Despite all her efforts as an activist, it was her achievements as an author for which she was remembered at the time of her death on 26 January 1944.
By Simon Daisley