Miriam Soljak

Miriam Soljak (née Cummings) (15 June 1879 – 28 March 1971) was a pioneering New Zealand feminist, communist, unemployed rights activist and supporter of family planning efforts.

Born Miriam Bridelia Cummings in Hastings in 1879, Miriam was the daughter of Matthew Cummings and Annie Cunningham. She became a student teacher in 1896, initially teaching at New Plymouth Central School and Kauaeranga School, Thames. In 1898, she moved to Northland, where she taught at Taumarere Native School and Pukaru School. While living there, she married Peter Soljak, a Dalmatian gumdigger, in 1908, and developed close ties to Ngāpuhi Maori communities in that area. Peter and Miriam moved to Kawakaura in 1912, before they moved to Tauranga. At that point, Miriam had to give up teaching, given the birth of her fourth child. Altogether, Peter and Miriam went on to have seven children.

Political activism[]

As World War I began, Miriam was angered to find that on marrying Peter, she had inadvertently surrendered her own rights as a New Zealand citizen, and was classified as an 'enemy alien' under New Zealand immigration legislation of the period. Peter and Miriam were forced to sign a police register, and Miriam could not recover from the birth of her seventh, and last child, due to nursing home discrimination.[clarification needed]

In 1920, Miriam shifted to Auckland, where she met Emily Gibson of the Women's International and Political League, a feminist organisation. As time went on, she became increasingly involved in unemployed rights and feminist activism, and was involved in protest activity against women's inability to receive an unemployment benefit during that period of New Zealand history in 1926.

While she was initially involved with the New Zealand Labour Party, she condemned the violent suppression of Samoa's pro-independence Mau movement in 1930, and was at odds with the party hierarchy over the issue. During the thirties, she confronted the conservative "Reform" Health Minister over his unwillingness to accept the existence of female homelessness and his preference for female access to private charities, rather than welfare state benefits. She tried to form an Auckland Unemployed Women's Emergency Committee, but found that the proposed organisation could only provide a register. She also campaigned against mandatory conscription for men, female access to contraception and family planning, and was instrumental in the establishment of the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society in 1934, later renamed the New Zealand Family Planning Association in 1940. In the same year, she joined the New Zealand Rationalist Association, also based in Auckland.

Due to Women's International League for Peace and Freedom sponsorship, Miriam was able to attend a Commonwealth women's conference in London (1936-7), where women's nationality and immigration rights were debated. In 1939, Miriam and Peter were divorced, but she found that she was still classed as a foreign national, despite her New Zealand birth and her divorced marital status.

Back in New Zealand, she served as a journalist and contributor to Women Today, a thirties feminist journal. She was critical of ostensibly progressive developments like the New Zealand Social Security Act 1938, because the legislation made no provision for unmarried or single mothers. At the end of World War II, Miriam retired from public life to look after a war-wounded son. In 1971, she died in Auckland.

Her daughter Connie Purdue went to become a leading name in New Zealand pro-life movement.