Page 1: Biography
Political activist, dancer, teacher
This biography, written by Peter Franks, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018.
Rona Bailey was one of the most important figures on the radical left in twentieth-century New Zealand. She was a communist and an organiser of protest movements, particularly against the Vietnam War, apartheid and racism. Her beliefs also found expression in her leading roles in the development of modern dance and drama, as both a performer and an influential teacher, and in the physical education movement of the 1940s.
Rona Stephenson was born on 24 December 1914 in Whanganui, the daughter of Catherine Sara Picken and her husband, Isaac Stephenson. Rona’s mother was a French scholar who was talented in music and painting. Her father, a Yorkshire miner, had little formal education but a strong entrepreneurial drive. In 1921 he opened a footwear shop in Gisborne, where he and Catherine built a successful business.
From her mother, Rona got her lifelong cultural interests; from her father, her energy and determination. She had a comfortable middle-class upbringing and was head prefect at Gisborne High School. In 1926 her parents travelled overseas and Rona stayed with Jessie Picken, her maternal aunt, in Christchurch. Jessie, a teacher, had a strong influence on Rona, telling her ‘that there was something wrong in the world with the haves and the have-nots’. 1 Her parents, on the other hand, aspired to be part of respectable society.
Rona trained as a teacher at Auckland and Christchurch training colleges. A keen sportswoman, she was passionate about basketball (now netball). She captained Poverty Bay, played for Auckland and Canterbury, and in 1936 was selected for a New Zealand team that was expected to tour Australia the following year but went in 1938 after Rona had gone to the United States.
Studies in the United States and political radicalisation
Rona used a bequest from Jessie Pickens to study physical education at the University of California at Berkeley (1937–8) and Columbia University in New York (1938–9). There was an upsurge of radicalism during Rona’s time in the United States, and this marked the beginning of her lifelong commitment to improving society by implementing socialist ideals. She befriended Adele Carlson, whose husband, Evans Carlson, was in China with the communist Eighth Route Army. She met fellow New Zealanders James Bertram and Ian Milner at a fundraiser for China’s resistance to Japan. She had a short relationship with Archie Williams, an African American athlete, and experienced the venom of racism first hand. She was deeply influenced by witnessing a Ku Klux Klan rally and hearing a speech by American labour leader Harry Bridges.
Rona’s growing political consciousness was expressed through her growing interest in dance and theatre. She took an interest in the radical theatre fostered by the Federal Theatre Project, part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. She also studied dance as part of her physical education training under leaders of the modern dance movement: Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, Charles Weidman and Louis Horst. Rona embraced the modern dance movement, considering it ‘far removed from the artificiality of the classical ballet’ and focused on real people and political and social themes. These interests would find full expression when she returned to New Zealand.
The Physical Education Branch
Returning to New Zealand in March 1939, Rona briefly taught physical education at Woodford House, a private girls’ school in Havelock North, before joining the new Physical Welfare Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. The Branch was part of the Labour government’s policy of improving New Zealanders’ health by encouraging greater participation in sport and physical education. One of six physical welfare instructors, she was based initially in Hamilton (1939–43) and later in Wellington (1943–52) as Senior Women’s Officer. Her role involved developing physical training programmes and training local leaders and instructors. She incorporated modern dance techniques from the United States into the programmes, and into the curriculum at Wellington Teachers’ Training College.
During her Wellington years Rona was active in the Public Service Association, and was elected president of its women’s committee and a women’s representative on the executive. She was part of the women’s committee’s campaign for equal pay for women public servants.
Theatre, the Communist Party, and marriage
Rona revived her interest in political theatre on her return to New Zealand, joining the left-wing People’s Theatre in Hamilton and subsequently the Unity Theatre in Wellington. In Wellington, the Unity Theatre’s secretary, Henry Martin, recruited her to the Communist Party of New Zealand. The party was in its heyday. The heroism of the Soviet people in the Second World War drew many people to socialism. A striking, energetic and vivacious redhead, Bailey stood out in the largely male, largely working-class party; some people thought she would not last the distance.
She married Ronald Lindley (Ron) Meek, a fellow communist and one of the People’s Theatre’s founders, in Hamilton on 22 December 1942. They divorced in December 1944. Another communist prominent in Unity Theatre was the trade unionist and taxi driver Reginald John (Chip) Bailey. He and Rona fell in love and married in Wellington on 15 June 1945.
The New Dance Group
Bailey was part of a political and cultural avant-garde, informally based around the French Maid Coffee House on Wellington’s Lambton Quay. Building on her experiences in the United States, she worked closely with Philip Smithells, the head of the Physical Education Branch, and several others to form the New Dance Group in 1945. The group, made up largely of physical education students and teachers, used modern dance to explore contemporary social and political themes. The group ended in 1948 when Smithells moved to Dunedin.
In 1947 Rona visited Britain to study physical welfare. She also attended the first World Festival of Youth and Students in Prague, visited Hungary, worked on a Youth Railway in Yugoslavia and interviewed the country’s communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. She attended a Paul Robeson concert in Panama on her way to Europe, and met the famous African American singer, actor and left-wing political activist afterwards. During Robeson’s New Zealand concert tour in October–November 1960, Rona and Chip Bailey helped organise meetings for him with local trade unionists and peace activists.
1951 waterfront lockout
By the time Rona returned to New Zealand, the Cold War had begun and there was growing hostility towards the Communist Party. To complicate matters, Chip was expelled from the party because of his independence of mind, though Rona remained a member. Meg, their daughter, was born in 1949.
The Baileys played a very active part in supporting the deregistered waterside workers’ union during the 1951 waterfront lockout. They were among a small group who secretly produced and distributed pro-union leaflets that were illegal under the National government’s emergency regulations. The portable typewriter which Chip used to write the watersiders’ regular bulletin was hidden in the Baileys’ flat (it is now held by Te Papa Tongarewa). It was an exhilarating if exhausting time, that ended in the defeat of the ‘wharfies’.
In 1952 Rona contracted tuberculosis and spent a year in isolation recovering. While she was in hospital she began researching New Zealand popular songs and ballads in an effort to ensure their preservation. She contributed her findings to several long-playing records of New Zealand songs, and in 1967 published a book of lyrics in collaboration with Bert Roth.
Death of Chip Bailey and changing career
After her recovery, Rona left Internal Affairs and became national secretary of the Society for Closer Relations with the USSR. In 1963 tragedy struck. Chip became seriously ill with a brain tumour and died, aged 42. He was the love of her life. She wrote, ‘we had everything in common & a wonderful life together full of laughter, joy, ups & downs … But most of all we had the party & the working class.’ 2
Needing paid employment, Rona resigned from the society and became the part-time New Zealand correspondent for the New China News Agency Xinhua. She was elected to the national committee of the Communist Party. These changes in her life coincided with the Sino-Soviet split, in which the Communist Party of New Zealand sided with China.
Vietnam War and expulsion from the Communist Party
The American war in Vietnam and New Zealand’s support for it sparked a new protest movement in the 1960s. Bailey was a central figure in Wellington’s Committee on Vietnam from 1965 to 1976, for much of this time its treasurer. Her training in the Communist Party made her an accomplished political organiser. She strongly believed that communists should work cooperatively with others of different political persuasions to build a strong, united protest movement. It was therefore ironic that the executive of the Committee on Vietnam tried to expel her and other communists in 1966 after a Communist Party leader falsely boasted that the party was leading the anti-war movement. A well-attended meeting defeated this move, as much as anything because of the high personal standing of Bailey and her comrades.
Bailey and other Communist Party members in Wellington became increasingly uncomfortable with the party’s leadership and its dogmatic ‘ultra-leftist’ positions. In 1970 the party leadership deregistered the Wellington district and expelled Bailey, Jack Manson and four other local leaders who were denounced as the ‘Manson/Bailey gang’. The radicalisation brought about by the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s led to the formation of new communist organisations. Bailey was a founding member of the Wellington Marxist-Leninist Organisation in 1976 and the Workers’ Communist League of New Zealand in 1980, although she did not seek leadership positions.
Rona left the Workers’ Communist League in 1985 after coming to the conclusion that democratic centralism – the main organising principle of communist parties – was wrong. It was an amicable parting and she strongly defended ‘the initiative, the courage, the dedication and sheer bloody hard work by the rank and file of the Party and the majority of comrades, in their struggle for justice and a new social order’. 3
Anti-apartheid and biculturalism
Rona became involved with protests against apartheid in South Africa in the late 1940s. She participated in the campaign against the 1960 All Black tour of South Africa and in 1972 became treasurer of the National Anti-Apartheid Committee. For most of the 1970s, the anti-apartheid movement was her full-time, unpaid job. Rona was in the thick of the protests against the 1981 South African rugby tour of New Zealand. Batoned by police in Molesworth St, Wellington, on 29 July 1981, she was one of 15 communists and radicals named in a Security Intelligence Service report which Prime Minister Robert Muldoon used to smear the anti-apartheid movement.
After the tour, Māori challenged Pākehā in the anti-apartheid movement to look over their shoulders at racism in New Zealand. Bailey took this challenge very seriously. She read about the history of the Treaty of Waitangi, attended anti-racism courses and went through a period of guilt about the injustices Māori had suffered. Consciously trying to do something productive with her new understanding, she became part of the organising group of Project Waitangi, which was launched in 1985, with government support, to educate Pākehā about the treaty. Thousands of people attended anti-racism and treaty workshops during the five years of the project’s existence. Rona considered it one of the most productive organisations she had worked in.
Rona’s old love of dance and drama found a new outlet in the 1960s. Nola Millar encouraged Rona to teach theatre movement at the New Zealand Drama Council’s 1964 summer school, combining dance and theatre techniques. The experience prompted Rona, Nola, and Anne Flannery to pursue the establishment of the QEII Arts Council Drama Training School (later the New Zealand Drama School), which was opened in 1970 under Millar’s direction. Rona served as a tutor in movement until her retirement in 1988, and influenced several generations of actors.
Rona also worked hard to promote biculturalism in the theatre world. As a member of the collective of Taki Rua, the Māori theatre company, she helped foster work by Māori and Pasifika actors and dramatists. After retiring as a tutor, Bailey was a member of the Drama School’s board of trustees from 1989 to 1996. She pushed the school to embrace a partnership with Māori, and it was renamed Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School (or Toi Whakaari). Bailey took classes for students on the treaty and encouraged measures to attract more Māori and Pasifika students. She was proud that at Taki Rua and Toi Whakaari she won the trust and respect of Māori. Her significant contribution to theatre in Wellington was recognised in the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards in 1996.
In the 1950s Bailey’s father gave her the money to build a house, designed by the modernist architect Bill Toomath, in Robieson St near the top of Wellington’s Mount Victoria. From 1967 she had a private income from her parents’ business. Her friend, the anti-apartheid activist Trevor Richards, said she believed that while history was there to be shaped, life was to be enjoyed. ‘When I first met Rona she drove a classy little MGB … Her Roseneath home, with its sweeping views of Wellington Harbour, was to become a frequent venue, not only for anti-apartheid meetings, but also for good food and wine, for games of 500 … and for political debate.’ 4 She archived the records of a number of organisations and was active in the Trade Union History Project (now the Labour History Project), which was established in 1987 to foster trade union and working-class history.
Rona Bailey died in Wellington on 7 September 2005 at the age of 90, and was survived by her daughter. Her death certificate gave her occupation as ‘Activist’. For over 60 years she was a tireless worker for the cultural and political causes she supported. She stuck to her principles but was not dogmatic. Few other New Zealand communists had the influence and credibility that she enjoyed. She was much loved by her large circle of friends for her generosity, loyalty and honesty.