Just over 20 years ago a photograph was taken at a conference that has haunted those involved ever since. The photograph of the four women who spoke at the conference was one of dozens of photographs that were taken that day but this photograph has assumed a significance that is out of all proportion to the reality of how and why it came to be taken. It has come to be seen as evidence of a feminist conspiracy, and as part of a victory celebration organised by a group of feminists whose anti-doctor stance and activities ruined the reputation of a hospital and almost succeeded in bringing down the medical establishment in New Zealand. The truth is of course far more prosaic and far less exciting.
The conference was organised by the Auckland Women’s Health Council to mark the first anniversary of the release of the Cartwright Report and it took place on Saturday 5 August 1989 at the Freeman’s Bay Community Centre. Going under the title “A Day of Reckoning: the Cartwright Report - one year on,” the conference aimed to assess how much progress had been made on implementing the recommendations contained in the Report.
The conference was opened by Dame Cath Tizard, then mayor of Auckland. The speakers were Clare Matheson, Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle.
Dame Silvia Cartwright had also been invited to attend as the newly formed Auckland Women’s Health Council wished to thank her and convey to her what her report meant to members of the Council. While the importance of the judge’s work had already been acknowledged and rewarded at a government level when she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier that year, members of the AWHC and many other women who had been deeply affected by what had been revealed during the Inquiry simply wanted to acknowledge the judge at this event.
The conference felt more like a working bee than a victory celebration to those involved in organising it. The afternoon was spent in workshops discussing the issues that arose out of the Inquiry and were of importance to consumers. Papers had been prepared for the workshops and recommendations from the workshops were presented at the Plenary Session held at the end of the day.
There were many photographs taken throughout day. Clare Matheson, one of the four women in the now famous photograph, (the other three being Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle and Dame Silvia Cartwright) describes how this particular photograph came to be taken and her part in it:
“Silvia Cartwright did not want to be drawn in and refused to be part of it. It was at my behest that she finally agreed to do so. It is a request that I have regretted ever since. So much hay has been made of what was a simple act of generosity on Dame Silvia’s part.”
The truth about the photograph is that a gracious woman reluctantly agreed to have her photo taken during the conference with the three women involved in the original Metro article. The photo, taken a year after the release of the Report and two years after the government set up the Inquiry, has subsequently been interpreted as meaning something it was not.