Roddy Cordon might well have given her second book about Pacific islands in the mid
sixties the sub-title of A Woman in a Man's World, for this was the world she entered as
the first Woman Education Officer appointed to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. This
volume covers 1965 to 1967 and offers fascinating vignettes of both her work and the difficulties
women encounter in taking part in island development. She must either have an excellent
memory or have kept an exhaustive diary to record such detail; but also usefully breaks her
descriptions of present-day island life with written or verbal accounts of historical events, and
with lots of pictures.
Her work - which she normally obviously enjoyed - involved both the formal education of
girls and the informal adult education of women and the well-being of their families, which
demanded frequent visits to "small islands in little boats" (not always enjoyable!). (The
equatorial inhabited atolls making up the now two countries of Kiribati and Tuvalu - the onetime
Colony - are still remote and scattered over two million square miles of the Pacific!)
A major difficulty, as in many countries, was the cultural distinction between feminine and
masculine roles, which had been emphasised for so long by the educational system (and of
course by the historical Order in Council reserving to men any posts in His Majesty's Civil
Service overseas). Mind you, she had been warned before she left London that many island
men ranked their wives somewhat below their canoes, houses and children.
To help change this, she found a useful tool in the Women's Committees which existed on
some islands. To develop health standards, these went round inspecting houses (in one
case even a District Officer's) and imposing a fine if the premises weren't up to scratch. The
fines of course had to be paid by the husbands which didn't improve marital relations! (One
of the few women Gilbertese community workers reported the custom in some islands that
"wives not adhering to husbands' strictures" will either "receive a stick or to some, even
death".) Mrs Cordon encouraged these committees so that at the end of two years, there were
nearly 100 such with wider remits receiving monthly help from Education headquarters.
This accent on adult women's education was essential as only since the fifties had girls
education really begun to develop. And island schools' quality was often poor and materials
Another difficulty was the pronounced religious divide on many islands. In one school,
only after her intercession was agreement reached between the Protestant head teacher and
the Catholic assistant teacher who had removed the Catholic children to be taught separately!
The Women's groups also helped in this field - it must have given Mrs Cordon pleasure to
receive from one Protestant Women's Club which had met with a Catholic Club a letter
which ended "and do you know, those Catholic women are just the same as Protestants!".
But what emerges from her writing is the warmth she shows towards all those she
describes. It is particularly delightful to find that most of her book is about the 1-Kiribati and
Tuvaluans themselves, their needs, their hopes. And the few critical remarks are so gently
phrased that they must be searched for.
As emphasised by the frontispiece, the book is also a memorial to Freda Gwilliam who did
so much to forward women's education in developing territories. It was she who appeared at
Mrs Cordon's interview and persuaded her to take on the Gilbert and Ellice instead of the
New Hebrides. Lucky for the islanders, lucky for the reader
In the second volume, covering her last five years work in the Gilbert and Ellice
Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu), Roddy Cordon continues her account
of an expatriate civil servant's day-to-day life and work there in the years prior to
independence. As in the first volume, whatever she was involved in she describes
in detail, and although much of the book is about her professional activities, she
covers many aspects of both her domestic life (from animals to Christmas dinners!)
on a very crowded coral atoll (recent figures list some 25,000 islanders living there),
and her obviously happy relationships with islanders and fellow workers.
Although she found herself allotted additional jobs at various times - acting
(logically) as Community Development Officer, and inspecting and invigilating at 86
island schools - her main work as the first Women's Interests Officer continued to
be to increase the knowledge and status of women in island culture so they could
take their part in the development of the country. To do this meant particularly
extending the network of women's clubs and associations to all islands, with
support services to help them.
She therefore made good use of inter-island transport, both sea and air, managing
to visit (albeit fleetingly) even the remoter islands, from Banaba to the Line and
Phoenix Groups, as she found personal meetings with the women essential if only to
help disperse the conservative attitudes of some islanders (even some women). Her
complementary initiatives - such as the regular broadcasts for women and later for
children, and (with some difficulty) the setting up of an islands library service -
backed up the personal contacts, information and suggestions on a wide range of
subjects made to the clubs.
Tradition was perhaps the main obstacle to the work but good beginnings were
made in changing attitudes. One radical example is that women were persuaded of
the need to improve hygiene at the sea latrines by cleaning around and under them.
Before she left, women were travelling unaccompanied by male relatives to take
part in conferences and training sessions at island centres and even going overseas
to link with such activities in Australia and elsewhere in the Pacific. Mrs Cordon's
two illustrated volumes are therefore a welcome and valuable record of how the
enthusiastic workers of one small section of a colonial administration opened new
horizons to women in the immediate years before independence.