Former PSA staffer Noel O’Hare explains why he wrote Tooth & Veil, a history of school dental nurses and the day they stormed the corridors of power.
On 29 March 1974 more than 600 uniformed school dental nurses proceeded silently down Wellington’s Lambton Quay. It was, as one observer noted, “almost certainly the largest demonstration of women since the days of the suffragettes”.
They were on their way to Parliament to meet with Prime Minister Norman Kirk and demand a long overdue pay rise and restored relativity with public health nurses.
But it was about so much more than money. Since the School Dental Service was founded in 1921, they’d been treated as inferior beings, “slaves of the dental profession” as one nurse put it, and subjected to petty, military style discipline that was out of step with the times.
The PSA had come to their aid, spending more than $100,000 in today’s money to transport them from every corner of New Zealand to the capital. Delegates like Pam Horncy, Maggie Morgan and Annette King played a vital role in organising the march.
Blocked from entering Parliament’s main entrance, they swarmed through side doors. “A human tidal wave of red and white surged down the corridors in search of MPs,” wrote Tom Scott, then the Listener’s parliamentary reporter. A delegation met with Norman Kirk, State Services minister Bob Tizard and other officials. After nearly two hours of toing and froing, Kirk suddenly stood up. “I think we can fix this,” he said. “I’ll leave Bob here to tend to the detail.” According to Maggie Morgan, Tizard looked “really cheesed off”. But officials quickly hammered out a short five-clause agreement on the spot and the dental nurses had their pay rise and back pay.
Afterwards PSA President Jack Batt addressed the dental nurses. He later recorded in his diary: “I told them the result of the deputation - it was pandemonium. I have never seen a more excited group of people. It was exhilarating and very moving. Probably one of the great moments in PSA history.”
The dental nurses had achieved more than wage justice, they’d won respect as workers who needed to be listened to. They demanded changes to occupational health and safety. For decades they’d been exposed daily to toxic mercury vapour when preparing fillings. As a result of their activism all dental nurses were tested for mercury levels and clinics were decontaminated.
The march was a pivotal moment in the dental nurses’ history. It inspired many to become more active in the PSA and fight for pay equity and other women’s issues. Pam Horncy joined the union as an organiser, Maggie Morgan became chairperson of the PSA’s dental nurses’ group. Annette King stood for Parliament and became the Labour MP for Horowhenua in 1984.
It was while researching material for the PSA’s Centenary in 2013 that I came across the story of the dental nurses’ march. But much else had never been written about: the controversial start of the School Dental Service in 1921, the courageous pioneer nurses, daily life in clinic and hostel and the demise of the service as public services came under fire in 1980s. It was a story that needed to be told.
To go in the draw to win a copy of Tooth & Veil tell us which former dental nurse and PSA delegate went on to become a Labour MP firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about the book go to www.facebook.com/pg/noelohareauthor/posts/
PSA President Janet Quigley was a second year school dental nurse graduate in 1974.
“Seeing the results of that march on Parliament set me on my path in the union movement,” she recalls.
Janet says the military style training, curfews, and sexual harassment of trainee dental nurses which occurred then would never be tolerated now.
But they also had great fun figuring out how to get around the rules.
“We had inspectors falling out of trees when they were trying to check up on us.”
Janet recommends the book to anyone with an interest in social history and the union movement.
“It’s an entertaining read. When I look back I realise how far we’ve come as women.”
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