Kate Milligan Evans (née Edger, 6 January 1857 – 6 May 1935)

The Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust is named in recognition of Kate Milligan Edger, who in 1877 was the first woman to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in New Zealand and the second in the British Empire.  Notably, Kate Edger’s granddaughter Jill Smith served on the board of trustees for 17 years before retiring in 2022.

Kate Edger was a pioneer, a graduate, an educator, a wife, a mother, an activist, and an advocate for community causes.

She believed in the importance of women’s education in creating a better society.  She was a role model for and champion of the female suffrage movement, and she strongly advocated for women to use the vote to bring about change and improvement in the world.

To Kate, education was as much about improving one’s character and preparing to serve the community, as it was about educating the mind.  She believed it was the responsibility of those who had received an education to go on to use their skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world.

Kate was born in 1857 in England. Her family emigrated from England to New Zealand in 1862.

Edger and her sisters received much of their early education from their father the Rev. Samuel Edger who was a graduate of the University of London and an outspoken supporter of women’s equal rights in society.   Kate was academically gifted but as there was no formal secondary school education for girls in Auckland at the time, her father applied for her to attend the Auckland College and Grammar School where she was placed in the top class.  When she later applied for permission to sit for a university scholarship, she applied as K.Edger, omitting her gender, and based on her excellent grades, the application was successful. To study as the only woman in a class of young men must have required courage and perseverance; although she said in later years that her classmates treated her with courtesy, she was required to enter the class ‘with downcast eyes.’

She graduated on 11 July 1877 with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Latin.  Her achievement was widely celebrated in Auckland society and 1,000 people came to cheer as the Bishop awarded her with a camellia to symbolise her achievement and ‘unpretending excellence’.

Edger and her sister, Lilian, both went on to obtain Master’s degrees from Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury).

Edger’s first teaching position was at Christchurch Girls’ High School.  She then became the founding principal of Nelson College for Girls in 1883 aged only 26 years.  In addition to being the ‘Lady Principal’, she taught English grammar, composition and literature, physical science, Latin, mathematics, singing and geography.  She had a reputation for being a committed and compassionate teacher, who was as concerned about building the character of her students as she was about their academic achievements.

Photo credit: Miss Kate Edger, Teacher. Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 31040

In 1890, Kate married William Evans, a Congregationalist Minister.  She resigned her position at Nelson College for Girls when she became pregnant with the first of their three sons.  During her time there, she had established high standards of education, encouraged young women to believe in the value of their minds, and created an institution the Nelson community could be proud of.

Marriage and motherhood did not bring an end to Kate’s career. Alongside her role as a wife and mother, she was immersed in church and community work, often conducting sermons in her husband’s church.  She became involved with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) which was leading the campaign for women’s suffrage.  Kate spoke out in support of women gaining the vote, and she was used as an example by the campaign to show how women could make positive contributions to society.  After the vote had been won in 1893, Kate continued to speak out on the power of female political engagement and exhorted women to use their votes to help improve society.  The WCTU became a major part of Kate’s life and she served as an assistant Corresponding Secretary, White Ribbon Associate Editor, Recording Secretary, National Superintendent of Scientific Temperance Teaching, and National Superintendent for Peace and Arbitration.  She was also a founding member of Wellington’s Society for the Protection of Women and Children, a Dominion Secretary of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, and a member of the National Council of Women.

In 1893, the family moved to Wellington.  Kate and William became heavily involved in social work in the Wellington community, seeking ways to address issues such as unemployment, poverty and prison reform.  Through her work with the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, Kate campaigned to improve conditions for female domestic servants and lobbied the government to introduce female police officers.  As William’s work was unpaid, Kate became the main breadwinner for the family, running a small private school for girls, named Dehra Doon, from the family’s residence in Mt Victoria. Her energy and passion for her work made her a well-known and admired figure in Wellington. She was granted the honour of heading the procession of women graduates at the Golden Jubilee of Canterbury College in 1923 and was awarded the King’s Service Medal in 1935.  She died shortly after.

Kate’s life epitimised the values she tried to instil in the young women she taught.  Intellectual achievements were important, but so were moral character, humility and public service.

Her legacy lies in the example she set for several generations of young women; that their minds were important to making a difference to the world and that female participation in public life was critical to a civilized society.  Her name lives on through two important educational institutions; the Kate Edger Information Commons at the University of Auckland, and through this Trust.