ECE Diamonds

Helen May – documenting the herstories of childcare and early years education

b. 1947
Life member 1990

From her early career as a school teacher and childcare worker, Helen May became both an activist and leading academic authority on the politics, feminist advocacy and recognition of childcare in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Like so many of our ECE diamonds, Helen May’s journey into childcare advocacy started as a working mother trying to find childcare in the 1970s so she could return to her job as a primary school teacher:  “I naively thought that at the end of maternity leave, Julian (my first child), could go to a childcare centre. Must have been all the feminist literature I was reading! However, I knew no one who had placed a baby in childcare and there were no centres for babies in Wellington. I was offered a place at the St Barnabas Baby Home but knew there had to be more to infancy than a row of cots, an empty carpet square and a nurse in a uniform, who fed one baby at a time while the others waited and wept.”

Instead Helen enrolled to study at Victoria University, became involved with the university creche as both parent and worker, absorbing the politics and pedagogy of early childhood care and education from others in the early childhood world.

In 1979, Helen attended her first conference of the NZ Association of Childcare Centres (now Te Rito Maioha) and met Sonja Davies, who arrived with plans to form an industrial union for childcare workers. In 1980, Helen was elected to the executive – it was to be a key part of her life for the next few years. Over the next 12 years, she was also involved in the new establishment of the Early Childhood Workers Union, wrote a master’s thesis on the history and politics of childcare, and was involved in the development of the new ECE curriculum Te Whāriki.

As an academic Helen extensively researched and wrote about the history and policy of childcare, including four books for the Association. During the early 1990s, she sorted the Association’s historical documents into a valuable archive.

A participant in the struggles for early childhood education, and known for her feminist advocacy, Helen’s political activism has played a role in progressing early childhood policy and politics. Helen highlighted the 1980s as particularly exciting years. “These were the best of days, but they were also challenging days and the Association was the umbrella for it all.”

This article is an abridged version from Te Rito Maioha’s book on its life members and their work. You can read Helen's full story and those of other ECE champions:

Life Stories on the Frontline: Growing a childcare movement in Aotearoa
Ngā kohinga kōrero a te aumangea: Kia mana te ara kōhungahunga ki Aotearoa