First history of New Zealand women released

Group of women reading the newspaper at Te Poho-o-Rawiri Marae, Gisborne, 1939
Alexander Turnbull Library

Group of women reading the newspaper at Te Poho-o-Rawiri Marae, Gisborne, 1939

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We could be forgiven for indulging in a little smuggery. Gender equality? We've got that covered.

It has been 120 years since New Zealand women won the vote, the first in the world to get it. Our pay is not equal, exactly, but it is a whole lot more equal than women in the United States, Britain and Australia. Our women hold top jobs and our girls are encouraged to pursue any career they wish. We are doing well, right?

Joan Hamilton ran a tourist bus service at Lake Wakatipu in the 1960s.
Alexander Turnbull Library

Joan Hamilton ran a tourist bus service at Lake Wakatipu in the 1960s.

Yes and no. The status of women in New Zealand is mixed and change has been "layered" over time — a two steps forward, one step back sort of progression — says University of Otago historian Barbara Brookes, the author of A History of New Zealand Women, our first comprehensive female history.  

"Some women are doing very well and some women are doing very badly; we now have a more fragmented experience of being a woman in today's society," says Brookes, who spent 30 years working on the book, a picture-rich biography of the "adventurous, resilient, outward-looking" New Zealand woman. Within its broad sweep of history, the text pauses frequently to focus on everyday life, from early Maori women prior to 1814 (when the first Anglican mission was established in the Bay of Islands), to now, when women have more choices than ever before, but still bear the brunt of childcare and housekeeping.

"There are the university educated lawyers and doctors and then there are the high school students who give birth young and don't have much education and have limited access to the goods of this world."

Barbara Brookes, author of A History of New Zealand Women.
Courtesy of University of Otago

Barbara Brookes, author of A History of New Zealand Women.

Advances such as the Equal Pay Act of 1972 marked out new territory for women but a decade later we still had a "police culture that both belittled and excluded women".

For a glorious period in the early 2000s we achieved a girl-power political quartet, with a female prime minister, governor-general, attorney general and chief justice. Now we are producing confident world-leading female creatives: Eleanor Catton, Lorde, Parris Goebel. There is much to celebrate.

But Maori and Pacific Island women are not faring as well as Pakeha, in the main, and young women are growing up in an environment where the focus on their appearance is extreme and unrelenting.

Woman plays tennis circa 1910
Alexander Turnbull Library

Woman plays tennis circa 1910

"The accessibility of the image, the selfie world, does hold a lot of dangers in terms of appearance for women — objectification of women is now all around us. I think it's very complicated, actually," says Brookes of the female experience in 2016. "Part of the hope of second-wave feminism is that women would have choices, but now those choices are endless, and it's made it harder in some ways."

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However, compare the lives of contemporary women to our great great grandmothers and they are almost unrecognisable, and the change is overwhelmingly positive. "For the working man the expectation of work hasn't really changed, whereas what we do has changed tremendously."

As Brookes writes, the difference between generations can be stark. Her mother had five children and spent her days looking after family and home. Her social life revolved around the church and once married she never worked a paid job again. By contrast, Brookes has three university degrees, three children and has always worked — it has "shaped my life in such important ways I cannot conceive of a life without it".

Jane Maria Gray, daughter of Alexander Gray and Kotero Hinerangi, with her children, 1857.
Alexander Turnbull Library

Jane Maria Gray, daughter of Alexander Gray and Kotero Hinerangi, with her children, 1857.

Colonial women didn't own land — their husbands did. Maori women shared in stewardship of the land and held leadership roles within their communities, but they were sidelined as European culture became dominant. "Although ruled by a young Queen, the body politic in England was male, and this was the pattern to be transferred to New Zealand," writes Brookes.

Winning the vote in 1893 was a watershed moment, but women were not able to stand for parliament until 1919. When newly minted female voters wanted to view the action in the House of Representatives, they had to sit in the 'Ladies Gallery'. "A columnist in the popular pictorial weekly the Free Lance noted the amusement of the Maori women in attendance: one even laughed outright at a member's mispronunciation of a Maori name," writes Brookes. 

Such was their importance, there are two chapters on the inter-war years, when children roamed free from after-school until dinnertime and female aviators such as Jean Batten were international celebrities. Among the enlightening statistics (half of women aged 15 to 24 were employed by 1921) there are delightful anecdotes, such as the tale of Thelma McMillan, the first Miss New Zealand in 1926, whose Hollywood aspirations were dashed when her parents wouldn't let her do a screen test. Instead, she returned to work at Arthur Barnett's department store in Dunedin, where "crowds came to gawk at her", much to her shame.

Women army personnel in their hut in Miramar, Wellington, during World War II.
Alexander Turnbull Library

Women army personnel in their hut in Miramar, Wellington, during World War II.

More recent history was more difficult to write about, says Brookes, partly because she lived through it and partly because of the huge amount of information available to her. "As historians we have to paint a picture, we're not telling you everything that happened in the past," she explains. 

And so we see former Finance Minister Ruth Richardson cradling her baby in 1983, read about female sporting achievement in the 80s and 90s, and get insight into the struggle behind the acceptance of non-traditional families and same-sex marriage. It is a whistle-stop tour through decades of massive change. Scanning the pages, you come across significant events that have already faded from prominence.

"That's another reason why this history is important, because we do forget so quickly," says Brookes. "Prior to 1993 when there was a whole lot of celebration of a century since suffrage, most people didn't know who Kate Sheppard was. Then we put her on the $10 note. You have to keep reminding people."

Rona Armstrong at the family shop in New Plymouth, 1957.
Alexander Turnbull Library

Rona Armstrong at the family shop in New Plymouth, 1957.

 - Stuff

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