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In the 1860s, Rose Hall wrote to her sister-in-law from Christchurch, comparing her life in all its loneliness ‘to that of a cat with its back constantly stroked backwards’. In 1893, Meri Te Tai Mangakahia of Te Rarawa argued for the right to be able to stand for Maori parliament as a Maori landowner. In the 1950s Women’s Weekly was on the rise, and its readers ‘were expected to know the bargain that marriage entailed for most families: men worked to become homeowners and married women maintained the domestic side of life’. By 1977, Therese O’Connell had left home and gone off to university, where she learned that male friends earned more over one summer break than she had in her four previous years of part-time jobs (she went on to found the Women’s Liberation Front).
Today, as Barbara Brookes observes in her vast and engaging A History of New Zealand Women, ‘Few people now imagine their daughters will be depending on a man for their financial well-being’. Women are in the corridors of power and enjoy public profiles in a range of disciplines. This dramatic change in circumstances for half the population deserves attention.
Exploring the overlooked and underreported role of women in nation-building, Brookes traces the move from a largely similar set of experiences in domestic roles through to the complex multiplicity of women’s lives today. In the rich illustrative material, we see women’s vastly different current circumstances encapsulated in a few pages: Chelsea Winter and Nadia Lim on the cover of cookbooks; a few pages later women are packing mallowpuffs at a factory, another is living in a caravan post-quake. Some women are in the corridors of power, but others continue to experience poverty and pay inequity.
Brookes takes us behind the scenes of the dominant narratives, through the spheres of health, education, franchise, representation, culture, sports, property rights – all illuminated through the lives of individuals.
It is the vast cast of women from particular times and places – the noises of the day as it were – which gives texture: small, intimate reflections of larger movements provide an accumulative sense of history. The big events loom in the background – colonisation, the Land Wars, WWI, the Depression – and we understand that women’s rights have not enjoyed a simple linear progression. It didn’t just take time but required shifting social and political climates to intersect with the efforts of individuals.
Brookes carefully examines Maori and Pakeha experiences – the vicissitudes of life provide different opportunities and hindrances for women from these backgrounds. New settlement and new land opens up new roles and expectations. Mary Taylor found freedom from the rigid English social structures upon moving to New Zealand in 1845: ‘She taught, she bought land, built a house and dealt in cattle’. Yet colonisation and its patriarchal family structures were disruptive for Maori – particularly in terms of land ownership for women. Pakeha women’s lives were dominated by the household, yet their education and ‘skills in literacy and numeracy would enhance opportunities in the changing world’, while Maori women were ‘participating in warfare, acting as eloquent advocates in court, and exercising unquestioned rights with regard to property’.
Handsomely produced, A History of New Zealand Women includes wonderful illustrative material that provides insight at a glance. The striking portrait of Heni Te Kiri Karamu, a warrior woman who famously risked her own life to give water to the enemy stares out from the page resplendent, with huia feathers in her hair. The examples of weaving, clothing, artworks, photos and advertisements highlight the complexity of the women’s sphere, including a confused ad for ‘freedom lover’ pantyhose – part liberation (women no longer required garter belts), part leggy glamour shot.
This layering of stories and experiences leads the reader to where New Zealand women are today. ‘The aspirations of the feminists of the 1890s appeared to be fulfilled when, in December 1993, almost precisely a century after women’s suffrage, Helen Clark became the first woman to lead a major political party’. We have a deeper understanding of this progression thanks to A History of New Zealand Women and a reminder that many young women, benefiting from the fruits of their ancestors’ efforts, still need to advocate.
A History of New Zealand Women
by Barbara Brookes
Published by Bridget Williams Books