Making women’s past accessible, Barbara Brookes

Standing in the Sunshine: A history of New Zealand Women Since They Won the Vote
Sandra Coney,
Penguin Books, $59.95

Women’s history, once a marginal pursuit and still not entirely integrated into the academy, is popular. Each year, and particularly in 1993, books come out recording aspects of women’s experience. The methodology and execution of these publications varies greatly and raises the question of how are we to assess “quality” in history? Academics (and I am one) have one set of standards, to do with analysis and interpretation, often regarded as stuffy and esoteric by the general public and unmarketable by publishers.

We like to learn of a new perspective or understanding brought to bear on what we might already know. In this context, knowledge is the product of ongoing debates. More general audiences might place more emphasis on visual appeal and a lively written style. They, like professional historians, care about accuracy, since no one wants to be misled.

Standing in the Sunshine will have a large market. I have already given one copy as a gift and intend to give it to more people. Its various sponsors should be well pleased. The book was produced with a tight deadline and the fact that it was launched in the year it seeks to celebrate is a testimony to the dedication of all those who assisted in its production and to Sandra Coney and Liz Greenslade’s foresight. It is a visual and verbal feast: morsels of information are spread before us to sample at leisure. They are delectable (the confections named hats) or sometimes unpalatable (The Dunedin Women’s Franchise League’s call for more frequent lashing of violent men) but they are always interesting.

For the great majority of people who have not been immersed in the study of women’s history, Standing in the Sunshine provides a ready entrance point into aspects of women’s past. The entry is made even more alluring by the superb photographs and the stunning visual impact of the “openings”, the two-page spreads within which most topics are contained. The photographs underline the text as in the moving image of a dead mother and child on p60 accompanying the discussion of pain relief in labour, or they point to analyses beyond the discussion presented. The image of Riripieti Horne of Ngati Pikiao on p265 I found particularly arresting since it seems to suggest such a striking amalgam of a particular Victorian and a Maori aesthetic. One wants to get behind the image to explore who was responsible for the pose. Was it a photographer’s fantasy or a self-representation that claimed status in both worlds?

This question of two worlds is the one which I find most problematic about the book and it was probably the one which gave the editor the most difficulty. Women’s history is recorded as a story of progress toward standing in the sunshine but the path of progress, as the book presents it, is very different for Maori and Pakeha women. For Maori, reassertion of cultural identity and immersion in the whanau are a goal to be reached. For Pakeha, disentanglement from family and kin obligations appear to be the way forward. This is only an impression since no sustained analysis of either group is developed, but it is probably a misleading impression of the experience of both. And how do we write about the “both” in one individual that intermarriage has made so common?

One can dip into Standing in the Sunshine like reading a magazine, indeed I imagine most people will; few will sit down and read the book from cover to cover. Its sheer size and the number of words, tightly packed in small print, inhibit sustained reading. Rather the entries inspire us by recording the feats of daring women such as endurance swimmer Katerina Nehua, they remind us of the variety of women’s experience, or they bring to light the forgotten, such as housemaid’s knee or the 1920s beauty contests. The brevity of each opening invites browsing.

In her introduction, Sandra Coney disclaims total coverage of women’s past. Topics covered in depth elsewhere have been omitted but unfortunately she does not tell us what these are. The lack of bibliography again leaves us guessing. The book aims, through its 14 sections, to build up a “comprehensive picture of New Zealand women” (p10). It is, therefore, worth asking how the overall picture is built up, what has captured the editor’s interest and what has been left out?

The book emphasises women in action – in politics, gaining the suffrage, reproducing, agitating, educating, organising, “kicking up their heels”, exercising and working. Yet there are particular types of activity which are absent: church groups and various voluntary organisations into which women poured energies and through which they received sustenance. This is not a cavil about particular groups being left out, rather, it is a point about the flavour of women’s lives and a sense of community they created by participating in, for example, women’s church fellowships and guilds, kindergarten mothers’ clubs, school committees, guides and brownies, and hospital visitors associations.

Denise Riley, in Am I that Name? has written provocatively about the identification of “women” with “the social” in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain and her analysis has relevance for New Zealand. Women’s church and community groups did vast amounts of voluntary work which scaled over the cracks in the social system. These fissures are most apparent today as women’s ability and inclination to provide unpaid labour have diminished. This service dimension, which created new public spaces between the domestic world and the world of politics and paid employment, is associated mostly with Maori women in Standing in the Sunshine, although rural women’s organisations feature in the “Women on the Land” section. The National Council of Women may be less sprightly than marching girls and more mundane than the Sunlight League, but I guarantee that the NCW’s agitating, educating and organising in the twentieth century vastly exceeded that of the other groups. For balance, Women Together, edited by Anne Else, is a vital companion piece.

The attractiveness of the “openings” format is Standing in the Sunshine‘s success and its major limitation. The topics chosen both reveal and conceal. A page is devoted to the sensation of the arrival of harem skirts in Wellington’s DIC in 1911 yet the devoted hours of home sewing mothers did for their families goes unmentioned. Sensation grabs audience attention but what in this instance does it tell us about women’s history? I suggest it tells us something about gender and consumption: that department stores were vying for customers, that they wished to attract women by suggesting they were in the vanguard of fashion, and that women’s purchasing power was integral to their economic survival. The tale of the harem skirt is less about a particular garment and its practicality or otherwise (and I doubt that the Maori woman pictured wearing tied trousers was a slave to harem pants) than about the culture of consumption and women’s role within it.

I am making a plea for history as more than a surface recording of events, and at times the pieces in Standing in the Sunshine push deeper. The danger of presenting women’s history in such a compartmentalised way, however, is that it fails to take on larger questions about the way gender is a crucial organising feature of our past. Sandra Coney’s discrimination between the “lighter and more personal aspects of women’s lives” and “weightier topics” (p11) begs the question of why such a conception of the historically worthy should exist. It is this notion that allowed men’s history to be presented as universal in the past and which feminist historians have challenged. We need to know more about the way specific areas of life become feminised and masculinised and, in particular, to understand why it has been more difficult to encourage men to labour in the domestic sphere than to accommodate women in the public world.

It is a great pleasure to see how many of the pieces of research done by honours and postgraduate students of women’s history appear in the footnotes of this book and a number of the entries bear the stamp of such in-depth research. It makes me feel that our labours in the academy – not usually so accessible – are worthwhile. While it is gratifying that the book makes research work available to a wider audience, it is disappointing that the names of individual authors are not attached to the text of the items they wrote but obscured in small print at the beginning. If women’s history is about making women visible, then surely those writing it might have been more clearly acknowledged.

All the contributors should be thanked for the high standard of accuracy of their work. One error, however, (which would disappoint Sandra Coney’s father) was pointed out to me by a male stage one student. There was no Springbok tour of New Zealand in 1962 and the All Blacks did not tour South Africa in 1965 as appears to be suggested on p132 (South Africa toured here). A history of women may well leave men out, but it shouldn’t make mistakes about their national past-time.

These are minor criticisms. Sandra Coney has succeeded brilliantly in making aspects of women’s past accessible and should receive all due credit. As a journalist, she knows the market. She has developed a love of archives, she has done the bulk of the research and writing for the book, and she has a real eye for telling photographs. Her social history skills were honed in Everygirl, her history of the Auckland YWCA, which is a wonderful example of how an imaginative approach may be taken to the history of an organisation. Standing in the Sunshine is equally imaginative and it offers an approach to the history of women which combines information and visual pleasure for an amazingly low price.

 

Barbara Brookes is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Otago.

 

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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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