Sites of Gender: Women, men and modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890-1939
ed Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper, and Robin Law
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
More than half the women of south Dunedin – over twice the proportion for New Zealand as a whole – signed the last great suffrage petition in 1893. One of the many interesting things this book does is to look as closely as possible at why they so strongly supported votes for women. As the editors’ comprehensive introductory chapter explains, gender is something we continually remake:
Our interest here is in exploring the ways in which the practices and meanings of gender relations, and the performance of gender identities, were played out in a variety of social sites in one urban setting.
Those “sites” include “work, education, consumption, leisure, poverty, mobility, transport, health, religion and (more briefly) marriage … key arenas of social life in which gender was enacted, and which both shaped and were shaped by gender.” The “setting” is the area of Dunedin loosely known as “the Flat” – Caversham, South Dunedin, Kensington, St Clair, St Kilda, and Kew/Corstorphine. Focusing so closely on one area (thanks initially to the work, going back 25 years, of Erik Olssen’s Caversham Project) makes for an unusually “fine-grained analysis”. This has:
the potential to illuminate the operation of gender in the past and to reveal the intense labour necessary to sustain “natural” differences between the sexes …. Everything from behaviour in the bedroom and the pew, to domestic technologies such as telephones and washing machines, public trams and private motor cars, movie theatres and lipstick, contributed to a reworking of gender relations, the re-coding of objects in a gendered system of meaning and the emergence of different ways of being masculine and feminine. As these changed, so did the patterns and textures of people’s lives.
Some chapters do richly fulfil that potential. Olssen’s own chapter on work elegantly sets out the case for “a profound shift … within the working-class household economy”: as average family size fell and improvements such as piped clean water, flush toilets and electricity spread, “it became worth more to the family to send their daughters to work than to keep them at home”.
Yet the growing ranks of female workers also made male workers anxious, so that “one of the main concerns of the new Labour Party, formed in 1916, was to re-establish male security in paid employment … not only did women flock into the un-unionised white-collar sector, but hardly any women joined the local branches of the Labour Party.” Today women are the strongest supporters of the first Labour government headed by a woman, and the defectors appear to be mainly Pakeha blue-collar men.
Annabel Cooper and Marian Horan’s chapter on poverty has the advantage of being able to draw on the Otago Benevolent Institution’s “outdoor relief” casebooks, with their vivid snapshots of “the poor”. Then as now, sole mothers with younger children predominated, along with the sick and disabled; and one of the major problems facing them was “the strength of the belief that New Zealand did not have a ‘poverty problem’”. Cooper and Horan also chart the transition from men appearing solely as breadwinners, detachable in every other respect from their families, to “the growth of an increasingly domesticated and ‘settled’ concept of husband and father”.
This chapter is distinguished by the quality of the writing, which manages to be both impeccably scholarly and immensely readable and engaging. Other contributors, including the late Robin Law, write well too. Law argues convincingly that while bicycles and trams at first benefited both women and men, and the public transport system had the effect of “providing a level of safety and respectability for women on their own”, they also “began to destroy the viability of the local ‘working economy’ ”. The rise of the private car speeded up this process; it brought more freedom and mobility for some, but less for others, and the driver’s seat was largely reserved for men.
I found some other chapters less successful. John Stenhouse takes up too many of his 34 pages with what seems an out-of-place historiographical argument about the long neglect of and hostility toward religion and its adherents by secularist, “left-leaning university-based historians”, led astray first by English Marxist E P Thompson, then by “second-wave feminist antipathy toward Christian patriarchy”. But his analysis of religion and gender in southern Dunedin, particularly in relation to the development of Christian masculinity, is complex and insightful.
In some cases, the writing itself repeatedly gets in the reader’s way. The danger of close-up accounts is that they can turn into repetitive catalogues, and in places the chapter on clothing does this. Far worse, some authors suffer from cloth ears, producing sentences such as:
Rachel Grimmett’s diary suggests that differences between men and women lay less in their ability to be spatially mobile and rather more in the mix of movement stimuli and the collective nature of the activity sites visited by each.
Reading this is like wading through cold porridge. J K Galbraith insisted there were no propositions in economics that could not be stated in clear, plain language. The same is true of history. But while the editors have not always been stern enough, they and the publishers should be congratulated for an impeccably produced book, almost entirely free of typos.
As the title suggests, Sites of Gender is clearly aimed mainly at a specialist rather than a general audience. It adds up to a significant contribution to what is now a substantial body of work focused on gender history in this country. What is still urgently needed is New Zealand history for the general reader that recognises the indispensable value of such work, and makes full use of it.
Anne Else is the Wellington author of a history of adoption, who has edited a history of women’s organisations in New Zealand and published essays on aspects of gender history ranging from doileys to Janet and John.