Twenty-five women spanning two generations, Rosemary du Plessis

Minding Children: Managing Men: Conflict and Compromise in the Lives of Postwar Pakeha Women
Helen May,
Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1992, $34.95

Did Pakeha women after the Second World War happily retreat into their home – tying on their aprons, rearing their children, supporting their men and baking their scones in houses on quarter-acre sections? According to Helen May, they often had a contradictory and ambivalent response to suburban domesticity. Many resented restrictions on their independence and personal fulfillment. At the same time they tried to place the interests of their children and their husbands before their own. Some experienced physical and mental abuse. Like women today, some juggled paid work and mothering. Others, critical of the lack of support available for women giving birth and bringing up children, worked in organisations like Parents Centre, the Housewives Association and Play Centre – collective responses to the challenges they faced as mothers.

But this book does not just question some of the myths about these women. It also looks at the experiences of Pakeha women rearing children in the 1970s and focuses on continuities and discontinuities between their lives and those of mothers in the 1950s.

The author’s desire to understand her own life better has pushed her to look at the histories of twenty-five other women spanning two generations. The book sets their lives in the context of shifting understandings of what it has meant to be a mother in the years since the Second World War. Interviews are combined with extracts from the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, the New Zealand Listener and various other sources. The result is an amalgam of interview material and photographs, quotations from advice columns, feature articles, letters to the editor, headlines, advertisements and some attempts to generalize about the connections between these different pieces of text.

The book’s strengths are also its weaknesses. The personal style draws the reader into the text. We see photos of Helen, her mother, her grandmother, great-grandmother and her children; we read about her own biography. Given Helen’s location as a Pakeha woman in her forties, the focus is understandably on Pakeha heterosexual women, but the experience of other groups remains invisible. Their stories are still to be written.

While this book looks at the experience of two generations of Pakeha women, it does so through the prism of issues confronting younger people now. It will be interesting to see how women who reared children in the 1950s respond to Helen May’s analysis of their lives. Books like this also prompt speculation about how women of our daughters’ generation might interpret the lives of those of us who brought up children in the 1970s against the background of contemporary feminism. And how will Helen May and I respond when our lives are analysed through the eyes of this new generation?


Rosemary Du Plessis teaches Sociology and Feminist Studies at the University of Canterbury.


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