Variety, uniqueness and eccentricity, Bronwyn Labrum

Women in History 2
Barbara Brookes, Charlotte Macdonald, and Margaret Tennant (eds),
Bridget Williams Books, $34.95


Mid-way through women’s suffrage centenary year, the distinctly double‑edged nature of the whole business is becoming increasingly apparent. On the one hand women and women’s activities have never been so visible. On the other hand, the predominant view of women that is projected, especially from a historical perspective, leaves much to be desired. For many, women’s history in New Zealand still begins and ends with the campaign for the vote. Kate Sheppard – and, we are not allowed to forget, the wonderful progressive men who supported her – has been elevated to almost mythological status, while the women who struggled alongside her remain in the background. Moreover, the triumphant story of the winning of the vote reinforces a progressive view of women’s past – look how backward it was then and how far we’ve come now – as if women of today have largely got it made.

Yet there has been a considerable growth of research into our female past in recent years and the publication of Women in History 2 bears testimony to this. Its predecessor, Women in History: Essays on European Women in New Zealand (1986), was a landmark and made available academic work in women’s history to a wider audience. This volume reveals just how much women’s history has developed in the intervening period. It ranges over a longer time span with more emphasis on the recent past, looks at both Maori and Pakeha women, and raises fascinating new areas of inquiry, much of it from post-graduate students’ work.

Taken together the eleven essays provide a more complex set of views to set alongside the dominant image; they are richly detailed, fascinating and sometimes unsettling snapshots of current scholarship. Topics include the experiences of rural and urban women, of those at home and in the paid workforce, of the educated and apparently successful, and of ‘those on the margins of society’. It is as indispensable as the first collection, both for general interest and for teaching purposes. Some of the essays are stronger than others, although all have important insights to contribute. Most of the authors deal with activities experienced by large numbers of women and are a valuable corrective to the view that women’s history is all about individual, exceptional women, or ‘women firsts’. New Zealand women do emerge here as individuals, but in all their variety, uniqueness and eccentricity, and not just as passive victims of male power. Women are shown both in solidarity and in conflict with each other.

A number of the essays stand cherished myths on their head. Jean-Marie O’Donnell shows that although the introduction of electrical appliances revolutionised work within the home, women were not liberated from domestic drudgery. Instead it coincided with a renewed emphasis on women in the home and ‘housework became more time-consuming as it came to include a wider range of tasks’ (p.183).

Manpower of women in the Second World War, according to Deborah Montgomerie, ‘had more to do with butter than guns’. (p. 188). While there were more women in the workforce, the pattern of their employment did not demonstrate a break with the past and potential diversification of the female workforce was actually inhibited by the regulations.

The essays about women in institutions by Margaret Tennant, Barbara Brookes and Bronwyn Dalley provide cautionary tales in the light of current efforts to de-institutionalise residents and champion community care. In the case of the Seacliff asylum, Brookes argues that women used the institution when domestic pressures became intolerable, either committing unmanageable spouses or having themselves committed. The other two also show how such places serve a variety of functions; the women who were placed there were not necessarily cowed and browbeaten, but often used the system for their own ends.

Anne Else’s chapter on adoption should be required reading for all those who delight in solo parent bashing.

As well as revealing the depth of research into women’s history, this volume illustrates the editors’ claim that New Zealand women’s history is becoming more sophisticated and less celebratory. The strongest theme of the collection is the variety of women’s experiences in the past and that differences between women have often been as important as any similarities in their experiences. As other reviewers have pointed out there is often a sense (partly arising from the nature of the essay format) of women in the same territory over a similar time – living in completely separate worlds such as the dressmakers discussed by Jane Malthus and the University of Otago graduates analysed by Dorothy Page. Within the same arena of experience, as for example, the occupational grouping of farm women examined by Sally Parker, the varied experiences women had and their different scope for exercising power or control over their lives is carefully delineated. Progress for some could occur at the same time as others struggled to hold the line.

The chapter which brings this out most sharply is the path-breaking discussion by Brookes and Tennant, ‘Maori and Pakeha Women: Many Histories, Divergent Pasts?’. The book is worth buying for this essay alone. It argues that the ‘time has come to look more systematically at the two histories of women in New Zealand, in order to tease out dimensions to the experiences of both’. (p.30). Clearly written to and by Pakeha, it does not gloss over the issues and difficulties raised by this task, not least the fact that Pakeha historians have felt it ‘improper’ to write about Maori, in response to Maori challenges. However Brookes and Tennant make the crucial point that:

maintaining a respectful distance has often meant perpetuating the invisibility of Maori women in (their) writing and teaching. It has often been easier, less painful, to homogenise women’s experience, or to insert the hurried ‘of course things were different for Maori women’, and move on. (p.29)


Observing the distinction between tribal history and histories of cultural interaction, they rightly highlight the absence of attention to racial attitudes in the colonising process and Maori demands for autonomy and control. They propose an exciting agenda for future research, by suggesting that existing themes in Pakeha women’s history such as feminist campaigns and welfare, could be looked at again from the point of view of Maori women. In a series of interesting and illuminating episodes, they examine both contact and divergence between the two cultures, emphasising that, as with Pakeha women, Maori women were not victims only. Judith Binney’s chapter on Ringatu women reinforces this.

While Brookes and Tennant talk about the need to investigate ‘racial interaction’ and ‘racial discourse’, their definition of these concepts is implicit, rather than explicit. As sociologists delight in telling historians, the term ‘race’ is itself a slippery social construct. Furthermore, the chapter unintentionally creates the impression that ‘race’ is something that only matters when you add Maori women in – just as women’s history more generally had its starting point in grafting on research about women to existing accounts of the past. The limitations of the ‘add women and stir’ approach, especially how it can leave existing ways of looking at history untouched, have long been apparent. The authors do raise the possibility that, for example, the representations of Maori women and their meanings in turn impacted on Pakeha women. I hope that future work will deal with ‘whiteness’ as a racial category, as much as ‘colour’.

The editors want Women in History 2 to contribute to an interpretive framework for a much-needed general overview of women’s history in New Zealand. Their introduction, while it performs the valuable function of taking stock of where we are at, could have made a more self-conscious attempt to do just that. It talks about the forms of women’s history which have dominated (biography/ autobiography), rather than attempting to construct a feminist historiography which analyses what has been researched and why, and how the field has developed. The essays represent a range of ways of doing women’s history, with some discussing gender as much as women, and it would have been interesting to have this issue raised more directly.

Despite these caveats, which demonstrate the stimulating nature of the book as much as any possible shortcomings, the collection should find a space on the bookshelves of everyone who wants access to a more nuanced understanding of our female past.


Bronwyn Labrum’s book Women’s History: A Guide to Researching and Writing Women’s History in New Zealand is to be published soon.



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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review
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