‘Womanly skills and small-scale economies’ – old assumptions and fresh perspectives, Margot Roth

Margot Roth reviews a major suffrage year publication, and briefly comments on the difficulties of book reviewing in New Zealand.


Women Together: A History of Women’s Organisations in New Zealand ‑ Nga Ropu Wahine o te Motu
Anne Else (ed),
Daphne Brasell Associates Press/ Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, $59.95

In a small, inter-related country, the difficulties of the reviewer’s task tend to be heightened. Familiarity breeds expectations which diminish the scholarly detachment ideally possible in larger populations. A suffrage year volume meticulously describing and analysing the rise and fall of women’s organisations during the last 150 years creates another dilemma. These 132 short histories of a wide variety of groups (with references to upwards of 200 more) have a very personal impact, putting in context one’s own activities or those of past and present friends and relatives, often adjusting some received wisdom along the way. Again, distancing the critical self from the text is not a completely realistic goal.

I could be seen here as the epitome of your New Zealand reviewer: some of the contributors to Women Together are friends; I have commented on the writing of a few in various publications before; several of the organisations are known to me, either because I was a member at some stage or was connected to somebody else who belonged. Also, since transparency is all, I am the author of the piece on the Women’s Studies Association (NZ).

However, this does give me personal experience of the admirable efficiency of editor Anne Else and her team. Such interaction with over 120 authors has produced a scholarly work that is easy and entertaining to read, and the high quality of the production enhances the text. The cover has a wonderful collage of a photograph of a 1936 Country Women’s Institute conference – the illustrations are a fascinating historical treat in themselves. I kept returning to the section on sport to admire various teams and their uniforms – like the Aotea Soccer Team of 1921, whose members were workers in a Wellington shirt factory and considered to be ‘pioneers in ladies’ football’. And in the education section, I positively melted over a 1937 poster advertising the children’s nursery at the Wellington Railway Station, which reassuringly offered Expert Care of Mother’s Treasure, with Bright Playrooms Full of Playthings, at a maximum charge of two shillings per day.

There are thirteen sections altogether. The remaining eleven deal with Maori women’s organisations (a section that ‘takes precedence’ says the editor), politics, welfare, health, religion, employment, service, arts and crafts, rural women, imagination and ethnicity, and lesbian women’s groups. Else explains: ‘They were chosen on the basis of prominence or size; … location, representing as wide a geographical coverage as possible … and chronology, so as to sketch both change and continuity over time.’

This thoughtful, detailed selection has worked well as a record of the way in which different groups of women responded in different times and places to particular circumstances – in other words, it provides fresh perspectives on our development as a nation. Women’s activities have often been patronised, trivialised, mocked and misrepresented so that they have vanished from serious sight, while Maori women’s enterprises have been twice buried – by both gender and ethnicity.

By themselves, the comparatively short reports of the organisations would not provide a totally coherent narrative. However, they are complemented by essays introducing each section which give us a context and an overview.

Many women’s organisations – political, benevolent, recreational – reflect the finding that, ‘What women are able to do with their lives depends to a large extent on what other women are able to do for them,’ a comment from Geraldine McDonald’s perceptive essay on early childhood education.

In her equally accomplished analysis of welfare, Margaret Tennant says: ‘The idea that women should care for others without recompense, and that such caring is somehow more worthy than work done for payment, has never died.’ Her essay sharply reminds us that today’s economic policies are recreating yesterday’s misery. She tells us about the Onehunga Ladies’ Benevolent Society, operating since 1863, which’ . . . has experienced a recent resurgence of demands … its mainly elderly members continue to provide food, clothing and womanly ministrations to the “deserving” . . . In the 1990s as in the 1980s, a growing need for updated versions of benevolence is becoming evident, and women, society’s unpaid carers, are again at their core.’

The traditional notion of unpaid women as a form of moral and social disinfectant has apparently outlasted the early suffragists’ claim for voting equality on the grounds of natural justice; the notion reinforced the focus on the accepted difference between male and female which ‘seemed to be ascendant in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when organisations … made it the basis of their claim for an enlarged sphere and voice for women’, according to Else. In fact, as Rosemarie Smith points out:’… the emphasis on the home as the natural sphere for all women retarded women’s participation in other areas . . . home science successfully diverted talented women scientists.’

However, there is an important distinction here. Maori and other non-Pakeha women, ‘while they may use the same organisational structures … resist being neatly fitted into interpretive frameworks which were not designed to accommodate them’ (Else). Maori women’s concerns were and are primarily with the alienation of Maori land and the preservation of their language and culture. Else explains:’… their sameness to or difference from men does not seem to have been at issue; Maori/Pakeha, and tribal affiliations, were the main “differences” which shaped their activities.’

Like Maori, other ethnic minorities have also suffered from discrimination, but information about separate women’s groups is scrappy, as migration has largely been documented as a male experience. Since the 1950s, though, Pacific Island groups in particular have gained much support, to some degree because ‘women have taken charge of needed services that other agencies have failed to provide . . . Initial models for some … groups were provided by Maori women’s initiatives’ (Jacqueline Leckie). One of the most significant is probably Te Kohanga Reo, or language nests, for pre-school children (the first was established in 1982), which have become very popular among Pacific island women, and are also dependent on women’s devoted voluntary work.

While the main theme of this book centres on a common concern to improve women’s lives in one way or another, a strong sub-plot emerges, summed up by the YWCA’s comment at the outbreak of World War II: ‘The Brotherhood of Man, alas, is rather on the blink/ The Sisterhood of Woman, though, is possible, we think.’ The majority of the promoters of sisterhood, while anxious to tidy up the excesses of the brotherhood, were not so anxious to change social structures. Tennant says: ‘In the fluid conditions of a colonial society, involvement in welfare work was one way to demarcate the respectable from the unrespectable and to establish status.’

Thus we have the assessment of Maori as inferior; the conflict between the ‘ladies’ on the committees of prostitutes’ rescue homes and the ‘female’ clientele who had no particular wish to be rescued; the voluntary supporters of the early free kindergarten movement who expected their own and their friends’ children to attend fee-paying kindergartens, the still-present (though fading) projection of day care as ‘tainted with the image of welfare and child neglect’; the tendency of unpaid committee members to be less than generous towards paid workers. Rural women had parallel organisations: from 1921 the Country Women’s Institutes, which developed into ‘a federation of autonomous institutes … and also made efforts to include Maori women’; the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, founded in 1926 as a national organisation ‘catering for the women of landowning families’, says Smith. And, historically, claims Melanie Nolan, writing about employment, working women in the professions had different loyalties from those in trade unions.

The sharpest divisions reflected demographic, economic and social changes, especially from the 1960s onwards, when there was an increase in voluntary endeavour as a relatively large, healthy, prosperous post-war generation imported ideas of liberation and set up groups to reform the world. Because of our lack of social history, especially about women, these younger associations often believed they were pioneers. In her discussion of arts and crafts, Else points to the long tradition of separate women’s groups, Maori and Pakeha, formal and informal, which laid the foundation for the more recent ‘collective endeavours … [which] have resulted in a much more extensive range of work … being created on women’s terms and becoming accessible to a broad audience.’

Apart from having to omit mention of so much wonderful material, my only real difficulty with this book was the irritatingly unhelpful table of contents at the front, although there are adequate indexes at the back. It is salutary to be reminded of the large and continuing contribution to community and individual well-being made by what Dorothy Page calls ‘womanly skills and small-scale economies’. We need to know more, though, about the differences among women and to look for information that would lend weight to terms like ‘middle class’ or ‘working class’, which, in this context, are assumptions rather than definitions. As the book so happily demonstrates, we have highly skilled feminist scholars to pursue such enquiries.

This is a unique publication, as we seem to be the first country to document women’s organisations in such an all-encompassing way, while no other country can lead off with a record of the wide-ranging entrepreneurial, artistic and organisational skills of Maori women. It is a fitting centennial celebration of our status as the first nation to introduce women’s suffrage, an achievement which could be likened to our more recent nuclear-free legislation in having such a positive international impact, but a much lesser national response. Raewyn Dalziel expresses the belief of several contributors in saying: ‘The year 1993 … is a time to remind all people that women’s struggle for equality, and beyond that for emancipation, is far from over. ‘But this story of the struggle so far is a remarkable undertaking, an example of women together at their collective best.


Margot Roth is a Wellington writer.

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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review
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