A time of transition, Margaret Tennant

Her Work and His. Family Kin and Community in New Zealand 1900-1930
Claire Toynbee
Victoria University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0864732848

Dialogue between historians and sociologists in New Zealand has been very limited. Where historians have acknowledged historical writing by sociologists, they have tended to dismiss it as characterised by jargon, political bias, dubious methodology and capricious mis-readings of secondary works ‑ resulting in a view of the past unrecognisable to “real” historians with research dirt under their fingernails. Sociologists sometimes regard historians as unself-reflective empiricists who, on the rare occasions they engage with theory, do so in a shallow and simplistic way.

Claire Toynbee has been more active than most in attempting to bridge the gaps between sociology and history. Her earlier work looked at issues of class and mobility in the early Wellington province. Covering a somewhat later period, this book is the result of more than a decade of research and draws upon interviews with 108 pakeha men and women who were born before 1912 and raised in New Zealand. It is an extremely ambitious study which takes as its focus work in the broadest sense but which also dissects issues of family, gender, class, generation, kinship, community and rural‑urban differences.

Toynbee’s period, from 1900 to 1930, is one recognised by historians as a time of transition within New Zealand society. A slightly longer timeframe might have given stronger evidence of change in family and work relationships, though one of Toynbee’s conclusions is that “pre-industrial” patterns of interaction remained well into the twentieth century, especially in rural communities.

The book’s starting point has been conditioned in part by Toynbee’s heavy reliance on oral testimony. Oral history has become extremely popular in New Zealand over the last 10 years, especially as applied to women’s lives. As Toynbee and others have pointed out, it provides insights into aspects of human experience absent from the public record and can be particularly valuable in illuminating domestic life and relationships. In New Zealand most published works have taken the approach of allowing oral testimony to stand on its own, with little overt analysis by the historian (who may or may not be the interviewer). This approach is often justified as respecting the integrity of subjects and letting them speak for themselves but it is also less demanding of the historian in terms of analytical skills. It usually disguises other interventions in terms of the structuring of questions and the editing and ordering of material.

Toynbee, commendably, has taken the more challenging path of interweaving extracts from interviews with theoretical discussion. At the same time she has not simply used interviews as a source for the telling anecdote or juicy quotation in support of written evidence but relies on them as her primary historical source. This approach to oral testimony subordinates individual identities to a larger argument and runs the risk that extracts may be short and unsatisfying, with few other reference points, internal or external, against which to judge the quoted material. Here it resulted in a certain slipperiness of chronology where the theoretical sections ranged over 30 years but the childhood memories in question mostly concentrated on the early years of the century. There was at times a sense of a weighty and certainly very interesting theoretical discussion which was underpinned by rather slight oral evidence.

This said, Her Work and His contains fascinating insights into unpaid labour, domestic work and family power relationships that could only have been derived from oral sources. On a more practical level, present and intending oral historians will also find much of interest in appendices where Toynbee discusses the processes involved in her research, the validity of oral testimony and problems of memory and perception associated with retrospective interviewing.

In two areas of New Zealand history ‑ childhood and gender ‑ Her Work and His advances what is currently a very slender historiography. Since the 1978 publication of sociologist Dugald McDonald’s essay on children and young persons in New Zealand society ‑ essentially a typology of dominant attitudes towards children within pakeha society since 1840 ‑ studies of children in the past have been few. Most have looked at children from the perspective of government activity in the areas of child welfare and education. Such approaches view children through the eyes of adult policymakers and in the case of child welfare tend to focus on worst case scenarios of family break-down and child exploitation. An alternative perspective is suggested in some preliminary publications from Waikato historian Jeanine Graham’s ongoing study of colonial childhoods. Toynbee’s informants, like Graham’s oral, documentary and pictorial sources, reinforce a more positive picture of strong family bonds, shared family work, close sibling relationships and community cooperation.

Although the picture is some distance from the sense of intergenerational warfare and family indifference which often comes from a child welfare perspective, the power of adults over children is nevertheless a strong motif in this book. Separate chapters examine power and control and relationships between parents and children. Toynbee maintains that the fear of physical punishment featured more in the memories of her informants than its actuality. Overt conflict was rare, despite (and partly because of) the high level of control that parents and other adults exercised over children’s use of time and space. Children were expected to work hard and to contribute to the family economy. Toynbee gives some striking examples of the labour contributed by older girls, especially in rural and working class families. Inequities in the amount of labour contributed by brothers and sisters did sometimes cause resentment among daughters but rebellion was unusual. A discussion of the interrelated concepts of deterrence and paternalism is used to explain power relationships between parents and children as well as between women and men.

Much of the existing literature on childhood refers to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a period when childhood was becoming more closely differentiated as a special stage of life, when children were being excluded from work and invested with greater emotional value than had previously been the case. It is also presented as a time when “experts” in the form of infant welfare organisations, school doctors and nurses and child welfare authorities began to intervene in family life. Toynbee calls the timing of these changes into question, finding few signs of them in the childhoods she studied. Child‑centredness was certainly not the norm. The beginnings of a transition to so‑called “modern” forms of privatised nuclear family life were apparent only in a few urban, mostly middle‑class families. This is not unexpected given the nature of the New Zealand economy and the fact that most interviewees were talking about the period preceding and during World War I, but it does provide a reminder of the time‑lag between ideology and family practice. Only one of the respondents had a mother who was associated with Plunket, for example.

In Her Work and His generation intersects with gender, another axis of power. Internationally, the literature on gender has grown markedly over the last five years but relatively few New Zealand historians have engaged with it. Historians of women have felt greater urgency about filling the enormous chasms in our knowledge of women’s lives in the past. Some are only now moving on to consider the relational aspects of masculinity and femininity and much of the more interesting research is still tied up in thesis form (such as Caroline Daley’s 1992 PhD study of men and women in the Taradale area between 1886 and 1930).

Toynbee’s informants underline the highly gendered nature of work in both rural and urban contexts. Following sociologists Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, she also charts a shift from patriarchy to “masculinism” as the main form of male domination within New Zealand society. The usefulness of patriarchy as a concept has long been debated, but in this typology it is used as an analytical device to describe “a very specific set of pre‑capitalist relationships, based on the household mode of production but lingering long after capitalism was well established in New Zealand in the forms of patriarchal ideologies relating to the power of the male head of household”. The coming of the market economy, characterised by rural‑urban migration and wage labour, altered the forms of male dominance. Masculinism is seen as linked with the increasing separation of home and work, the dependence of women and children upon a male breadwinner and a higher level of home‑centredness among men. This analysis reinforces existing work on changing ideals of masculinity in New Zealand. The discussion and actual examples of new gender patterns are thinner than the evidence for patriarchy, suggesting once again that pre‑industrial patterns lingered well into the twentieth century.

Her Work and His ends with an essay clearly intended to give the book contemporary relevance. The author acknowledges that it is largely a personal essay and as such it follows somewhat uneasily from what has come earlier ‑ I would have liked a clearer statement of the conclusions to be reached from Toynbee’s oral evidence in relation to the period covered in the book’s title. The final chapter looks at present views of family life and concerns about it in the light of options and debates over the century as a whole. It is nonetheless useful, almost as a stand‑alone essay, which canvasses such issues as women’s work and childcare, the position of single mothers and the role of the state, attitudes towards sexuality, marriage and divorce and the future of kinship patterns in the light of current demographic trends. Toynbee makes the valid point that policies need to be grounded in a knowledge of how families have ‑ or haven’t ‑ worked under specific historical conditions in the past.

This book attempts to knit together a number of historical strands. It is not always successful. In particular, I was left feeling that the oral evidence, although fascinating, did not adequately support the theoretical discussions. I also felt that the interviews might have worked better had they been grounded in a particular community. The selection of informants has certainly allowed the rural and urban contexts of work and community life to be explored. But the end result was less satisfying to me than a study such as Daley’s on Taradale. Daley’s work canvasses a slightly longer timescale and some similar questions, but reinforces oral testimony with information from private papers, wills, valuation rolls, friendly society and church records, for example.

The strengths of the book lie in its theoretical discussions and the insights it gives into children’s feelings and activities, as well as generational power relationships. Domestic labour, often marginalised, is given equal weighting with male‑dominated forms of work. Her Work and His is always interesting and readable (there is little in the way of inaccessible jargon). It confirms that sociologists as well as historians can contribute to the enrichment of New Zealand social history.

Margaret Tennant lectures in history at Massey University. Her book Children’s Health, the Nation’s Wealth is reviewed by John Martin in this issue.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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