Dancing in time, Alison Gray

The Gendered Kiwi 
ed Caroline Daley and Deborah Montgomerie
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 219 7

Girls and Women, Men and Boys: Gender in Taradale 1886-1930
Caroline Daley
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 211 1

“Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?” sang the Mock Turtle. It’s an old refrain. Throughout history and across cultures, men and women have played out a large part of their lives in relation to each other. For years in Western European culture, men have guided women backward over the dance floor. In other cultures women and men dance separately, or perform side by side. Dancing patterns say much about gender relationships and the two books under review have many of the attributes of a dance. The Gendered Kiwi is a collection of essays, spanning 130 years and a range of locations. Girls and Women, Men and Boys covers 45 years in a single community, Taradale. Both books are about Pakeha society. The gender relations of Maori society have yet to be documented.

The editors of The Gendered Kiwi explore not only the relationship between the genders, but also issues of social power, social class and regional variation. To do this they have assembled a somewhat eclectic set of essays, varying in scope and focus. They range from demographic analyses of gender imbalance and the importance of clothes in the workplace to the impact of significant events such as war and the Depression to the gendered nature of leisure. While there is something for everyone on the dance card, some readers may choose to sit out the occasional set or nip out the back for a drink.

The essays begin with a challenge by Charlotte Macdonald to the prevailing notion that the imbalance of men and women in colonial New Zealand shaped the nature of Pakeha masculinity in New Zealand. She reframes the numbers to show that most settler societies are characterised by a population imbalance and that in New Zealand the imbalance was relatively short-lived and confined to a few locations. This suggests that numerical dominance is not sufficient to explain the dominance of men in social and political systems in New Zealand. The settlers clearly brought at least some of their dance styles with them.

Erik Olssen also reviews earlier work through a gendered lens and finds a greater variety of family types than before. Like Macdonald, he acknowledges the importance of place and calls for a “precise geography of where migrants came from and the particular meanings of family in those areas”. By the time I reached the end of this essay, I definitely needed a sit-down. The floor was spinning, nothing was certain, interpretations multiplied. I felt less sure than ever about the role of gender as opposed to other factors in shaping the colonial family.

It was quite a relief in Bronwyn Dalley’s essay to join the gallery at the trials of Phoebe Veitch and Sarah Flanagan, each charged with child murder. And sobering to note the extent to which I reacted to their stories in accordance with current feminist thinking. I was reminded too of the differences among women, of the importance of class – almost always a stronger force for unity than gender – and of the need for moral imperatives. Gender did not in this case stop women from competing with each other for tickets to the moral high ground ball.

I was back on the floor for Caroline Daley’s look at the gendered use of the Auckland Domain for leisure. This was a dance I knew well. In fact, the moves should be familiar to anyone who follows current debates on what is or isn’t art, what can and can’t be displayed in public, and the relative importance of women’s sport and leisure activities. Women still march in support of their right to have safe access to public spaces and still make do with second-best facilities for leisure. Like Bronwyn Dalley, Daley was reporting on a situation where men spoke for and made decisions on women’s behalf. Daley’s own graceful and articulate prose would surely have stopped them in their tracks.

I only had time for a quick breather before I was back, drawn once again by the familiarity of the tune – the role of women in paid work and the need for families to survive, whatever the prevailing ideology. Tim Frank’s essay is timely given more recent work by Anne Else and others on the continuing revision of men’s and women’s contributions to the workforce. It is useful to be reminded how quickly ideology can change to suit both governments and individuals. In the 1960s and 70s, women fought for the right to work, for equal pay and equal opportunity. Now when they circle the floor, it is to remind employers and the government that they and their partners are family members, caregivers and voluntary workers as well as breadwinners.

The two essays on clothes are separated by a discussion of the different gender experiences of men and women in the Second World War. This suits the chronology of the book but obscures the fact that both cover much the same ground – and the fact that codes of dress are still relational. Women’s work clothes still ape men’s, and, as the debates over Christine Rankin’s earrings demonstrate, women in high profile positions are still expected to strike a balance between femininity and conservatism. Men still feel obliged to wear suits and that most absurd of all clothing items, the tie. They are still displayed in advertisements playing with their laptops, and cellphones. Plus ça change, and while I enjoyed the writing, I was tempted to drift off to supper while the dance was replayed.

I am glad that I stayed for Deborah Montgomerie’s essay on family life during and after the war. It is a moving explication of the desire and need for connection between men and women and the difficulty of maintaining meaningful contact in the extreme circumstances of war. The dance in this case was one of compassion, empathy and healing set against the backdrop of an idealised family. The fact that such idealisation was unsustainable was in many ways irrelevant. It served a useful purpose in providing at least a sense of security and belonging to those fortunate enough to have a partner.

It was back to numbers with Jock Phillips’ essay on men, women and leisure since the Second World War. This was no slow waltz. I found myself marching through tables and lists, roaming up and down columns, tripping over medians and percentages. The numbers were there but the meanings were not. This is, of course, the problem with surveys and has led to a decline in their use in favour of more qualitative methods of research. Phillips assigns meanings and discusses possible explanations but there is other material that would have helped him empathise with women’s preference for the aesthetic and social aspects of leisure in contrast to men’s search for excitement and risk.

The last dance, the final word, goes to Barbara Brookes, who interviewed four men who explored new ways of family living during the 1970s. Their personal stories exemplify both the loneliness and the pleasures of challenging traditional models of masculinity and femininity. A solo performance is not enough to change a society overnight, but as the dance catches on, the gender paradigm will slowly but surely shift.

After the whirl of The Gendered Kiwi, it was relaxing to put my feet up and stay in one place. Caroline Daley’s monograph, Girls and Women, Men and Boys, discusses gender relationships in Taradale over the 45 years from 1886 to 1930. The book is populated by local families like the Jeffares, the Cattanachs, the Halpins, the Pritchards and the Clarkes. Daley recreates the lives of these and other families through an analysis of those official records that survived the Napier earthquake and through interviews with surviving family members. If The Gendered Kiwi was a medley, the Taradale book unfolds like a slow gavotte, with men and women taking responsibility for separate parts of the dance, but coming together to create the whole.

What Daley reveals is not surprising: women were more closely involved than men in the rituals and practical demands of births, marriages and deaths, while men were more engaged than women in the public aspects of production and social life. The strength of the book is in the careful documentation of the interconnectedness of men’s and women’s lives, their mutual dependence and the extent of support shared among wider family networks. The impression is of a family style closer to hapu than to the modern nuclear family. Nowadays, although women still contribute extensively to family support, their greater involvement in “public” production through paid work has seen more of them stand alongside men rather than facing them across the dance floor. This has allowed their private contribution to become in many ways even less visible than it was in the early part of the century. Daley’s book provides a sturdy foundation for advocates like Anne Else in False Economy (1996), who continue to argue that the domestic sphere is not just an adjunct to the “real” work carried out in public, or a source of increasingly cheap labour, but an integral part of both the private and public economies.

The pattern of men’s and women’s leisure described by Daley will be familiar to modern players. At the beginning of the century, men made more use of public space, while women made more use of domestic space. What happened in the Auckland Domain was simply a reflection of the pattern prevalent elsewhere and still dominant today, despite the shifts in leisure behaviour described by Jock Phillips in The Gendered Kiwi. When men and women in Taradale did engage in leisure activities with their children, the gender differences remained, as they still do. Women still tend to prepare the food for events; men still tend to drive the car on family outings.

Daley is realistic about the speed and nature of change in gender relations. As she says, there are rarely watersheds, but there are ebbs and flows. This is a delightful book, lucid, intelligent and engaging. If the Mock Turtle were to invite me on to the dance floor to dance to this music, I’d be the first on the floor.

Alison Gray is a Wellington social researcher and writer.

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review
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