Silenced voices, Malcolm Campbell

Shifting Centres: Women and Migration in New Zealand History 
ed Lyndon Fraser and Katie Pickles
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276324

It is a truism that migration history steps into the limelight when immigration is at its most contentious politically. Heated public debate about a society’s “core values” and fear over the impact of recent newcomers’ diversity on the host society quickly inflame the minds of the intolerant, but also encourage more level-headed reflection on the ways in which past generations experienced the processes of immigrant arrival and settlement. In this book, Lyndon Fraser and Katie Pickles have collected a series of essays that engage in just that sort of cool and reasoned reflection. However, Shifting Centres is concerned not with immigration in general, but with the particular migratory experiences of women in New Zealand history. Migration, the editors contend, is an area where the experiences of women have remained particularly obscured, and they wish to remedy this deficiency through an approach focused solely on the lives of women. Their aim is to retrieve the hitherto silenced voices and “stimulate further research into the processes that shaped the movement of women from one place to another, as well as their adaptation to new environments”. Admirably, they wish their collection to encourage more universal tolerance and acceptance of diversity.


In pursuit of these objectives, the editors have brought together a collection of essays that range widely in time and place, from the roles of women in waka traditions to the new Chinese female immigrants of the 1990s. Interestingly, the book addresses experiences of internal and international migration, a combination all too rarely found in migration studies. It is also keenly aware of the more universal shift at work in migration studies, where focus upon the unilateral movement of immigrants from one society to another is being supplanted by strong interest in multilateral connections that link the old homeland with migrants in several receiving countries, as well as connections between those immigrant communities abroad. These connections are particularly evident in Fraser’s study of 19th century Irish women’s migration to the West Coast and Manying Ip’s broad overview of Chinese women’s immigration to New Zealand.

A particular strength of the book is its focus on the experiences of migration of Maori women. Angela Wanhalla’s opening chapter aims to locate Maori women in waka traditions, while the contributions of Aroha Harris and Megan Woods address aspects of post-World War 2 urbanisation. Yet, while concerned with a similar migratory movement, these two authors’ approaches are widely different. Where Woods’s essay emphasises the critical impact of state policies and domesticity in driving the migration of single Maori women to urban centres, Harris’ evocative chapter takes as a focus the life experience of one woman, Letty Brown, and her critical role in the development of community life in West Auckland.

Diverse experiences of European migration are also evident in this book. David Hastings, showing a mastery of the source materials on voyaging New Zealand, writes with authority on the shipboard experiences of 19th century women immigrants from the United Kingdom, while Lyndon Fraser continues his work on the settlement of Irish newcomers on the West Coast. Twentieth-century long-distance migration is also strongly represented in this collection. Katie Pickles provides a detailed account of single women’s migration to New Zealand between the two world wars, while chapters by Ann Beaglehole and Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich utilise oral history to explore mid 20th century Jewish immigration and recent German women’s experiences of New Zealand respectively.  Another contribution addresses the experience of Emele-Moa Teo Fairbairn, a Samoan woman living in New Zealand.


Shifting Centres is, therefore, rich in its diversity, and the contributors draw upon a wide range of approaches to the study of migration. However, the decisive issue that remains unresolved in this book is the viability of understanding women’s experiences of migration through a “gender-specific” approach, trying to place women “at the centre of migration history”, rather than locating them in a relational setting and emphasising wider structural determinants. The editors believe the former is possible and cite specifically Hastings’ chapter on shipboard experiences as one example of this, “provided adequate recognition is also given to class, ethnicity, sexuality, generation, marital status and parenthood”.

The difficulty is that, in the vast majority of cases, adequate recognition of these wider factors will in fact shift the centre of study away from women and back onto the family or wider kinship group. For, as a vast array of migration literature seems to indicate, the great bulk of women’s and men’s migratory experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries were conceived within wider familial strategies developed to cope with changing economic, political or social conditions at home. To be fair, the editors are conscious of the limits on women’s agency, noting not only the history of forced migrations, but also emigration in “a strongly patriarchal age where societies deemed that women followed their fathers and husbands, and obeyed the dictates of church and state”. But, as the late 20th century studies in this book tend to suggest, even if recent women migrants are less likely to follow husbands, or churches less able to dictate to their faithful, individual volition remains circumscribed by broader economic and social determinants.

Several of the contributors rightly identify deficiencies in our knowledge of migrant women’s experiences. To Lyndon Fraser, “this constitutes the largest single lacuna in the history of the Irish in New Zealand”. Similarly, Megan Woods indicates Maori women’s place in post-war urban migration had been obscured by focus on a “universal and invariably male urban immigrant”. A counter question, though, is do we really know any more about the real experiences of migrant men, aside from the universalised, emotionless assumed-to-be-male newcomer? Our knowledge of migrant men’s emotions, friendships, anxieties, loves, and sexualities remains no more developed than our knowledge of migrant women’s.


This book highlights two other issues that will need to be addressed in future migration studies. The first, likely to be more and more pressing as diasporic studies move to the foreground, concerns the classification of migrants and the establishment of appropriate baselines for comparison. Fraser’s work on the West Coast Irish is very innovative in teasing out the close relationships between that region and the Australian colonies. In fact, he suggests, large numbers of women had extended periods of residence in Australia before their on-migration to New Zealand. As a result, their average age on arrival on the West Coast was far in excess of that of women leaving Ireland, and they arrived with skills, outlooks, and in many cases husbands acquired in Australia. A critical question, across a range of demographic measures, is how far these women ought to be considered Irish immigrants at all. Do we need new categories to deal with such cases of migrants on the move?

The second, arising from the use of oral history in several of the chapters, concerns the positioning of the interviewer. In her chapter on German immigrants, Bönisch-Brednich suggests that while the women she interviewed quite often explained decision-making about migration in terms of “the workings of fate or supernatural powers in their lives”, men “did little more than carefully present their decision to migrate in rational terms”. Readers would have benefited from discussion of the psychological underpinnings of this unusual explanation of migration, as well as self-reflexive discussion about the author’s position in the interviewing process.

Several contributions to this book are very nicely written, and it will surely appeal to both an academic and wider audience. Illustrations are also included, though regrettably (with the exception of Woods’s chapter) these are located together in the centre without indication of their connection to specific chapters. But, notwithstanding these minor reservations, Shifting Centres is a welcome addition to the literature on New Zealand’s migration experience. It demonstrates very clearly the vitality and courage of waves of people whose lives were transformed through migration, and the determination individuals and families exhibited to fashion new lives as a result of internal or international relocation. These are stories that deserve to be widely read at a time when crude stereotypes and bitter judgements all too often pass for knowledge and reason.


Malcolm Campbell teaches in the Department of History at the University of Auckland.


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