Making women visible, Katie Pickles

A History of New Zealand Women
Barbara Brookes
Bridget Williams Books, $70.00,
ISBN 9780908321452

Locating women in history is difficult. New Zealand women are present through the occasional mention in books, official records and newspaper stories but, because they were not considered the stuff of proper historical knowledge, capturing their substance poses many challenges. Their lives, work and thoughts were deemed of secondary importance to men’s, with only a few famous women being known by name. Women’s many and varied contributions were underplayed at the time and through the years, with significant traces of them only remaining in oral traditions passed down through the generations.

Barbara Brookes has written a definitive corrective. So solid and thorough is her weighty tome that there will never again be any doubt that New Zealand women have a history. The evidence presented is almost overwhelming, and the challenge of assembling it into one book should not be underestimated. Intended as a history rather than the history, it nonetheless veers towards being exhaustive, and is grand in both scope and depth.

This narrative history is the culmination of decades of work by a key player in the teaching, research and writing of women into New Zealand’s history. Since the 1970s, Brookes has lived and worked through the rapid emergence of women’s history, both locally and internationally, and has adapted her ideas and topics of research in line with new debates and approaches. The inclusion of much South Island content is a nod to her Christchurch childhood, and a professional life largely spent at the University of Otago.

Brookes bravely offers a synthesising history in a field highly critical of generalisation. Weren’t women divided by class and race, to the extent that they are unable to be considered a unified category? And if women and men didn’t exist in isolation, how can we write separate histories that risk downplaying relationships between women and men? Brookes thoughtfully takes on such challenges, and weaves a multi-coloured and textured account. She manages to strike a measured balance between gloomy victim history and full-blown recovery and celebration.

Offering an engaging narrative does take precedence over explicating debates and developments in the field of women’s history that are important to academic historians. It has been a rapidly evolving and energetic field, from arguing over women’s predominantly different or equal place in colonial society, to moving beyond celebration to focus on women’s complicity in nation- and empire-building, to re-casting intimacy and focusing on material objects as sources.

Brookes is a product of her generation and continues to focus on women subjects, advocating a position that justifies their equal, yet diverse, place in society. She is aware of recent and current scholarly trends, yet the woman-centred focus necessitates her shying away from such frontiers of knowledge. As a result, there is already work that takes Brookes’s ending points further – such as some women’s support of war, women against women in politics, and interpretations of material culture.

Overall, this is a second-wave-grounded feminist narrative that remains open-ended, restrained and inclusive, rather than polemical. The reader is left to ponder who is or was a New Zealand woman, and what the next step for writing feminist histories that include women and men might be. For example, Brookes concludes that “finding a basis for sisterhood at the same time as celebrating cultural diversity frequently proves difficult.”

Engaging individual biographies of a patchwork of women who appear through the book serve to hook and guide readers through the text. There is a balance of famous and lesser-known women. The intention is to let a multiplicity of women’s voices sing out. Women as diverse as Iriaka Rātana, who became the first Māori woman MP in 1949, and Eleanor Catton, writer and 2013 Man Booker Prize Winner, are re-viewed.

Brookes does rely upon some men’s voices to illuminate women’s lives. There are missionaries, ex-prime ministers, husbands and male doctors. Particularly memorable are the cheekily included sexist words of Geoffrey Palmer and Colin McCahon. Overall, men are in the backseat, and the focus is neither on casting them as oppositional, nor as women’s greatest supporters.

Particularly sustained is an effort to centrally include Māori women. Brookes begins with a discussion of “origins, traditions and ‘civilisation’ ” before moving on to “a civilising mission”. The intention is not to treat Māori and Pākehā women in isolation, but to reveal the contact between them. Here, she continues the work of many women’s historians in New Zealand who have tried to include all women in their analyses, regardless of race, class or sexual orientation, and reflects the quest for writing bicultural history that is prominent amongst the historical profession.

Literally making women visible, there are voluminous and lavish illustrations throughout, with careful and informative captions. Photographs, posters, art and artefacts from collections around the country are interspersed through the pages. This would be a very different book without them: their inclusion makes this effectively “an illustrated history”, and the many cultural representations add a creative layer that colours and brings to life the narrative text. As a result, the book captures and exudes the strong cultural energy that has characterised women’s history in New Zealand.

The scaffolding for the book is chronological, and largely takes its cue from traditional historical markers, such as colonisation, war, modernity and political change. Brookes identifies eras and then explores themes within them. These themes often, but not exclusively, revolve around women’s embodied experiences.  Chapter titles provide a strong idea of themes, for example, “Settling Pākehā Families: Unsettling Whanau” for the 1850s-1860s, and “War, Gold and Dispossession” for the 1860s-1880s. Sometimes, the focus is on events of the times, rather than women’s private lives. Overall, a theme of interaction between both “public” and “private” spheres is very evident. Brookes opts for an organic mix of the spheres throughout her book, and an enduring presence for family history. She is at her strongest when writing of women’s health and body politics. Changing attitudes towards childbirth, abortion and contraception receive sustained attention throughout the book.

Another theme is the history of feminism and women’s rights, particularly prevalent in the chapters that cover the past 50 years. There is content on education, sport, disability, consumption, the environment, culture, work and labour, war and pacifism. Immigration is present, but perhaps not as prominently as it might be.

Perhaps the book’s greatest success is that chronology, context and themes are beautifully interwoven through the chapters. There is a constant adjustment of focus, drawing upon a huge and diverse amount of research and secondary literature. The result reads as smooth and effortless, but history of such breadth and depth is very difficult to write.

This is history with women at the centre for a change. It is a book to return to frequently, a welcome and vital tonic. It is a narrative of goodwill and generosity. An overall message to emerge through the pages is that we are all winners when women are a valued and equal part of society. Respect for diversity and a commitment to equality are set out as challenges for New Zealand. How this account will influence the writing of history in general remains to be seen. It will hopefully encourage more research and writing, rather than considering women in history a closed book.


Katie Pickles is a professor of history at the University of Canterbury and is president of the New Zealand Historical Association.

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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review
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