Between the Waves: Feminism in New Zealand

First wave feminism is the name that has become attached to the various struggles for women’s suffrage in the later part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generally second wave feminism is seen as emerging from the anti-Vietnam War and anti-racist struggles in North America in reaction to the overt sexism displayed by the male leaders of these movements.1 But, while the word “wave” may be a useful term to describe periods of overt political action, it does give the impression that between the “waves” women were generally content with their position in society. As far as New Zealand is concerned, as my researches have uncovered, this was definitely not the case.

In 1966 the members of the committee of the Linden Play Centre were impressed by a lecture given in the USA and broadcast on New Zealand state radio on the “potential of women” and decided to organise a series of lectures on ‘The Changing Role of Women” to be given weekly over a six week period. They expected a turn out of around 50 people. Instead over 300 people attended the course and the committee noted that the question was “evolving as a topical and pertinent subject in New Zealand today.”2

Following this first series of lectures, the University of Auckland held at least two series of talks on this same subject in 1967 and 1968. Similarly, the Waikato branch of the Society for Research on Women in New Zealand (which was formed as a result of the Linden lectures) held series of lectures in 1969 also called “The Changing Role of Women.”3

These efforts suggest widespread feeling that some important factor was impacting on women, although no-one seemed to be sure of exactly what it was. But it was noted that women, especially young married women, were unhappy and anxious.

There are a number of trends that could account for the unhappiness of women living the ‘suburban dream’. Firstly, this generation of “baby boomers” was the first where most women, including middle class women, expected to do paid work, even if only for a few years before marriage.4 This meant that most women experienced a period of personal economic independence before marriage. Secondly, the extension of the school leaving age and the expansion of secondary schooling which occurred under the first Labour government raised the educational standards and expectations for women, who previously may well have left school at age 13.5 Thirdly, both advertising media and general media generated an idea of the suburban idyll, with the perfectly coiffured and aproned housewife, finding utter fulfilment in taking care of equally perfect children while awaiting the return home of the husband. This was generally at odds with reality and never more so than in the matter of the fulfilment expected to be experienced by housewives. There was also the issue of the suburbs themselves. Often isolating and raw, with little to sustain either intellectual or physical well-being, the new  suburbs, whether developed by the government or private concerns, lacked not only community facilities but also the feel of a community. No wonder then that many women felt trapped and many suffered deep unhappiness and some clinical depression.6 One of the speakers at the first series of lectures pointed out that of the attempted suicides which were treated at Wellington Hospital in one year, totalling 184 cases, 123 were women and 100 of these women were aged between 16 and 45.7

The themes of the lectures given in the first series were generally replicated in the other series; the changing role of women in society; mental health for women; women in work; women and leisure and women’s contribution to society. Statistics were produced which showed that women were marrying earlier and this meant that by the time all the children produced by the marriage had left home the woman concerned would have on average another forty years to get through before she died.8

On reading the published lectures it is clear that speakers brought their individual approaches to the problems facing women. One of the issues concerning both men and women was what to do with all these women who had no focus to their lives once their children had left home. Community and voluntary work was urged upon women who were in this position, which was seen, by implication, as being a dangerous one

…due to better living conditions and the conquering of many diseases, the expectations of life for New Zealand women has been raised to 75 years. Formerly it was 45, synchronizing with the end if the child bearing years. In present circumstances, a woman has as long after menopause as her adult life preceding it. Immediately there is a decision to be made – how to “make use of” (in the best terms) to “fill in” (in the worst terms) this section of life, when one is physically capable of many accomplishments.9

To ensure that women in the future would be ready for this lacuna in their lives, educational authorities were urged to provide a wider education than that needed to prepare a girl for a short working life between leaving school and marriage.10 Besides, it was pointed out, that a well educated wife made a far better mother and wife than one trained only in household duties.11

However to demonstrate the differing views put forward in these lectures one of the male speakers indicated that, while men and women had equal IQs, they were not suited to the same tasks.

Man is the dominant partner, the hunter, the lover. Woman is better at repetitive tasks, e.g. knitting, which explains her particular aptitude for mass production lines in factories, in offices, or in any occupation that call for repeated small tasks. On the other hand, man is better at policy making, the making of long term plans, at seeing an objective undeterred by side issues. Woman [sic] tends to stay with the minutiae and therefore not to see the wood for the trees. Strong words? Perhaps, and there are exceptions of course, but these tend to have manly characteristics. Joan of Arc for instance was more man than woman.12

This person seems to have been somewhat conflicted himself as he also recommended that women should read Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a book he appears to have completely misunderstood.

While there are some pages of patronising and paternal advice to women in general and housewives in particular (the sections on women’s legal rights penned by men are so self-congratulatory that even today they can induce rage in the reader) there are those who were trying to take the economic and social position of women seriously. W B Sutch, in particular, with his call for women to refuse to socialise boys to think that it is women’s role to pick up whatever they leave on the floor, his enthusiasm for true equal pay, and his denunciation of gender-determined subjects at school, made the case that it was possible to change society to better support women.13

Do not let anybody in secondary school take a pre-vocational course especially if that course is homecraft or clothing or commercial.

Raise the school leaving age.

Keep your youngsters at school for four or five years.

Take advantage of every educational opportunity there is after secondary schooling; the Polytechnic, hair-dressing schools, typing schools and universities.

Agitate for full employment.

Work hard for industrial development.

Make quite sure that equal pay is an issue – wherever it is an issue that you fight on the right side of it.14

Likewise the discussion of Mrs M. Gilson who pointed out that

We pay lip service to the equality of men and women in New Zealand but we really have not yet achieved equality of opportunity, and the operative word is “opportunity”. Women have not yet the same opportunities as men in New Zealand.15

So, while historians may recognise waves of activity around women’s rights, in the dip between the waves, the subordinate place of women was not forgotten. Men and women recognised some of the stresses this caused in women, and looked for remedies. The unexpected eagerness for discussion on this subject was filled by women who probably thought they were just common New Zealand housewives. But common women, “like bread will rise.”

Lisa Sacksen. From TUHP Newsletter 44, October 2008.


1. But in New Zealand when an oral history project was conducted to discover whether similar attitudes existed in the Anti-Vietnam war movements and whether these led to the development of second wave feminism in New Zealand the results did not point in this direction. Roberto Rabel and Megan Cook, “Women and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in New Zealand”, National Oral History Association of New Zealand Journal, Vol. 10, 1998.

2. Linden Play Centre and Society for Research on Women in New Zealand, Inc., The Changing Role of Women, Wellington, 1966, p.1.

3. Ibid., Society for Research on Women in New Zealand, Inc. Waikato Branch, The Changing Role of Women, Hamilton, 1969, The University of Auckland, Department of University Extension, The Changing Role of Women, Auckland, 1968.

4. The Society of Research on Women in New Zealand, Inc., Urban Women, Dunedin, 1972, p.12. This book is an outcome of the Linden Play Centre lecture series, which motivated a group of women to form the Society for Research on Women in New Zealand. The Society organised the interviewing of women throughout New Zealand and the collation and analysis of the results. While the results were published in 1972, the interviews were undertaken in 1968/69.

5. Ibid., p.33. This shows that while an almost equal percentage of boys and girls left school in 1967 with no qualifications, for every other school qualification, apart from Bursary and Scholarship, girls out performed boys.

6. Ibid., p.32, this shows that 19% of the women interviewed who were married at the time of the interviews wanted some help for feelings of depression. However this number was more than double for that of women who were living apart from their husbands, but not yet separated or divorced.

7. Linden Play Centre and Society for Research on Women in New Zealand, Inc., The Changing Role of Women, Wellington, 1966 p. 11.

8. Waikato Branch of the Society of Research on Women in New Zealand, The Changing Role of Women, 1969, p.14.

9. Linden Play Centre and Society for Research on Women in New Zealand, Inc., The Changing Role of Women, Wellington, 1966, pp.5 – 6.

10. Ibid., pp. 40 – 41

11. Waikato Branch of the Society of Research on Women in New Zealand, The Changing Role of Women, 1969, p.12.

12. Linden Play Centre and Society for Research on Women in New Zealand, Inc., The Changing Role of Women, Wellington, pp.24 – 25.

13. Ibid., pp. 54 – 64..

14. Ibid., pp. 64 – 65.

15. Ibid., p. 56.