Story: Families: a history

Page 4. Families, wars and economic hardship: 1914–1944

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In the first half of the 20th century more men became ‘family men’ with financial responsibility for wives and children. Single women had access to a wider range of jobs and married women were mainly involved in domestic work and childcare. Mothers without a male breadwinner struggled financially. In the 1920s and early 1930s, 40–50% of all live births occurred within 12 months of marriage and half of these babies were born within eight months of marriage.

Fertility rates

War and economic hardship had an impact on the birth rate and the size of families. Fertility dropped during the 1930s depression to less than 2.1 births per woman, and the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society promoted effective contraception as a way to reduce poverty by limiting the size of families. At the beginning of the Second World War, births per woman increased and then dropped.

Widows of a different kind?

Some women never married because so many men died during both world wars. One of the women who did not find a husband described women like herself as ‘widows of a kind’.1 While most women were expected to marry and become mothers, single women had to forge long-term careers at a time when women earned less than men, even when they did the same jobs.

Love, romance and the ‘new woman’

After the First World War, many women cut their hair, embraced shorter dresses and met young men in dance halls and cinemas. Love and romance rather than breadwinning and home management shaped decisions about life partners. However, men’s access to land, capital or jobs had a major impact on the material well-being of women and children. This was highlighted by the newspaper The working woman.

Family composition

Many Māori and Pākehā families were without fathers and brothers during the First and Second world wars. Women reared children alone, or with the help of other family members, while fathers were in relief-work camps during the depression years. Some women and men set up households during this time with same-sex partners, buying homes, sharing financial resources and contributing to their communities. This was facilitated by women’s access to employment, particularly professional work like nursing and teaching.

Shared grief

In rural areas and small towns everyone would know when a family received a telegram with the news that a father or son was missing or dead. According to Jessie ‘everyone would know, as though we were one big family … and you accepted their grief as yours.’2

Rural families

In rural families women cooked, preserved, washed, cleaned, and cared for children. They also milked cows, raised chickens, sold eggs, and grew food for the family and for sale, among other farm jobs. Children gathered walnuts, mushrooms and flowers for sale as well as separating milk and churning cream if they lived on dairy farms. While sons and brothers were away at war, mothers and sisters did their work.

Māori families lived in some of the most isolated rural areas, mainly in the north, central and eastern North Island. They survived on subsistence agriculture, and casual and seasonal work. Malnutrition and social poverty were widespread.

Men, women and breadwinning

After the First World War the ideal of ‘the family man’ was consolidated and men firmly integrated into domestic life. While almost half of male immigrants in the 19th century never married, only 32% of adult men were bachelors in 1921. Men’s role as breadwinners was assumed and trade unions argued that they should receive a family or social wage.

Many men could not support their families during the depression, which had a severe impact on Māori whānau. Their financial situation improved after the 1938 Social Security Act provided much needed income support for poor families.

Most women in paid work were young single women who left employment when they married, usually in their late 20s or early 30s. By 1936 they were concentrated in domestic work, retail and clerical work, nursing, teaching and the clothing industry. Many women, including married women, were ‘manpowered’ into employment during the Second World War. However, women responsible for the care of children were exempt from registration for work of ‘national importance’.

Homes, housing and families

Family life involved establishing a home – usually a detached house purchased through bank loans or loans from government agencies. By 1916, 47% of urban, 58% of rural and 52% of all households were homeowners, and most lived in detached houses.

By 1926 over 60% of households lived in owner-occupied houses. In the inter-war era new suburbs were developed in areas opened up to tram, bus and train commuters. Owner-occupation or other single household dwellings reinforced the trend towards young couples setting up their own households, but also allowed them to house other family members, such as elderly parents or orphaned nieces and nephews.

  1. Lauris Edmund, ed., Women in wartime: New Zealand women tell their story. Wellington: Government Printing Office, 1986, p. 236. Back
  2. Women in wartime, p. 105. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history - Families, wars and economic hardship: 1914–1944', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017