New Zealand has sometimes been called a ‘man’s country’. The Europeans who migrated to New Zealand in the 19th century and began to break in the land were mostly men. The pioneer bushmen and farmers of the 19th century were the forefathers of iconic 20th-century figures like All Black Colin Meads, famously photographed in the 1970s carrying a sheep under each arm.
Rural myth and urban reality
While New Zealand’s economy has had a rural backbone, its agricultural work did not need a large rural population. Rather, it required service towns and port cities to support primary production and facilitate the export of agricultural products. The man’s country needed an urban infrastructure. For well over 100 years New Zealand has been one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world. Even in the 19th century many men and women chose to remain in towns and cities rather than try their luck on the rural frontier. In cities women have long played a prominent role in public life.
Sexism and the city
Cities have offered women many opportunities – New Zealand universities, for example, never prevented female students enrolling in any courses. But early women graduates in law and medicine encountered prejudice in entering male-dominated professions and found it difficult to establish city practices.
Women in cities
In early colonial society women were concentrated in towns and cities. The 1886 census found that rural areas like Waikanae and Skipper’s Creek had three to four times as many male residents as females, but the country’s four main cities – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – were home to more women than men. Few Māori lived in the cities before 1940, but most of those who did were female.
In 1951 there were 107 females for every 100 males in New Zealand’s cities and boroughs, but only 89 females for every 100 males in its rural counties. As the country’s chief statistician noted that year, ‘the more remote the rural district, the higher is the masculinity of population, and the higher the degree of urbanisation the lower the masculinity’.1
It’s not raining men
A 2005 population-growth report brought the imbalance between numbers of men and women to the public’s attention. The report found that a 32-year-old woman had as much chance of finding a male partner of the same age as an 82-year-old woman did. The findings were confirmed in a 2008 study, which concluded that New Zealand had a ‘man drought’, and it was worse than Australia’s. However, while there is a shortage of men in New Zealand cities, the reverse is true in rural areas.
Statistics from 1921 showed that not only were there more females than males overall in the four main cities, there were also more adult women than men. So although some have portrayed New Zealand as a ‘brides’ paradise’ due to the overall gender imbalance in the 19th century, its major urban centres have long experienced a ‘man drought’. In 2006, 52% of the residents of New Zealand’s main urban centres aged 15 years and over were women.
Attractions of city life
While women’s longer life expectancy partly accounts for the gender imbalance of cities, there are also cultural reasons. City life particularly attracted women because it offered wider educational, work and social opportunities than rural life. In the country work centred on seasonal agricultural production; in the city employment could be found in factories, shops, and even the professions. Although such work was often demanding, it lacked the rugged physical demands of toil on the land.
In the country social life was dependent on proximity to neighbours and towns; in the city friendships could be formed over a suburban back fence. It was also easier in cities to meet like-minded people and join groups and societies. New Zealand’s first women’s movement was city-born. The women who successfully fought for the vote (gained in 1893) and campaigned for women’s political equality were mainly urban dwellers. Subsequent women’s organisations – from the Māori Women’s Welfare League (founded in 1951) to the Women’s Electoral Lobby (1975) – all had strong urban roots. City life was more socially and culturally diverse than country life, and this especially appealed to women.