In the first part of the 20th century husbands may have been the official heads of households, but it was generally wives who ran the homes and did most of the work.
While her husband usually mowed the lawn, dug the vegetable plot and tinkered in his shed, a wife was meant to ensure that the flowers were lovingly tended and created a welcoming impression, especially in the street-facing front garden. Her main role, though, was inside the family home.
Failed to rise
The Edmonds cookbook has been the New Zealand cook’s Bible for over a century. But its authority was questioned in 2009 when baking guru Jo Seager declared its hot cross bun recipe ‘crappo’. In contrast to the book’s (and Edmonds baking powder’s) motto ‘sure to rise’, Seager’s buns had come out of the oven flat and inedible. Edmonds stood by the recipe, suggesting faulty yeast or handling was to blame. This made Seager’s blood boil – she’d made six batches and all had failed. The recipe was rubbish, she said.1
Baking was to suburban women what vegetable growing was to their menfolk. Men had the Yates garden guide to assist them; women relied on the Edmonds cookery book. First published in 1907, it has sold more copies than any other book published in New Zealand (over 4 million by 2005). Almost every suburban kitchen has a well-thumbed copy of the ‘sure to rise’ cookery book, and while shop-bought biscuits now fill the tins of suburban pantries, school fundraising galas still call for a tray of home-made ginger crunch or a dozen melting moments.
Women’s economic contribution
Before the 1950s few married women in New Zealand were in paid work, especially once they had children. Their labour was an important asset to the home. Preserving home-grown fruit and vegetables, and sewing and knitting clothes, helped families to live on one income. Changes to the wider economic structure, though, meant that by the early 1960s more married women had to find at least part-time paid work. This was especially so for urban women, who were twice as likely as rural women to be in paid work.
Suburban women formed and joined numerous organisations designed to support their roles as wives and mothers. Before 1914, women in Dunedin and Christchurch formed housewives’ unions to protest against cost-of-living increases. In the 1940s groups of mothers formed Playcentre, a community-run childcare movement that stressed mothers’ involvement and responsibility for early-childhood learning. Dame Catherine Tizard, former Auckland mayor and governor-general, attributes her ‘Glorious Career’ to her involvement with Playcentre.2 In 1966 the Linden playcentre in Wellington was the site for a series of lectures on the changing role of women. Later that year a number of wives and mothers formed SROW, the Society for Research on Women. Feminism was coming to the suburbs.
In the late 1950s some suburban women were beginning to ask whether they were ‘housewives or human beings’.3 Suburban neurosis, the idea that women in the suburbs feel lonely, bored, anxious and unfulfilled, had gained medical attention in the late 1930s. But it was in the 1960s, when American feminist Betty Friedan wrote about the ‘problem with no name’, that the concept gained widespread local attention.
Suburbia was clearly not a paradise for all women. The first women-only Alcoholics Anonymous group was formed in Wellington in the 1960s. In 1969 New Zealand doctors prescribed 40 million doses of valium. Most of the drug addicts identified by the Department of Health at that time were women – largely housewives.
The 1970s feminist movement widened the horizons of both women and men by calling for greater equality between the sexes. This led to more mothers entering the full-time workforce and more fathers becoming full- or part-time child-raisers. In 2009, it was common to see a father pushing a stroller along a suburban street or taking children to after-school activities.