Story: Unpaid domestic work

Page 2. Housework and caregiving

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In the 19th and early 20th centuries many New Zealand women did much of their own housework. Servants were hard to get, especially those with skill and experience. Most people who employed a servant had just one. But there was so much household work that the ‘mistresses’ often did at least the cooking herself. Daughters were usually expected to do a great deal of housework. The 1901 census recorded that domestic duties were the occupation of 50,000 daughters or other relatives (excluding wives).



Before washing machines, doing the laundry meant boiling water in a copper – a huge copper bowl set in concrete with a fire lit underneath. One woman remembered: ‘Every Monday morning I’d send my husband out to chop the wood and light the copper. It took the whole morning to do the washing … it would be cold meat and mashed potatoes for dinner because I was too tired to cook anything. When I finally got a washing machine I thought I was made.’1 Before the mid-1950s less than half of New Zealand households had a washing machine.


Women with a paid job were expected to give it up when they married. The expectation was that the husband’s wage would keep the family – it was a point of pride that a man could support a wife who worked only in the home.

Children were expected to pitch in with household chores, sometimes for ‘pocket money’.

More recently, a survey in 1998–99 found that the most common household duties were meal preparation and subsequent cleaning up, indoor cleaning and laundry. Most of this work was done by women, who spent an average of an hour more per day on housework than men. Women also spent more than twice as long as men on caregiving for other household members – predominantly young children, but sometimes also an elderly, ill or disabled person.


New Zealand mothers have traditionally taken care of their children in the home without paid assistance. In the 19th century families were relatively large – an average of seven children in the 1870s. Also, many Pākehā were immigrants, and often lacked extended family such as grandmothers and aunts. As a result children often helped look after their younger siblings.

Māori children were traditionally cared for by the whole extended whānau (family), not just the nuclear family. However, Māori urbanisation after the Second World War dislocated traditional support networks and led to some Māori living in smaller nuclear families.

The baby boom

A record number of babies (more than 41,000) were born in 1946, the year after the Second World War ended. The upward trend continued through the 1950s, with 50,000 babies born in 1956.

For the vast majority of the mothers of these ‘baby boom’ children, unpaid domestic work was a career. They stayed at home, raised their children without paid help, and spent much of their time on housework and projects that saved money, such as sewing, knitting and bottling fruit. This was an era of practically full employment and the ideal of the ‘breadwinner’s wage’ in which a man’s pay was intended to support a family.

‘Suburban neurosis’

The assumption that women wanted to spend their lives on housework and childcare was questioned in the media in the 1960s. Margot Roth’s controversial 1959 Listener article, ‘Housewives or human beings?’, opined that domesticity was thrust upon women and limited their educational opportunities. In 1968 Thursday magazine’s article ‘Who says I’m a cabbage?’ suggested that ‘suburban neurosis’ was ‘filling our mental hospitals with depressed young women’.2 A 1971 study found that 8.3% of married women used tranquillisers compared with 3.5% of unmarried women and 3.3% of men.

Women in the paid workforce

In the 1970s social assumptions about how women wanted to spend their time were challenged by second-wave feminism. The feminist movement pushed for equal pay for women and free childcare so mothers could work outside the home. They also pushed for fathers to do more childcare.

The ideal of the ‘breadwinner’s wage’ supporting the family lost ground. In many families the wife became a second breadwinner out of financial necessity. As women entered the paid workforce it became more acceptable to employ others to help with housework and childcare.

Funding childcare

The government started funding childcare in the mid-1990s. In the early 2000s pre-school children were eligible for between nine and 50 hours of subsidised childcare per week.

The OSCAR (Out of School Care and Recreation) programme provided subsidised care and recreational activities for children aged 5–14 before and after school and during school holidays. This targeted low-income families and made it easier for parents to take paid work. About 10,000 children received OSCAR services in 2008.

Other caregiving

Another significant area of unpaid work was caregiving for the elderly, ill or disabled. In the 2006 census, 8% of the New Zealand population reported looking after a member of their own household who was ill or had a disability. Of these caregivers, 61% were female.

  1. Quoted in Sandra Coney, Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland:Viking, 1993, p. 214. Back
  2. Thursday, 3 October 1968, p. 28. Back
How to cite this page:

Matt Morris, 'Unpaid domestic work - Housework and caregiving', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Matt Morris, published 11 Mar 2010