Men's and women's lives in the mid-20th century were lived as much in parallel as together. Work, socialising and leisure was mostly done with members of one’s own sex. Secondary schooling, still a minority experience before the leaving age was raised to 15 in 1944, was largely single-sex.
Although many men became unemployed during the depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, this did not break the strong link between men and paid work. That link was strengthened after the Second World War, when paid work was plentiful.
Generally, men worked with other men. Teasing (friendly and otherwise), nicknames, swearing, discussion of sport and local or national politics were all part of this working world. Work was also a place for competition and scrapping. Union membership was automatic, and in the post-war years the hurly-burly of industrial action was commonplace.
Professional options for girls were confined to nursing or teaching. Shop, clerical and factory work offered different jobs for women and men. For men the choice of jobs was wider and pay scales higher. Socio-economic class provided a rough and never absolute division of work. Middle-class boys became doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, accountants and vets, ran factories and businesses, and joined the public service. Working-class boys were employed on roads, railways and construction sites and for the Post Office, carried freight, and had jobs on the factory floor or in shops.
The welfare state that was created in the 1920s and 1930s strongly supported women as mothers and homemakers, and men as breadwinners supporting a family.
From 1926 a policy known as motherhood endowment paid small amounts to working-class families with three or more children. By 1946 this became the universal ‘family benefit’ paid to mothers of school children under 18. Free maternity care, provided under the health component of social security, was intended to encourage women to have families, and was given priority over contraception.
An honorary man
Not every family fit the pattern of mother at home and father at work. Unemployment or some other disaster could strike, forcing people into unfamiliar roles. Trade unionist Tom Skinner remembered his mother in the late 1920s 'play[ing] a father's role in the family while nursing Dad, tending to her family of five and, for extra money, operating the tearooms at Everybody's Theatre in Queen St, which were open six afternoons and nights a week.'1 After Skinner’s father died in the early 1930s, his mother bought a greengrocer’s shop, and continued her paid work.
Government-funded ‘buy New Zealand made’ campaigns highlighted working men. Unemployment relief schemes during the 1930s economic depression provided work only for men – unemployed single women were expected to be supported by fathers or brothers who were employed. Later in the 1930s, the new Labour government passed laws guaranteeing a 40-hour working week and making the ‘family wage’ the official basis for wage-setting. A family wage was meant to provide enough money for a man to support a wife and two or three children.
Radio and magazines
The new and popular medium of radio quickly developed listening times and programmes for a female audience, particularly the mid-week morning listener. A burgeoning array of magazine literature from the 1920s also reflected, and helped shape, a popular culture revolving around distinctions in women’s and men’s interests and patterns of consumption.
The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly began publication in 1932, and was still produced in 2018. The more political Woman Today was short-lived (1937–39). The New Zealand Sportsman, 8 O’clock and Truth catered more to male readers. Women's pages were a regular feature of most New Zealand newspapers and weeklies throughout this period, and even into the 1970s.
While modern dance halls, movie-going and race meetings were places where men and women met together from the 1920s, they often socialised separately. Sports clubs, pubs (which closed at 6 p.m., and where women were rarely welcome or seen in public bars), gentlemen's clubs, and meetings of Rotary, Lions, Jaycees or Young Farmers, or of the Country Women’s Institute or Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, offered few opportunities for men and women to mix with each other.
Even at mixed social events women often stood at one end of the hall and men at the other. The unspoken convention was ladies serving supper and bringing a plate (of food), while men opened a keg (of beer), paid for tickets and moved the chairs.