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Women and men

by Charlotte Macdonald

Wearing pink or blue, a skirt or trousers; picking up a netball or rugby ball, an apron or hammer; reading the Woman's Weekly or the sports pages – these are among the many things that New Zealanders have grown up with, as girls and boys learning how to be women and men. What they learned, however, has changed over the years. Gender, the social organisation of sexual difference, is part of New Zealand's history.

Colonial beginnings: 1840s–1880s

Wild colonial boys

Men of rough habits made up the great majority of Europeans in New Zealand before 1840. All-male crews on the explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in 1769 were followed by whalers, sealers, adventurers and traders, for whom New Zealand promised profit, experience and danger. Ex-convicts Charlotte Badger and Catharine Hagerty were two of the few women in this group, living in the Bay of Islands for some months in 1806, in the care of local Māori. 

Hard and dangerous work at sea, where men relied on each other’s skills for survival as well as their livelihood, was often followed by binges in port towns. A boisterous drinking and swearing culture thrived in Kororāreka (modern-day Russell) in the 1830s. The same culture appeared in other places, as timber felling, digging for gold, 'breaking in' the land, farming, and soldiering in the 1860s wars brought more men than women to New Zealand.

Family life

A model of ordered family life was also planted early and became influential. Protestant missionaries from 1814 and New Zealand Company settlers from the 1840s brought with them an ideal of Christian marriage and family in which wives respected and obeyed husbands, and children their parents. Families were to be built around divisions of responsibility based on age and sex. Girls and women looked after children and housework, while boys and men took on farm and outdoor work.

Too many men?

Greater numbers of European women arrived in New Zealand with the New Zealand Company settlements from the 1840s, but they remained a minority. At the time, people described the problem of a society with too many men and too few women as one lacking social comfort. Women were in short supply as marriage partners, as servants, and as a ‘civilising’ presence.

Some areas, like the goldfields of Otago and the West Coast in the 1860s, or the remote districts where men mined, felled the bush and fished, were largely male. Towns and more closely settled districts had much more equal male and female populations from an early stage and sometimes even had more women than men.

Trying to even up the numbers

Subsidised passages from Britain were offered to induce single women ‘of good character’ to emigrate. Numbers taking up such offers were always less than hoped for as colonial life held little appeal for labouring-class women in Britain. It was 1911 before the census showed roughly equal numbers of males and females in the non-Māori population.

Making herself useful

Life was demanding in colonial New Zealand, and some middle-class English women were delighted with this. ‘I am so proud at finding how easy it is to be independent,' Jane Maria Richmond wrote in 1853. 'When my pantry shelves are scrubbed, and it contains ... a round of boiled beef, a roast leg of pork, a rhubarb pie, 15 large loaves and 8 pounds of fresh butter ready for Sunday and the bush party, I feel as self-satisfied and proud as a mortal can. A little while since I shd have thought it necessary to have somebody to prepare all these things for me, now I can do it for myself.'1

Women’s work as wives and mothers can be seen in the very rapid growth in the Pākehā population from the 1840s to the 1880s. Large families were the norm, with averages of six and more children per couple.

Useful women

Men contemplating emigration to New Zealand were advised that a wife would be of greater value to them than a plough in securing their success as colonists. A ‘useful’ partner in the form of a woman who could bake, cook, sew, handle a mangle and produce a brood of children was crucial to the family and the colonial economy. Women also worked as servants, shop staff and teachers, and in family businesses. On farms they were often responsible for hens and the care of orphaned lambs, and did the lighter work in the home garden.

Men’s business

While women largely worked as mothers and homemakers, men made tools, milled flour, brewed beer, shod horses, ran businesses, built houses, shops, ships and factories, made furniture, farmed, drove carts, and carried cargo and passengers on the many ships that circled New Zealand’s coast. Government of every kind – local road boards, provincial assemblies, and from 1876 a national Parliament – was men’s business.

    • Quoted in Frances Porter, Born to New Zealand: a biography of Jane Maria Atkinson. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, 1989, p. 62. Back

Mothers and voters: 1880s–1920s

From the 1880s Pākehā New Zealand became a more settled society, shaped by people born locally rather than by those coming from elsewhere. Decisions about drinking, voting, the value and care of children, and where and on what terms New Zealanders should serve their country in war determined what kind of nation New Zealand should be. Between the 1880s and the 1920s men and women were often mobilised as separate groups. At times their interests seemed to be pitted against each other.

Women, drink and the vote

Men's drinking and women's inability to vote both became central issues of public debate in the 1880s. Under the powerful leadership of Kate Sheppard, franchise superintendent of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a mass movement was mobilised to demand women’s right to vote. Without a vote women had little chance of influencing licensing legislation controlling the sale of alcohol – men were far more likely than women to drink.

Arguments for the vote were advanced on the principles of liberty and equality – that men and women deserved to be represented in the government to which they were subject. Some also claimed women’s right to vote on the basis of their difference from men: politics would be improved by women’s superior moral qualities, while families and households would be enhanced by women’s civic responsibility.

The suffrage victory in 1893, in which New Zealand women became the first to exercise the vote in a nation state, made the country the focus of international attention.

Smaller families

Marriage and family life changed dramatically between the 1880s and 1920s. In 1914 the average family had two to three children. The decline continued through the following decades. By the 1930s Pākehā families usually had just two children.

Living in towns and cities, working for wages rather than on the land, and seeking an improvement in their standard of living meant that couples were no longer keen to have large families. Marrying later, limiting sex and controlling fertility became common practice.


It was believed that modern girls lacked the inclination and expertise to be parents. To remain strong New Zealand needed women to be mothers and homemakers, and men to be fathers and workers. Such arguments would shape government policy and popular ideology through much of the 20th century.

The first state-funded St Helens maternity hospitals were opened, a registration system for women working as midwives was set up in 1904, and, most prominently, the Society for the Promotion of Home and Family – better known as the Plunket Society – was formed in 1907.

The education system was also prompted to do more to prepare boys and girls for their future lives as breadwinners and homemakers. For boys, military cadet training, outdoor sports and physical training were brought into the school curriculum, and they were encouraged in movements such as Boy Scouts, the YMCA and Boys’ Brigade. Girls were taught cooking, sewing and baby care in domestic education, part of the primary school curriculum from the first decade of the 20th century.

Soldiers and sportsmen: 1880s–1920s

Sport and war

Boys’ and men’s part in guaranteeing the future of the nation and empire gained great emphasis around the turn of the century. New Zealanders’ loyalty to queen (or king) and country was demonstrated by the eager volunteers who responded to calls for men to serve in the South African War from 1899 to 1902. Pride in the New Zealand contingents’ robust manliness was taken as a reflection of a wider national health.

The success of the 1905 All Black rugby team, the ‘Originals’, who toured England and Wales beating almost all their opponents, reinforced the same belief. The tour cemented rugby's stature as the national game. It defined the kind of men the country was particularly proud of: physically strong, modest in demeanour, competitive and victorious, men whose actions spoke louder than words.

First World War

Pride and enthusiasm for manly virtues and anticipated heroism fed the mood of patriotism surrounding news of war against Germany in August 1914. The reality of what came to be known as the Great War soon shifted the mood to one of sombre intent. Over 100,000 men – mostly young – served in New Zealand forces during 1914–18. Close to 18,000 lost their lives, many in distant battlefields. Manly service in war, in the service of the realm, was no longer a matter of heroic triumph but one of loss, tragedy and sacrifice.

Get tough

Being toughened up was part of growing up for boys. They were admired for enduring the strap or cane at school without cowering or crying, not seeking comfort when hurt – a boy taking it like a man. When it was suggested that corporal punishment might be harmful, the editor of a Dunedin magazine responded, ‘Are we to raise a race of cowards … a set of hypochondriacal weaklings?’1

Soldier citizenship

War service in 1914–18 (and again in 1939–45) widened the gulf between women and men. It was a time of diverging experience and sentiment. Women were called on to support the war effort at home, and to maintain normal life as far as possible. Men were called on to put their lives on the line in defence of empire and nation, creating a deep sense of sacrifice and obligation. Soldier citizenship was a powerful force in New Zealand throughout the 20th century.

    • Quoted in Dorothy Page, Howard Lee and Tom Brooking, ‘Schooling for a gendered future.’ Sites of gender: women, men and modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890–1939, edited by Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003, p. 100. Back

Parallel worlds: mid-20th century

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.

Welfare state

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.

Social life

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.

    • Tom Skinner with John Berry, Man to man. Christchurch: Whitcoulls, 1980, p. 33. Back

War and suburbia

Turning point for women?

Men were again called to become ‘soldier citizens’ in the Second World War, with over 200,000 serving in the armed forces from 1939 to 1945, and more than 11,000 casualties. For women the war years are often considered a turning point, a moment of fundamental social change.

Some historians emphasise the opportunities women gained for new forms of employment and the impetus this gave to demands for equal treatment in the workplace. Others point to longer-term continuities in women’s work and the ways in which wartime policy maintained women’s first duty as one of caring for children and ‘home’.

Women’s war effort

Propaganda at the time encouraged women to do their bit for the war effort. After some initial reluctance, service organisations established women’s auxiliaries in the army, navy and air force – the WAACs, WRNZS and WAAFs, respectively. A small number of these women were posted to service in Europe and the Pacific. Recruitment remained on a voluntary basis.

However, women were most needed in the labour force in New Zealand – mostly in the clothing and food production industries, along with clerical work. They also did some jobs normally done by men. Wartime demands provoked debate as to what was suitable work for women and men. Women’s work in the home and in the paid workforce was underlined as being of national importance.

Setting up house

Getting married, having a family and setting up house in the suburbs was never more popular or possible than in the post-war years, 1945 to 1965. Prosperity and peace underlaid this era of almost universal marriage and the ‘baby boom’.

Women’s and men’s lives were complementary, at home and in the wider community. Although increasing numbers of women were in paid employment, men remained the main breadwinners. Leaving work when they married or became pregnant was usual for women, even if many later took up paid work as their children grew up.

Home life

This was a period of high and increasingly modernised domesticity (for city-dwelling Māori as well as Pākehā). By the beginning of the 1960s most New Zealand homes had a refrigerator, an electric or gas stove and an electric washing machine. A man’s ability to provide these ‘mod cons’ was often a source of satisfaction and pride. Among women, pride in modern, productive homes and healthy, well-adjusted children – the science of child rearing increasingly paid attention to social and psychological as well as physical dimensions of health – was emphasised in the notion of marriage as a career.

Most New Zealand women made a large proportion of their own and their children’s clothes, and each year processed fruit and vegetables into bottled produce for family consumption. The relatively high cost of manufactured clothing and food often made this a necessity.


Work allowed men to support a family, but limited their part in family life. Full-time hours, with overtime and commuting added in, left little but the weekends. Many continued the male tradition of responsibility for home repairs and building, maintaining vegetable gardens and disposing of rubbish.

Weekends also allowed time for the pub, the Returned Servicemen’s Association, gambling at the TAB, and watching or playing sports, particularly rugby. Although men had little involvement in care of babies and toddlers, older boys often tagged along with dad.

Suburban living – heaven or hell?

Suburban living was not always the ideal, as it was presented. For some women it could be a place of private hell and social isolation. In the late 1960s Fraser McDonald, a psychiatrist at Auckland's Kingseat Hospital, drew attention to the very high rates of suburban neurosis, and use of anti-depressants amongst women in New Zealand's suburbs.

By the 1960s many women were beginning to question whether marriage and family life was sufficient – as a career, or as an end in itself. Better educated than ever before and interested in adult company and rewarding work once their children were at school, they questioned the role of women.

Challenge and reaction: 1960s–1990s

Freedom – from parents, from authorities, from existing expectations – became the cry of young people, particularly women, growing up in New Zealand’s cities from the mid-1960s. What had been seen as normal dress and behaviour was dismissed as old-fashioned, while some people argued that what was expected of women was unjust.

What had been normal practice in the early 1960s had ceased to be so by the late 1970s. Greater sexual freedom and the call to liberate women and men from a sexist society made this period one of social revolution and controversy.

Miniskirts, long hair and ‘the pill’

Long hair for men, loud music and miniskirts were popular (and shocking to some) fashions of the 1960s. Some older people complained that men’s long hair made it impossible to tell them apart from women. Others suspected that the miniskirt era was also one of mini morals, as the contraceptive pill became widely used in New Zealand. However, only some doctors were prepared to prescribe it to single women, and even Family Planning clinics were reluctant to do so before the early 1970s.

Greater social and sexual experimenting was exciting and alarming. For women, reliable and convenient control of fertility brought a freedom from the fear of unwanted pregnancy. To many men it spelled the possibility of sex ‘without strings’. A sexual relationship no longer meant marriage, mortgages and breadwinning. To conservative sections of New Zealand society sexual freedom and new fashions were dangerous signs of a permissive society, a community lacking standards.

Changing role of women

Some women described New Zealand as a sexist society. They pointed to differences between women’s and men’s position in society, the lack of equality in pay, job opportunities and numbers of women in Parliament, and the trivialisation of women’s lives, along with sexist attitudes which supported and explained such differences as normal. (Sexism – prejudice based on beliefs about ‘natural differences’ between women and men – was seen as akin to racism – prejudice on the basis of skin colour.) Language, health, housework, sex, dress and appearance became political issues.

Mrs Joe Bloggs

Until the 1970s a woman’s marital status, made obvious by the title ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’, was the most important thing about her. Virtually all married women were known by their husband’s name. (The rare exceptions were usually women who had a profession.) Brenda Jones would become Mrs Brenda Smith, or even Mrs John Smith. But many women decided they liked the name they were born with, and that ‘Ms’ was a good alternative to Miss and Mrs.

From 1970 when the first Women’s Liberation groups were established, through to the 1990s, a large and active social and political movement, a ‘second wave’ of feminist activism challenged almost every part of New Zealand society.

Shifting patterns

Augusta Wallace’s appointment as the first woman judge (1975), Linda Jones’s long struggle to work as a jockey (1978) and the first appearance of women as newsreaders as well as ‘weather girls’ on television (1975) signalled a changing social and cultural climate. Expectations that boys and girls aged 11 and 12 should be channelled into their ‘natural’ futures as homemakers and breadwinners ceased to be assumed within the educational curriculum when both boys and girls began attending cooking and woodworking lessons from 1974.


As more women joined or stayed in the workforce, paid employment stopped being primarily the province of men, and became that of adults. For women, having a job while raising young children became standard. From the mid-1970s to the 1990s, unemployment hit some occupations hard, and for some men the tight link between manliness and work loosened.

Despite these shifts, some patterns remained strong. In many families women remained responsible for housework and cooking and continued to do much of the childcare, arranging their paid work around family responsibilities.

New ways of being a man

The stereotype of proper New Zealand manhood – strong, emotionally stoic, silent, undemonstrative and heterosexual – came under attack in the 1970s and 1980s. Some argued that men were also imprisoned in a sexist society, or that they personally were not like that and didn’t want to be.

Radical voices such as Catholic priest Felix Donnelly, author of Big boys don’t cry (1978), and playwright Greg McGee with his indictment of violent rugby-club culture, Foreskin’s lament (1980), provided unsettling critiques of conventional ideas of manhood. Jock Phillips’s ground-breaking history of the image of the Pākehā male, A man’s country (1987), and Michael King’s One of the boys? Changing views of masculinity in New Zealand (1988) detailed the construction of New Zealand manliness.

Gay pride

Declarations of gay pride were even more disturbing to sections of society for whom heterosexual marriage was the only normal and legitimate way to live. Legal reform as well as profound social change was needed for male homosexuality to be accepted as normal. At times the backlash against gay identity and activism was vicious and even violent. The campaign to decriminalise male homosexuality was finally successful in 1986, after a protracted and divisive campaign.

Good keen men

Some aspects of old-style masculinity became targets of gentle fun in popular culture. John Clarke’s ‘Fred Dagg’ character enabled a largely urban audience to laugh at the laconic, black-singlet-wearing farmer. Other characters included Barry Crump’s good keen bushman, and Lloyd Scott’s weedy urban wimp in vehicle advertisements.

Other aspects of masculinity remained closely guarded. Former All Black Grahame Thorne’s 1983 appearance as a television sports announcer with obviously permed hair drew howls of derision. Masculine attire became more casual but not noticeably more flamboyant than in earlier decades.

Limits on change

There has been no openly gay All Black or member of the national cricket team. Rural and provincial New Zealand is probably less welcoming to diverse expressions of masculinity than urban centres.

Common ground: 1999–21st century

Men and women had more in common in the early 21st century than they did in earlier times. In jobs, public office, and even in clothes and alcohol consumption, there was much greater similarity in the lives of women and men.

Lingering differences

However, differences remained, some new, some of longer standing. Boys’ achievement in educational tests in their last three years at school dropped relative to those of girls, and this became the subject of public anxiety. Despite the fact that girls’ academic results were slightly better overall, and women were more than half of those enrolled in post-school education, there remained a considerable economic gap between women and men. 

Addressing inequalities in pay

In 2015 men took home pay packets that were on average 12% higher than those of women. These differences were often the outcome of jobs done by women having lower rates of pay than jobs done mainly by men.  Later that year, following a decision by the Court of Appeal on a pay equity claim, the government set up a Joint Working Group on Pay Equity Principles. Government, union and employer representatives were asked to provide practical guidance to employers and employees on how to implement pay equity – the principle that women and men should receive the same remuneration for doing jobs that are different, but of equal value.

The Joint Working Group reported in May 2016, and in August 2017 the government introduced the Employment (Pay Equity and Equal Pay) Bill. The Bill was opposed by opposition parties on the grounds that it was not consistent with the recommendations of the Joint Working Group and would make pay equity claims more difficult as comparison with other jobs was limited to the claimants’ industry. This legislation was withdrawn after a change of government in October 2017. On 19 September 2018 the Equal Pay Amendment Bill was introduced by the Jacinda Ardern-led government, removing obstacles to pay equity claims.

An equal pay settlement for those working in the aged and disability residential home and home and community support services was reached in April 2017. Further pay equity claims were pursued by unions on behalf of female dominated occupations in 2017 and 2018.

Shared territory?

The common ground evident in women’s and men’s lives in the 21st century was more a result of women taking up activities previously the preserve of men than the reverse. An exception is parenting. Fatherhood had become a recognised and valued role for men, and men as well as women were eligible for parental leave.

Woman’s destiny

In 1889 former colonial treasurer and politician Sir Julius Vogel predicted a woman would be ruler of a United Greater Britain in his futuristic novel Anno Domini, 2000, or Woman's Destiny. The details were a bit awry but his general prediction was true for New Zealand in the 21st century, when a prime minister, political-party leaders, chief justice, governor-general, and chief executive of the largest business were all female.

The number of men playing netball was minuscule compared to the number and profile of women and girls playing rugby, rugby league, and especially football. However, male sports stars continued to receive more attention, and higher levels of funding, than their female counterparts. In 2018 professional contracts were offered to women playing rugby union and rugby league for the first time.

Popular culture

In popular culture old meanings of what it was to be a man or a woman continued to play out along with new possibilities and dilemmas. Beer advertising billboards, television dramas and colloquial expressions provided insight into the continued evolution of how New Zealanders live as men and women.

Munter and Van, male characters in the highly successful television drama series Outrageous Fortune, have 'issues'. Bushman and writer Barry Crump, rugby player Colin Meads, writer Frank Sargeson or Maurice Gee's character Plumb might have experienced something similar, but would never have spoken of them, least of all with their mates.

Female characters were often multi-dimensional and acting in a larger world. Cheryl West, the sexy matriarch of the Outrageous Fortune family, the interfering but good-hearted Marj in television soap Shortland Street and feisty Pai in the film Whale Rider all had lives beyond those defined by their men or families.

These stories of New Zealanders made reference both to a past that had become an object of curiosity and irony, and the new terrain of a changed gender landscape. Telling someone else, or yourself, ‘to man up’ was to draw on the old virtue of male stoical courage, but to do so knowing that it was a code rather than a prescription or monopoly for men or women.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Charlotte Macdonald, 'Women and men', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by Charlotte Macdonald, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 August 2017