In the 19th century women looked to other women for support through the almost universal experiences of marriage, childbirth, raising a family and running a household. Often (particularly in Māori communities) these other women were kin, but many settler women had no female relatives nearby. Missionary women relied on Māori women converts to assist them in childbirth, and returned the favour. However, apparently because of cultural differences, few friendships between Pākehā and Māori women developed, and mutual dependence dwindled as more Pākehā arrived. Neighbourly support networks continued; many women, armed only with the experience of having given birth themselves, became trusted local midwives.
Being a wife and mother was often described as a ‘career’ until the late 20th century. This belief was echoed by women’s organisations of all types, but some were formed specifically to promote women’s moral influence in the home.
The Mothers’ Union of the Anglican Church, which originated in England, was one such group. The first New Zealand Mothers’ Union started in Christchurch in 1886 and more were formed in the 1890s. Members promised to uphold the sanctity of marriage and home. Meetings combined prayer, discussion of social issues, and ‘fellowship’. In 1948 Young Wives’ groups were set up.
Other churches followed suit: from 1911, the Salvation Army Home League gave ‘spiritual counsel and practical direction to women in all matters relating to the Home’.1 Weekly meetings included singing and prayers, a cup of tea and a biscuit, and an address on a domestic or religious topic. Women were allowed to mend, knit and sew at meetings.
A pan-Christian organisation, the League of Mothers, was founded by Lady Alice Fergusson, the governor-general’s wife, in 1926. It was more encompassing than other groups, allowing single women with an interest in child-rearing to join. It also had Māori women’s branches. One of the attractions of the league was that mothers could bring their children to monthly meetings. The children played while their mothers listened to a speaker, took part in a competition such as flower arranging, and enjoyed afternoon tea. This was provided by members, who were asked to ‘bring a plate’.
The best-known organisation supporting women as mothers was the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society. Founded in 1907, it aimed to combat high child mortality by teaching women about baby and child care. Later it also focused on the health of mothers. Local committees of women raised funds to establish rooms for Plunket nurses, Karitane hospitals, and education and support services.
Plunket Mothers’ Clubs were important meeting places for women between the world wars. From these evolved New Mothers’ Support Groups in the 1970s. Friendships made at these groups often lasted a lifetime.
Politicised by Plunket
Lesley MacGibbon was introduced to feminist ideas after joining Plunket in a small town in 1976. She remembers, ‘I was delighted to discover that, following the formal meeting, most of the women stayed to talk, eat, and drink wine … We could connect our common experiences with the structures and practices in society that disadvantaged women.’ 2 She was recruited as a women’s refuge volunteer by one of the women she met at Plunket.
Housewives’ associations and unions emerged from 1912. The more left-wing organisations were concerned with the cost of living and social issues, while conservative groups focused on prices and the quality of goods. All were united in their view that it was a woman’s job to run a household, and that the job was vital.
The role of wife was as strongly emphasised as that of mother; a wife was expected to be a ‘helpmeet’ for the breadwinner husband. As a consequence, ‘wives’ groups’ emerged among women married to men in certain occupations: surveyors and university staff to name just two. One purpose of these groups was to provide women with a ready-made social circle.
The status of women within wives’ organisations often reflected their husband’s role in the workplace. The main officeholders were usually the wives of the men in management positions. For example, the president of the university wives’ association was usually the wife of the vice-chancellor or one of the professors.
By the 1970s married women were entering the workforce in greater numbers and pursuing their own careers. Their social networks were less likely to be defined by their husband’s job and interests. The term ‘mothering’ was replaced by ‘parenting’, and childrearing increasingly involved fathers. Men also became more involved in running households. These changes affected some organisations. Church mothers’ groups often found it difficult to recruit younger members, and membership of wives’ groups declined. The Federation of New Zealand Housewives disbanded in 1978. However ante-natal and new mothers’ support groups remained popular, providing crucial support for many women at an important life stage.