During the 1960s and early 1970s most women were still marrying early and focusing on parenting, but the ex-nuptial birth rate rose, divorces increased and married women were more likely to be in the paid workforce. Conventional family arrangements were challenged as feminism began to have an impact. Changes in women’s lives and aspirations had implications for men as lovers, husbands and fathers.
By 1960 there were four births on average per adult woman. Fertility rates increased steadily for women at younger ages, peaking for the 15–24-year age group in the 1960s and in the early 1970s for teenage parents.
All my friends were doing it
One woman recalled the assumptions people made after she married in the late 1960s: ‘I was just on 17 when I got married … If you weren’t married by 19 you were an old maid. All my friends were married because a lot of them had to. A lot of people thought I had to, and I used to say, “Time will tell.” But we’re still waiting for a child. Mum didn’t want me to get married at all, she wanted me to wait. I wish I’d taken her advice.’1
Many young women left school at 15, entered employment and were married and pregnant (not necessarily in that order) in their early 20s. Women married men close to them in age (on average 2.6 years older). A hundred years before female settlers had married men who were on average six years older than them.
Māori family size
After averaging six births per woman for most of the 20th century, Māori family sizes declined from the 1960s as infant and child mortality rates dropped. Fertility rates for Māori dropped from five births per woman in 1973 to 2.8 by 1978, and averaged 2.2 by the late 1980s. However, fertility trends for different ethnic groups became hard to calculate due to changes in definitions of ethnicity used in the census.
Conception, marriage and sole parenthood
The baby-boom epoch is often seen as New Zealand’s ‘golden era’. However, while concern was expressed about teenage pregnancy in the early 21st century, the rate of teenage conception was actually much higher in the early 1970s. Marriage, especially at young ages, was frequently a response to pre-marital pregnancy. However, the percentage of births within seven months of marriage dropped from 47% in 1962 to 38% in 1972. Single women who did not marry were often expected to make their babies available for adoption.
By the early 1970s single women who became mothers were more likely to raise their babies alone. This was assisted by improvements in financial support from the state, initially through access to the discretionary emergency hardship benefit and finally through the establishment of the Domestic Purposes Benefit in 1973, which provided financial support for sole parents who were not in paid work.
You must have your own house
The focus on home ownership could be stressful. One man described his experience of saving for a home: ‘We bought to save rent but I think, looking back, it is one of those things that’s more or less drummed into you. You must have your own section, your own house, and once you’ve got that you’re established … I actually held two or three jobs for about seven years to do that … It did affect my family relationships. You can work too much.’2
Doing house and home
Moving from rental accommodation into one’s own home remained an important goal for young families, and home improvement increased as a family-focused activity. The state continued to facilitate families’ access to housing by providing low-interest home loans, and families built new homes in the expanding suburbs. The portion of households owning their own home exceeded 70% in the 1970s. Good parenting was defined as ‘putting a roof over their heads’.
Rethinking sex and domesticity
During the late 1960s, the first set of children born during the baby boom became adults and started to question conventional ideals of family life. While training for work in traditionally female occupations such as clerical work, nursing and teaching, and marrying early and becoming home owners, many women aspired to lives different from those of their mothers. Some of them became involved in organisations that focused on:
- abortion rights
- political, educational and employment opportunities for women
- opposition to domestic violence and rape
- access to childcare
- alternatives to conventional heterosexuality.
In 1973 the first United Women’s Convention was held in Auckland and included workshops on many different aspects of women’s lives, including their lives within families. It highlighted issues in women’s lives relating to sexuality, rape, domestic violence, mental health, education and employment; and questioned assumptions about women as primary caregivers, men’s involvement in paid work and power relationships in households. While divisions of responsibility between women and men within families continued, they were increasingly being questioned.