Kōrero: Gender inequalities

Whārangi 6. Arts and culture

Ngā whakaahua

Discrimination in the performing arts, fine arts (such as painting and sculpture), writing and popular culture has varied over time. Funding, exhibition space, media attention and (at times) publication have all been harder for women to obtain. Men have tended to dominate prestigious and expensive genres.

In broader cultural terms, the face of 21st-century New Zealand was still mainly male. Overall, the news media showed women in much smaller numbers than men, and in a much more limited range of roles. Women’s perspectives and opinions were much less likely to feature than those of men.

Performing arts and film

In colonial times, women who appeared on stage as professional singers, musicians and actors were virtually equal to the men they worked with. Māori women took part in the many concert parties flourishing by the 1900s.

Until the 1920s some women managed to combine performing careers with marriage and family. The cinema, especially the talkies, killed off many professional performing opportunities after the First World War. The amateurs carried on, with women not only taking leading roles on stage, but winning recognition as gifted producers, directors and organisers (though rarely as playwrights or composers). An example was Nola Millar, who moved from amateur theatre in the 1930s and 1940s to forming a professional company, the New Zealand Players, and becoming the first director of the New Zealand Drama School.

In the later 20th century it again became possible for a woman to make a living as an actor. But parts for women, especially as they grew older, were more restricted than those for men, and still more likely to be decoratively sexual, or playing the girlfriend, wife or mother. Men dominated direction and production, and their projects were more likely to be funded. Gradually women gained respect as directors of professional theatres. Cathy Downes is an example of an actor (famous for her one-woman shows about Katherine Mansefield) who has also worked as artistic director for The Court Theatre in Christchurch and as a playwright.

Women television directors and documentary-makers produced their first work in the mid-1970s, and the first feature films produced and directed by women came out in the mid-1980s. Women filmmakers included Gaylene Preston, Jane Campion and Niki Caro. Women performers such as Pat Evison, Kate Harcourt, Rima Te Wiata and Nancy Brunning took on a range of more interesting parts and often moved between work in theatre, radio, television and film.

Writing and painting

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, high culture was seen as morally and spiritually elevating, and was closely associated with women – laying the ground for New Zealand’s most prominent early painter, Frances Hodgkins, and writer, Katherine Mansfield.

Although fine-arts training was fully open to women, it was expensive. Many turned to writing, but women were barred from most of the usual apprenticeship routes in journalism and from the pubs where male writers commonly met. Still, by 1936 women were 12% of professional writers, 30% of commercial artists and 62% of other artists and art students. One of these professional writers was Iris Wilkinson, who used the pen name of Robin Hyde and worked as a journalist while also writing poetry and novels.

From the 1930s to the 1960s women painters did better than writers in sustaining serious work and gaining an audience and recognition. Though writers such as Mary Scott produced highly successful popular novels centring on women’s lives and set in New Zealand, the literary culture focused on and valued work that expressed masculine concerns and views. Women writers did not flourish. Women’s own experience was not an acceptable subject for serious cultural expression.

The ocean of sex

In the 1960s author Marilyn Duckworth was told off by writer and English professor H. Winston Rhodes for ‘paddl[ing] in the ocean of sex’.1 She was lucky to be mentioned at all – most women writing in New Zealand were ignored by literary pundits. Duckworth, sister of poet Fleur Adcock, was unabashed, and went on to publish novels, short stories, poetry, radio plays and television scripts, many of them about sexual relationships.

1970s and 1980s: women gain ground

A major shift began in the 1970s, and in 1975, International Women’s Year, nine new collections by women poets were published. Novels and reprints of earlier work followed. Feminists set up women’s galleries, bookshops, publishers and theatre groups, as well as actors’ and artists’ pressure groups. They made cultural space for women’s perspectives, including on ‘unspeakable’ issues such as domesticity and sexuality.

Mainstream publishers and galleries took notice, and women’s work began to draw a wider audience and more critical attention, prompting a backlash from some disgruntled men. Some women, including writers Fiona Kidman and Patricia Grace, and artists Robin White and Robyn Kahukiwa, were for the first time able to combine sustained achievement in the arts with long-term heterosexual partnerships and motherhood.

Craft arts

From the interwar years women were prominent in the development of craft art, which was boosted by postwar school and evening classes. Pottery was an egalitarian field from the outset; it won respect more quickly than weaving, which had to contend with being seen as an ephemeral female pursuit.

Māori and Pasifika women’s groups fostered female crafts such as making kākahu (cloaks) and tīvaevae (quilts), asserting their status as art that could stand alongside traditionally male crafts such as carving. While weaving was a traditional practice among Māori, tīvaevae was a craft developed by women in Cook Islands after contact with the wives of London Missionary Society members who taught them quilting and needlework in the 19th century. These forms of fibre art were often produced collaboratively.

Skills in cloak making and other fibre arts declined among Māori women in the first part of the 20th century. These skills were revived in the late 20th century due to the efforts of women like Diggeress Te Kanawa (Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Kinohaku), who promoted the revival of weaving with the support of the Māori Women’s Welfare League and the establishment of Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa, the National Māori Weavers Collective of New Zealand.

In the early 21st century exhibitions of traditional and contemporary fibre arts were mounted at Pataka Museum in Porirua and Te Papa Museum in Wellington. The Eternal Thread – Te Aho Mutunga Kore toured New Zealand in 2004 and the USA between 2005 and 2007. These exhibitions illustrated the aesthetic and artistic value of women’s skills and creativity in weaving.

A precarious living

In the early 21st century, for all but the top few, the arts still provided a living that was no more than precarious, and this was more so for women than for men. But as both makers and subjects, women featured alongside men in every kind of creative activity, including poetry, film and popular music, as well as in the leadership of national cultural institutions.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. H. Winston Rhodes, New Zealand fiction since 1945: a critical survey of recent novels and short stories. Dunedin: J. McIndoe, 1968, p. 51. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Anne Else, 'Gender inequalities - Arts and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/gender-inequalities/page-6 (accessed 18 October 2019)

Story by Anne Else, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Jun 2018