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Lesbian lives

by Alison J. Laurie

Some 19th- and early 20th-century women formed passionate friendships, and sometimes lifelong partnerships, although few women had the resources to live independently of men. From the later 20th century lesbians were increasingly ‘out’ and proud, and some chose to have children.

Describing and controlling lesbianism

‘Lesbian’ is the oldest and most commonly understood word for women’s same-sex relationships. From the 1970s it began to be used positively by the lesbian-feminist movement, and replaced other terms. Some women called themselves ‘kamp’ (a description also used by gay men) from the 1950s. In the 19th and early 20th centuries terms like ‘lady-husband’ and ‘bluestocking’ were sometimes used to describe women in same-sex relationships. The term ‘Sapphic’ appears to have been widely understood – in 1905 Truth reported the cross-dressing case of ‘Bert Rotciv’ with the headline ‘The Sapphic singularities of Boy Bertha’.


In 1904 Alla Atkinson wrote a letter to her sister Dorothy Richmond and mentioned Blanche and her companion, whom she referred to as Blanche’s ‘lady-husband’: ‘Blanche & her German friend were on the Papanui ... she rushed away to get lodgings for herself & friend at Wanganui without seeing all her relations ... she looks well, but old rather & very gentle-eyed – she is a dear creature – we all feel rather burdened by the lady-husband.’1

Living a lesbian life

Before social, economic and legal reforms improved women’s access to education, employment and housing in the late 20th century, few women had the economic independence which was essential for living a lesbian life and establishing a same-sex domestic relationship. Many women’s lives were lived in the private rather than the public sphere, and opportunities to meet others or organise networks were limited.

There was also a class difference – middle-class women had more access to education and well-paid employment than their working-class counterparts, so were more easily able to set up what might be regarded as lesbian households.

A woman’s duty

Mary Taylor, a businesswoman in Wellington in the mid-19th century, never married, and had passionate lifelong friendships with two women, Ellen Nussey and the writer Charlotte Brontë. She was committed to being financially independent, and argued that ‘a woman’s first duty, like a man’s, is to earn a living’. Women who did not earn their own money could be ‘driven into matrimony merely for maintenance, or may have to starve when the husband is gone.’ 2

Despite these obstacles, some women from the 19th to mid-20th centuries developed lesbian relationships and led lesbian lives, though most did not publicly (or even privately) identify themselves as lesbian.

Controlling lesbianism

Some Māori historians believe that lesbian relationships and behaviours were accepted in many Māori communities before European colonisation. The introduction of English law and Christianity by colonisers placed legal and moral restraints on all same-sex sexual behaviours. Male homosexual practices were regarded as criminal from 1840. This was formalised by the English Laws Act 1858.

Lesbian sexual practices were not criminalised in England – or in New Zealand. The Crimes Act 1961 introduced lesbianism into the law to a limited extent by criminalising females over 21 who indecently assaulted girls under 16.

Criminal associations

In 1935 musical conductor Eric Mareo was convicted of murdering his wife, Thelma. During the trial Thelma Mareo’s lesbian relationship with the dancer Freda Stark became public. Eric Mareo testified that ‘his wife’s desires were met by association with women’3 and the defence showed the jury nude photos of Stark in a failed attempt to discredit her as a witness. In later life Stark became a celebrated elder of the lesbian community and her life was documented in a play and in films.

The absence of lesbian sex from criminal law did not mean that lesbian relationships were accepted. Women who transgressed accepted codes of behaviour and gender could still be punished. Young women who engaged in socially unacceptable sexual behaviour – including lesbian practices – could be sent to government institutions such as the Te Oranga Girls’ Home at Burwood in Christchurch. Lesbians were sometimes committed to psychiatric hospitals for treatment – homosexuality was defined as a personality disorder by psychiatrists until 1973.

Vaguely worded codes of conduct for some occupations, using terms such as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘improper’ behaviour, could be used against women suspected of lesbianism. Prominent and negative media coverage often associated lesbianism with crime.

    • Atkinson Papers, MS Papers 4863-09 No. XXIII, 1 July 1901, p. 4. Back
    • Quoted in Alison Laurie, ‘Lady-husbands and kamp ladies: pre-1970 lesbian life in Aotearoa/New Zealand.’ PhD thesis, Victoria University, 2003, p. 175. Back
    • Quoted in Shirley Hodsell Williams, 'Stark, Freda Beatrice 1910–1999.' Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 11 March 2011). Back

Early relationships and networks

It is difficult to know to what extent 19th- and early 20th-century women’s relationships with one another were sexual. Close physical contact between women may be interpreted as affectionate and platonic by some but as sexual by others.

Some lesbian historians point out that it is not always possible to know whether and how often women had sex with one another and that anyway sex is not the only way of deciding if a relationship can be regarded as lesbian. They see women who had lifelong domestic partnerships, who purchased houses together, willed property to one another, socialised in networks of other committed female couples and were finally buried together, as leading lesbian lives.

Friendship circles

Lesbian friendship circles were the earliest form of lesbian community. They existed within occupational networks, including teaching, nursing, the post office, telephone exchanges and the armed forces, while others included women from a range of occupations or recreational interests.

Where the heart is

In 1947 Elsie Andrews published a book of poetry. In a poem called ‘In days to come’ she referred to the home she shared with Muriel Kirton: ‘This rooftree dear / has brought such happiness to us / No other tenants has it known / The house, the land, they are both ours / The trees, the flowers / The title deeds are ours alone / and all the household goods to boot / Each table, picture, sofa, chair / Has been with care / Exactly placed our need to suit.’1

In the mid-20th century a circle of female couples in Eastbourne, near Wellington, included teacher Margaret Magill and her partner, accountant Mimie Wood, who lived together for over 40 years. Magill, principal of Thorndon Normal School, was the first woman president of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), and Wood was secretary, accountant and librarian of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Margaret’s sister Ada Magill, a shorthand typist, and her life-companion Molly Gore were also part of the circle.

Married women

Some married women had lesbian relationships.

Writer Katherine Mansfield had passionate relationships with women from a young age.  Ida Baker was Mansfield’s close companion from 1903, and their relationship continued after Mansfield’s marriage and until her death in 1923.

A bit of excitement

Freda Stark, born in 1910, had affairs with married women. In later life she said that some women ‘live terrible lives with dreadful old uninteresting men … and they never get any excitement from them … We can whisk them away up to dizzy heights … It’s amazing, the ordinary women who turned out to be lesbians and nobody ever knew.’2

Anna (Bessie) Spencer, founder of the Country Women’s Institute (CWI), and Amy Large Hutchinson were friends and companions for over 65 years. They met at Napier Girls' High School, where Spencer taught and was headmistress from 1901 to 1909. Large was matron of the boarding hostel where they lived together.

In 1907 Large married a family friend, Frank Hutchinson. Spencer retired and lived with them at their estate at Rissington, north-west of Napier. Frank Hutchinson died in 1940 and the two women lived on at Rissington before retiring to Napier.

    • Elsie Andrews, The Plymouth ships and other verses. New Plymouth: E. Andrews, 1947. Back
    • Freda Stark, interviewed by Alison Laurie, 1992. Oral History and Sound collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Back

Early meeting places

Groups and communities

Various community women’s groups could provide lesbians with the chance to meet one another. There were over 300 women’s groups established before the 1970s, as well as recreational and cultural groups and church, family or private networks. All of these groups provided opportunities for women to meet one another, therefore could be meeting places for lesbians.

Literary allusions

Lesbian women sometimes found one another by advertising in the personal columns of newspapers. The meaning behind this notice, published in the Evening Post in 1961, would have been clear to those who knew the work of English lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall: ‘RADCLYFFE HALL, books by, life of etc. Wish contact persons interested in same. T206 Evg. Post’.1

There is little evidence of publicly visible lesbian communities before the Second World War. Modern homosexual identities and communities developed with urbanisation. By the 1950s there were ‘kamp’ communities in the main cities. Lesbians mainly socialised at private parties at home, especially when renting or purchasing housing became possible for more women as incomes increased.

Public social scenes

Restrictive hotel and bar licensing laws (particularly before the extension of opening hours in 1967) meant lesbian bar culture developed later in New Zealand than in countries overseas. Lesbians in New Zealand learned about overseas communities by travelling and by subscribing to overseas lesbian magazines such as Arena three, which was published by The Minorities Research Group (MRG), a lesbian organisation founded in England in 1963.

There were coffee bars and hotel lounge bars where lesbian women met, including the Royal Oak in Wellington, the Occidental and Shakespeare hotels in Auckland and the British Hotel in Lyttelton. Coffee bars included the Ca d’Oro in Auckland and Carmen’s Coffee Lounge and the Tête-à-Tête in Wellington. Gay men also congregated in these spots.

The first lesbian social club was the KG Club in Auckland, which opened in 1972. KG stood for Karangahape Road, the first location, and for Kamp Girls. Club 41 opened at 41 Vivian Street in Wellington in 1974. The premises for both clubs were found by Māori lesbians – Bubs Hetet in Auckland and Diana Sands in Wellington. The KG Club was started by a collective of four Māori and four Pākehā lesbians. It shifted to various locations before closing in 1985. Club 41 was started and owned by lesbians Porleen Simmonds, Marilyn Johnston, Liz Hutton and Jan MacFarlane. It closed in 1977. More lesbian clubs followed, including the Wigan Street and Tory Street clubs, and Lesbian Resource Centre in Wellington.

    • Evening Post, 25 February 1961, p. 1. Back

Cross-dressing women

Some women cross-dressed and passed as men. They did this to access male employment and rates of pay at a time when few women could become economically independent due to their lack of educational and employment opportunities. They may be regarded by some scholars as transgendered rather than as lesbian. They usually came to attention if they were charged with crimes like vagrancy or false pretences.

Bertha Victor/Bert Rotciv

‘Bert Rotciv’, who was arrested in Sydney for vagrancy in December 1906, was the pseudonym used by Bertha Victor of Hokitika. Dressed in men’s clothes, she was described by Truth as ‘the she-male ex-New Zealander’.1 Victor continued to cross-dress once back in New Zealand because she wanted to do men’s work.

Media sensation

When exposed, cross-dressing women were seen as deviants whose behaviour was outside what was normally expected of women. When reporting on Deresley Morton / Peter Stratford, a New Zealander who lived as a man in the United States, NZ Truth wrote: ‘Occasionally there emerges from the ranks of humanity a rare type of freak whose idiosyncrasies find expression in a code of behaviour and outlook that outdoes anything that is attributed to the puppets of sensational fiction. No psychological freak intrigues the public imagination more than does the man-woman, that rare specimen who occasionally draws the light of publicity on to incredible escapades.’2

Mr X

In 1945 ‘Mr X’ and her wife were charged with making a false statement under the Marriage Act. Mr X lived as a man, had her breasts removed, and registered as a male under the National Service Regulations for war service. Mr X’s wife knew she was female before they married and it was reported that they were happy together. The couple was ordered by the court to remain apart as a condition of a probationary sentence, and to undergo psychiatric treatment.

Dressing in the 21st century

As choices of clothing have become more flexible from the 1960s, many lesbians now choose to wear items like trousers without this being regarded as cross-dressing. Strictly gendered clothing is not required in most New Zealand workplaces. And though equal pay has not yet been achieved, women have better access to education, and to employment opportunities and pay previously available mainly to men. More women are now able to achieve economic independence, and to choose to live as lesbians if they wish.

    • NZ Truth, 5 January 1907, p. 5. Back
    • NZ Truth, 13 June 1929, p. 7. Back

Lesbian political struggles

Gay liberation

The 1970s were a watershed in the history of lesbian and gay lives in New Zealand. Following international trends, women's liberation groups (which included lesbian women) organised from 1970. Gay liberation started in New Zealand in 1972 after protests by Auckland lesbians and gay men when Māori lesbian activist Ngahuia Te Awekotuku was refused a United States entry visa. Gay Liberation promoted homosexual visibility and radical social change.

Lesbian organisations

As in other countries, lesbians founded separate activist organisations. They were disenchanted with the sexism of some gay men and the homophobia of some heterosexual feminists.

The first national lesbian organisation was SHE (Sisters for Homophile Equality), which began in Christchurch in 1973. Branches were founded in Wellington and some smaller centres. SHE Wellington published Circle (1973–86), the first national lesbian magazine. Overseas magazines were exchanged and articles reprinted, introducing readers to new ideas of lesbian feminism. SHE lesbians started a support service called Lesbian Aid and organised the first national lesbian conference in 1974. Another important organisation was the Lesbian Mothers' Defence Fund, started by Yoka Neuman in Dunedin. It provided support and information for women leaving heterosexual marriages for lesbian relationships who risked losing custody of their children. Some women did manage to retain custody and live together with their children and lesbian partner. 

Lesbian political groups organised various activities, including publishing, summer camps, sports and social clubs, pickets and demonstrations. Some worked with feminist groups on a range of issues such as abortion rights, rape, women's centres, and peace and anti-racism actions.

Bus ban

In 1980 the Wellington City Council refused to display a Wellington Lesbian Centre banner on buses, although it simply read, ‘Lesbians, contact your local community’. The council said they were against the banner because ‘a small boy might see it and ask his mother what a lesbian was.’ 1

Law reform

Lesbians worked with gay men to support the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts. Lesbians argued that while male homosexual acts remained illegal, all same-sex relationships had criminal associations. The Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed in 1986. Lesbians also lobbied for prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation. This was achieved with the passage of the Human Rights Act 1993.

Important law reforms which improved the lives of lesbians included:

  • changes to immigration policy from 1991, which allowed same-sex partners to gain residence
  • the Civil Union Act 2004, which allowed same-sex legal partnerships
  • the Relationships (Statutory References) Act 2005, which provided legal consistency for same-sex couples
  • the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013, which allowed same-sex couples to marry.
    • Alison J. Laurie, ‘”Filthiness” became a theory: an overview of homosexual and lesbian organising from nineteenth century Europe to seventies New Zealand.’ In Outlines: lesbian & gay histories of Aotearoa, edited by Alison J. Laurie and Linda Evans. Wellington: Lesbian & Gay Archives of New Zealand, 2005, p. 16. Back

Contemporary lesbian life

Family life

By the early 2000s women could live public lesbian lives, which included living openly with women partners and raising children in lesbian households. Under law, lesbian couples who have children together – through donated sperm or assisted reproductive technology – are both recognised as parents. Many lesbians choose not to have children. Others choose to live alone, or have a relationship with another lesbian who lives alone.

Mum and mum

Lesbian parents are increasingly common in the 21st century – but some still have to think more than heterosexual parents about how their roles will be publicly understood. In a 2009 study one woman commented that ‘because I wasn’t the birth mother, [for] want of a better word, to me it was extremely important that I developed a strong natural bond with Claudia, and I made that my life’s mission … I never wanted people to be able to come in and go “Oh well, that’s definitely the biological mother … and that’s not.” That was really important to me.’1

However, the law with respect to parenting is not free of discrimination. Only married or single people can adopt children. If couples are in a de facto relationship or civil union then only one partner can adopt. The other partner can become a guardian. After same-sex marriage was legalised in August 2013, married lesbian couples were able to adopt jointly.

Social life

There are social opportunities for lesbians to meet through informal groups such as sports teams, walking groups and book clubs. The Amazons Softball Club (1977–2011) in Wellington and Circe Softball Club (founded 1979) and Circe United football club (founded 1980) in Auckland have been notable lesbian sports teams. The Lesbian Overland and Café Group organises walks in Wellington, while the Lesbian Information, Library and Archives Centre (LILAC) in Wellington and Charlotte Museum Trust in Auckland host book groups and exhibitions. Other Lesbian social events include the annual Auckland lesbian ball (which has been held since 1983).

There are mixed public events that include lesbians like Wellington's annual Out in the Square – a gay and lesbian festival – and Auckland's Hero Parade. The Gay Games and Out Games provide opportunities for lesbian competitors to socialise. Mixed gay and lesbian choirs like the Glamaphones in Wellington and Gay and Lesbian Singers (GALS) in Auckland have also competed at international Gay and Lesbian choir festivals.

Bea and Bette's gift

The Armstrong and Arthur Charitable Trust for Lesbians was established in 2001 by Bea Arthur to benefit lesbian community groups in the Wellington region. The Trust was named to recognise and remember Bea and Bette Armstrong, her partner of 57 years. It has funded a variety of lesbian projects and activities, including LILAC, the Wellington Lesbian Community Radio Programme, art exhibitions, theatre performances, and dance competitions.

Some younger and a few older lesbians identify as queer rather than lesbian, and many enjoy socialising at mixed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) events and groups. Some Māori women identify as takatāpui, meaning 'intimate partner of the same sex'.2 This term has been used by Māori since being identified in traditional texts by scholars Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Lee Smith.


The deregulation of radio and television broadcasting in the 1980s created new ways of communicating. The Lesbian Community programme on Wellington Access Radio started in 1984 and is still broadcast in the 2010s. In Christchurch the Lesbian Radio Collective broadcast on Plains FM. Lesbians also featured on the television shows Queer nation (Television New Zealand) and Takatāpui (Māori Television).

The internet has also improved communication among lesbians. There are national and local websites. Some websites have chat rooms where New Zealanders can talk with one another and with lesbians overseas.

Preserving lesbian history

The Lesbian Information, Library and Archives Centre (LILAC) has a large collection of lesbian literature. The Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ), housed at the Alexander Turnbull Library, includes manuscripts, oral histories, memorabilia, and published materials on lesbian histories. The lesbian Waxing Moon archives from Hamilton form part of this archive. The Charlotte Museum Trust preserves lesbian artefacts as well as literature and oral histories.

No marriage for Mabel

Politician Mabel Howard, New Zealand’s first woman cabinet minister, is believed to have been a lesbian, although she did not openly identify herself as such. When Howard appeared smartly attired at the launch of her election campaign in 1963, at the age of 69, an audience member asked if she was getting married. Howard retorted, ‘Married? I’ve dodged it so far and I will dodge it now.’3

High-profile lesbians

Some lesbians have a high public profile. Marilyn Waring was a member of Parliament from 1976 to 1984 and openly identified herself as a lesbian after she left. In 2005 Labour MP Maryan Street became the first openly identified lesbian elected to Parliament. Well-known entertainers Jools and Lynda Topp (the Topp Twins) describe themselves as ‘out-and-proud lesbians.’4 Other prominent self-identified lesbians include singer Anika Moa and writers Renee, Paula Boock, Miriam Saphira and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku.

    • Alexandra C. Gunn and Nicola Surtees, We’re a family: how lesbians and gay men are creating and maintaining family in New Zealand. Wellington: Families Commission, 2009, p. 15. Back
    • ‘What does 'takatāpui mean?’ (last accessed 21 August 2018). Back
    • Quoted in Alison Laurie, ‘Lady-husbands and kamp ladies: pre-1970 lesbian life in Aotearoa/New Zealand.’ PhD thesis, Victoria University, 2003, p. 187 Back
    • ‘Intro: The Topp Twins.’ (last accessed 8 October 2010). Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Alison J. Laurie, 'Lesbian lives', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Alison J. Laurie, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 15 o Ākuhata 2018