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Men and women in the city

by Caroline Daley

New Zealand has sometimes been called a ‘man’s country’ – but since the 1880s, its towns and cities have been home to more women than men. However, women have had to fight for equal access to city professions and a public presence in the cities.

Man’s country, woman’s city?

New Zealand has sometimes been called a ‘man’s country’. The Europeans who migrated to New Zealand in the 19th century and began to break in the land were mostly men. The pioneer bushmen and farmers of the 19th century were the forefathers of iconic 20th-century figures like All Black Colin Meads, famously photographed in the 1970s carrying a sheep under each arm.

Rural myth and urban reality

While New Zealand’s economy has had a rural backbone, its agricultural work did not need a large rural population. Rather, it required service towns and port cities to support primary production and facilitate the export of agricultural products. The man’s country needed an urban infrastructure. For well over 100 years New Zealand has been one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world. Even in the 19th century many men and women chose to remain in towns and cities rather than try their luck on the rural frontier. In cities women have long played a prominent role in public life.

Sexism and the city

Cities have offered women many opportunities – New Zealand universities, for example, never prevented female students enrolling in any courses. But early women graduates in law and medicine encountered prejudice in entering male-dominated professions and found it difficult to establish city practices.

Women in cities

In early colonial society women were concentrated in towns and cities. The 1886 census found that rural areas like Waikanae and Skipper’s Creek had three to four times as many male residents as females, but the country’s four main cities – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – were home to more women than men. Few Māori lived in the cities before 1940, but most of those who did were female.

In 1951 there were 107 females for every 100 males in New Zealand’s cities and boroughs, but only 89 females for every 100 males in its rural counties. As the country’s chief statistician noted that year, ‘the more remote the rural district, the higher is the masculinity of population, and the higher the degree of urbanisation the lower the masculinity’.1

It’s not raining men

A 2005 population-growth report brought the imbalance between numbers of men and women to the public’s attention. The report found that a 32-year-old woman had as much chance of finding a male partner of the same age as an 82-year-old woman did. The findings were confirmed in a 2008 study, which concluded that New Zealand had a ‘man drought’, and it was worse than Australia’s. However, while there is a shortage of men in New Zealand cities, the reverse is true in rural areas.

Statistics from 1921 showed that not only were there more females than males overall in the four main cities, there were also more adult women than men. So although some have portrayed New Zealand as a ‘brides’ paradise’ due to the overall gender imbalance in the 19th century, its major urban centres have long experienced a ‘man drought’. In 2006, 52% of the residents of New Zealand’s main urban centres aged 15 years and over were women.

Attractions of city life

While women’s longer life expectancy partly accounts for the gender imbalance of cities, there are also cultural reasons. City life particularly attracted women because it offered wider educational, work and social opportunities than rural life. In the country work centred on seasonal agricultural production; in the city employment could be found in factories, shops, and even the professions. Although such work was often demanding, it lacked the rugged physical demands of toil on the land.

In the country social life was dependent on proximity to neighbours and towns; in the city friendships could be formed over a suburban back fence. It was also easier in cities to meet like-minded people and join groups and societies. New Zealand’s first women’s movement was city-born. The women who successfully fought for the vote (gained in 1893) and campaigned for women’s political equality were mainly urban dwellers. Subsequent women’s organisations – from the Māori Women’s Welfare League (founded in 1951) to the Women’s Electoral Lobby (1975) – all had strong urban roots. City life was more socially and culturally diverse than country life, and this especially appealed to women.

  1. Population census, 1951, p. 17. Back

Suburban men

By 1911 most New Zealanders lived in urban areas. As early as 1885 one newspaper warned that ‘[t]he country make men; the cities uses them up’.1 The government linked urbanisation with national decline, and tried, unsuccessfully, to reverse the trend. The only hope was that men and women would settle in the suburbs rather than in city centres and recreate the best aspects of rural living on their quarter-acre sections.

Suburban living

At first only the wealthy could afford to pursue suburban lives. With the development of public transport from the 1880s, the suburbs attracted ever more men and women. By the 1920s just over a quarter of those living in the four main cities resided in the inner city; by the 1950s fewer than 20% did. While the 1990s saw a move back into inner-city areas, most city dwellers still lived in the encircling suburbs.

Until the 1970s suburban life was organised around the breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife. While men worked for wages in factories, shops and offices, women worked for free in suburban homes as housewives, caregivers of children, and community builders. Suburban life was also distinguished by different roles for men and women – in theory if not always in practice.

Suburban men

Although many men worked downtown, the suburbs offered them space to reconnect with their families and the land. Early suburban developments were often based on sections of at least a quarter of an acre (just over 1,000 square metres), providing plenty of room for extensive vegetable plots and backyard cricket pitches.

Suburban lions

Since the 1920s thousands of suburban men have joined service organisations like Rotary, Lions and Jaycees, using their gardening and do-it-yourself skills to build children’s playgrounds and picnic sites in their local communities. In the 1970s New Zealand had the highest per-capita membership of men’s service organisations in the world.

Vegetable gardens

As heads of the household, men were meant to provide for their families. For many that meant spending their evenings and weekends tending potatoes, peas and cabbages. For those who did not learn the rudiments of gardening at their father’s shovel, the Yates garden guide provided practical advice. In print since 1895, the guide has sold over a million copies.

During the 1930s economic depression, free vegetable seeds and manure were given to the unemployed so men could continue to feed their families. As recession took hold again in 2008, vegetable growing was touted as an important way to contribute to family well-being, although now women were increasingly tilling the soil.

The lawn

During the 1920s suburban lawns took on a new importance. A neat lawn at the front of his bungalow signalled the family man’s respectability, while an extensive lawn at the back was the site for games with his children. In-fill housing, smaller sections in new subdivisions and the rise of backyard decks have changed many men’s relationships with their patch of grass, but in the early 21st century the whine of the lawnmower remains a familiar weekend sound.


Maintenance tasks undertaken by men were significant contributions to household economies. These were known as DIY (do it yourself) and included concreting drives and paths, building fences, painting the house and wallpapering. Sometimes these were done with a group of mates (a ‘working bee’), with the recipient of the labour providing a few thirst-quenching beers at the end.  In the early 2000s DIY remained an important aspect of suburban life.

The shed

Full of paint pots, gardening and engineering tools, the backyard shed was where many men fixed and built things – everything from faulty radios to P-class sailboats. For many, it was also a place to escape from their wives when things got too hot in the kitchen.

  1. Tuapeka Times, 7 February 1885, p. 2. Back

Suburban women

In the first part of the 20th century husbands may have been the official heads of households, but it was generally wives who ran the homes and did most of the work.


While her husband usually mowed the lawn, dug the vegetable plot and tinkered in his shed, a wife was meant to ensure that the flowers were lovingly tended and created a welcoming impression, especially in the street-facing front garden. Her main role, though, was inside the family home.

Failed to rise

The Edmonds cookbook has been the New Zealand cook’s Bible for over a century. But its authority was questioned in 2009 when baking guru Jo Seager declared its hot cross bun recipe ‘crappo’. In contrast to the book’s (and Edmonds baking powder’s) motto ‘sure to rise’, Seager’s buns had come out of the oven flat and inedible. Edmonds stood by the recipe, suggesting faulty yeast or handling was to blame. This made Seager’s blood boil – she’d made six batches and all had failed. The recipe was rubbish, she said.1


Baking was to suburban women what vegetable growing was to their menfolk. Men had the Yates garden guide to assist them; women relied on the Edmonds cookery book. First published in 1907, it has sold more copies than any other book published in New Zealand (over 4 million by 2005). Almost every suburban kitchen has a well-thumbed copy of the ‘sure to rise’ cookery book, and while shop-bought biscuits now fill the tins of suburban pantries, school fundraising galas still call for a tray of home-made ginger crunch or a dozen melting moments.

Women’s economic contribution

Before the 1950s few married women in New Zealand were in paid work, especially once they had children. Their labour was an important asset to the home. Preserving home-grown fruit and vegetables, and sewing and knitting clothes, helped families to live on one income. Changes to the wider economic structure, though, meant that by the early 1960s more married women had to find at least part-time paid work. This was especially so for urban women, who were twice as likely as rural women to be in paid work.

Community engagement

Suburban women formed and joined numerous organisations designed to support their roles as wives and mothers. Before 1914, women in Dunedin and Christchurch formed housewives’ unions to protest against cost-of-living increases. In the 1940s groups of mothers formed Playcentre, a community-run childcare movement that stressed mothers’ involvement and responsibility for early-childhood learning. Dame Catherine Tizard, former Auckland mayor and governor-general, attributes her ‘Glorious Career’ to her involvement with Playcentre.2 In 1966 the Linden playcentre in Wellington was the site for a series of lectures on the changing role of women. Later that year a number of wives and mothers formed SROW, the Society for Research on Women. Feminism was coming to the suburbs.

Suburban neurosis

In the late 1950s some suburban women were beginning to ask whether they were ‘housewives or human beings’.3 Suburban neurosis, the idea that women in the suburbs feel lonely, bored, anxious and unfulfilled, had gained medical attention in the late 1930s. But it was in the 1960s, when American feminist Betty Friedan wrote about the ‘problem with no name’, that the concept gained widespread local attention.

Suburban daze


Suburbia was clearly not a paradise for all women. The first women-only Alcoholics Anonymous group was formed in Wellington in the 1960s. In 1969 New Zealand doctors prescribed 40 million doses of valium. Most of the drug addicts identified by the Department of Health at that time were women – largely housewives.


New patterns

The 1970s feminist movement widened the horizons of both women and men by calling for greater equality between the sexes. This led to more mothers entering the full-time workforce and more fathers becoming full- or part-time child-raisers. In 2009, it was common to see a father pushing a stroller along a suburban street or taking children to after-school activities.


Men’s and inclusive spaces

Pubs, clubs and consumerism

While the iconic New Zealand male is associated with rural life, most men in the 20th century have worked and played in urban environments. The city has always been a leisure space for men, who have more money for leisure than women do. In the 19th century, hotels were built so men could drink together, restaurants fed men who were denied the delights of home cooking, and department stores created separate entrances to their menswear sections so male shoppers could bypass perfume counters. By the 1950s male boutiques were catering for men who wanted to wear the latest fashions.

From 1917 bars closed at 6 p.m., leading to the ‘six o’clock swill’ of men downing a few drinks after work. When six o’clock closing ended in 1967, hotels became better suited to men and women drinking together – but some other masculine leisure spaces took longer to accommodate women. Elite clubs, built in the 19th century as city retreats for business and professional men, remained male bastions until the late 20th century. Auckland’s Northern Club, established in 1869, admitted its first woman member in 1990.

Men and sport

Men’s sport also ensured that many spaces in the city became and remained men’s places. Since the 1860s the sports oval in Auckland’s Domain has provided the city’s men with a site for association football, athletics, Australian rules, cycling, hockey, lacrosse, rugby league, rugby union and cricket. Cricket was New Zealand’s national game in the 19th century, enjoyed in grounds like Wellington’s Basin Reserve, which remained one of the country’s most important cricketing venues in the early 2000s.

Rugby in the city


Rugby is often seen as a rural game – but cities have been crucial to its establishment and ongoing importance in New Zealand society. Dunedin’s Otago University Club and Auckland’s Ponsonby Rugby Club have both been important feeder clubs for the All Blacks national team. Dave Gallaher, captain of the 1905 ‘Originals’, was a Ponsonby club member. David Kirk, captain of the World Cup-winning All Blacks of 1987, was recruited from the Otago club.


Homosexual spaces

Before 1986 male homosexuality was a criminal offence. Gay men were drawn to cities, where there was less close social surveillance than in smaller centres, and communities of gay men developed. By the mid-20th century some city venues were sympathetic to gay men, including the Great Northern Hotel in Auckland, the Black and White Tearooms in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, and the Savoy Hotel on Dunedin’s Princes Street.

By the 1970s gay men were taking to the city streets, marching for gay rights. After the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1986 the cities became sites for gay dance parties, with Auckland’s Hero parade and Wellington’s Devotion party reminding everyone that cities are important to gays (and lesbians).

Making spaces inclusive

Some New Zealand pubs had a lounge bar, where women were allowed, and a public bar, where they were not (and where drinks were cheaper). In the 1970s Auckland and Wellington feminists ‘liberated’ their cities’ public bars. Storming the public bars of Auckland’s Great Northern Hotel and Wellington’s Victoria Tavern, they demanded to be served.

‘Pub liberations’ were one of many late-20th-century urban political actions that helped make city spaces far less sex- and gender-specific. Homosexual law reform 1986, the Bill of Rights Act 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993 also made it harder to exclude people from city spaces. In the early 2000s, while men and women might still do things separately – such as groups of women hitting the town for a hens’ night out before a wedding – public spaces in New Zealand cities were more integrated than before.

Women’s spaces

Rest rooms

Women have often had to fight for public facilities in cities. City councils erected public urinals for men in the 1860s, but women’s toilets were built only after groups like the Women’s Political League demanded them. Even then, women’s facilities were constructed in parks and at beaches rather than downtown. Deputations had to descend on councils before it was accepted that women had to have public conveniences in order to enjoy the full rights of citizens in the city.

By the 1920s many women’s toilets had evolved into rest rooms, places where women could also warm their babies’ bottles and leave luggage while in town. Some even sold cups of tea or cocoa. Mothers used the facilities during the day, and shop and office girls were the main evening patrons. For twopence they could hire a towel and bar of soap and use the dressing room to prepare for a night on the town.

Escorts bars

While public bars were universally male spaces, some pubs catered for women by opening escorts (or lounge) bars, where women were usually escorted by a male companion. These were intended as places where men and women would drink together in equal numbers. But strong cultural sanctions about women drinking in public – which lasted until the late 20th century – meant escorts bars were predominantly patronised by men.


From the 1890s wealthy women bought or leased city premises and established women’s clubs. In these urban sanctuaries women could socialise outside of their family units, join play-reading circles, and attend lectures. Children and men were allowed into the ‘strangers’ room’ of clubs, but no further. By 1925, women’s clubs in New Zealand cities had a combined membership of 5,000.

Women’s clubs were less important after 1945, but public acceptance of women’s place in the city was still not secure. This was especially true for lesbians, who congregated in bars and cafés that were known to be tolerant, such as the bistro bar in Wellington’s Royal Oak Tavern. From the late 1970s women-only dances and clubs provided a place for lesbians – and other women – to socialise.

Department stores

Department stores were founded in the 1880s. As well as providing many women with jobs behind the counters and in management, the stores were designed as modern feminine spaces, full of the latest international fashions and trends. Rest rooms were provided, and top-floor tearooms meant that, for once, mother did not have to cook lunch. By the 1960s suburban shopping malls were attracting female consumers, though high-end retail remained in its inner-city home.

Movie theatres

Movie theatres also created a welcoming space for women in the city. In the evenings they were often escorted by their boyfriends and husbands, but weekday matinées were aimed at mothers. In the 1920s Dunedin’s Regent Theatre provided a crèche so that mothers could enjoy films in peace. In the early 2000s ‘babes in arms’ movie sessions encouraged mothers to bring their young children into the theatre at special daytime screenings.

Decline of women-only spaces

In 2009 there were few exclusively female spaces left in cities. Rest rooms remained well utilised, although the trend was towards unisex public toilets. One area of growth was women-only gyms. These were popular with women who felt uncomfortable exercising in front of men, usually for modesty reasons or to avoid male eyes.

Nights, sex and love

Avoiding crime

During the day city streets are filled with men and women carrying on their business – shopping, going to appointments, attending functions, and performing a multitude of other tasks. But after dusk women have generally had less freedom of movement than men. During the 19th century a woman walking unaccompanied at night could be considered a prostitute and catch the eye of police. Single men were spared such surveillance. Women on streets also had to contend with the banter and lewdness of larrikins.

Unsafe streets

A 2008 survey showed most Christchurch women thought city streets had become less safe than a decade earlier. Respondent Paula Weir, aged 35, said that 10 or 15 years before she would have gone with friends to the movies and cheerfully walked back to her car alone. Now the presence of ruffians in the central city made her feel unsafe and she no longer walked city streets alone.

Physical assault was another hazard. In 1893 the Dunedin suburb of St Clair experienced ‘no less than half-a-dozen brutal attacks’ on women, making it the city’s most dangerous quarter after dusk.1 While men were sometimes victims of nocturnal beatings, women also ran the risk of sexual assault. Accordingly, most women entering the city after dark were accompanied by husbands, brothers or boyfriends.

Safer streets

By the late 20th century cultural conventions restricting women’s night-time movements had largely vanished, and walking alone after dark was no longer a sign of ill repute. But attacks on women continued to occur. In the 1970s feminist groups began ‘reclaim the night’ marches, demanding streets be made safer for women. Municipalities responded by improving street lighting, and police upped their night-time patrols. A revival of inner-city living and burgeoning night-life also made city streets safer. This was not always the public perception. A 2008 survey showed 71% of Christchurch women felt less safe in the central city at night than in 2003, even though the rate of street crime had declined over that period. Men were less concerned about street crime than women.

Sex in the city

Cities have always provided countless ways for people to flirt and meet partners – catching someone’s eye on a tram, striking up a conversation with an attractive shop assistant, or wooing an office colleague.

The city aphrodisiac

For men and women, a night on the town – going to a cinema, theatre, bar or nightspot – includes the possibility of sex. People often wear clothes and makeup to appear more sexually alluring. Alcohol or other drugs are used as a social lubricant and to relax inhibitions. Bright city lights and a vibrant street life are further ingredients in what can be a seductive mix.

Cities were more sexually charged at night. A mid-20th-century example was Joe Brown’s Saturday night dance at the Dunedin town hall. The night began with fresh-faced, well-groomed men and women eyeing each other from opposite sides of the hall. Men would cross the floor and ask a woman to dance, and the couple then flaunted their moves on the dance floor. The atmosphere was ‘slightly predatory, but elegant’, with people returning every week ‘for the thrill of the chase and being caught’.2 The event was nicknamed ‘Joe Brown’s matrimonial bureau’ for the number of patrons who met their spouses there. Cabarets and nightclubs, such as Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret, were equally electric.


Cities have always provided sex for sale to men – street prostitutes and brothels soon followed the founding of towns. While most catered for heterosexuals, there was a male bordello aimed at homosexual men in Christchurch in the 1860s. Prostitution was decriminalised in 2003.

Gay sex

Although homosexual sex was illegal until 1986, cities have long provided gay men with sexual ‘beats’, where they could meet and have sex. These included Queens Gardens in Dunedin, parts of the town belt in Wellington’s Mt Victoria, Turkish steam baths (saunas), and some public toilets. Gay graffiti in Auckland’s Wellesley Street West toilets during the Second World War worried the city council so much that they tiled the walls, in the hope of stopping men from arranging to meet in the toilets.

Modern romance

In the early 2000s there remained myriad ways for city dwellers to meet sexual partners. While catching the eye of a stranger could still lead to romance, the stranger might be first glimpsed over the internet rather than on city streets.

  1. Tuapeka Times, 8 April 1893, p. 3. Back
  2. Dunedin City Council, ‘The Saturday night dances.’ (last viewed 30 July 2009). Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Caroline Daley, 'Men and women in the city', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Caroline Daley, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010