Kōrero: Women and men

Whārangi 2. Mothers and voters: 1880s–1920s

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

From the 1880s Pākehā New Zealand became a more settled society, shaped by people born locally rather than by those coming from elsewhere. Decisions about drinking, voting, the value and care of children, and where and on what terms New Zealanders should serve their country in war determined what kind of nation New Zealand should be. Between the 1880s and the 1920s men and women were often mobilised as separate groups. At times their interests seemed to be pitted against each other.

Women, drink and the vote

Men's drinking and women's inability to vote both became central issues of public debate in the 1880s. Under the powerful leadership of Kate Sheppard, franchise superintendent of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a mass movement was mobilised to demand women’s right to vote. Without a vote women had little chance of influencing licensing legislation controlling the sale of alcohol – men were far more likely than women to drink.

Arguments for the vote were advanced on the principles of liberty and equality – that men and women deserved to be represented in the government to which they were subject. Some also claimed women’s right to vote on the basis of their difference from men: politics would be improved by women’s superior moral qualities, while families and households would be enhanced by women’s civic responsibility.

The suffrage victory in 1893, in which New Zealand women became the first to exercise the vote in a nation state, made the country the focus of international attention.

Smaller families

Marriage and family life changed dramatically between the 1880s and 1920s. In 1914 the average family had two to three children. The decline continued through the following decades. By the 1930s Pākehā families usually had just two children.

Living in towns and cities, working for wages rather than on the land, and seeking an improvement in their standard of living meant that couples were no longer keen to have large families. Marrying later, limiting sex and controlling fertility became common practice.


It was believed that modern girls lacked the inclination and expertise to be parents. To remain strong New Zealand needed women to be mothers and homemakers, and men to be fathers and workers. Such arguments would shape government policy and popular ideology through much of the 20th century.

The first state-funded St Helens maternity hospitals were opened, a registration system for women working as midwives was set up in 1904, and, most prominently, the Society for the Promotion of Home and Family – better known as the Plunket Society – was formed in 1907.

The education system was also prompted to do more to prepare boys and girls for their future lives as breadwinners and homemakers. For boys, military cadet training, outdoor sports and physical training were brought into the school curriculum, and they were encouraged in movements such as Boy Scouts, the YMCA and Boys’ Brigade. Girls were taught cooking, sewing and baby care in domestic education, part of the primary school curriculum from the first decade of the 20th century.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Charlotte Macdonald, 'Women and men - Mothers and voters: 1880s–1920s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/women-and-men/page-2 (accessed 26 February 2024)

He kōrero nā Charlotte Macdonald, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, updated 1 Aug 2017