Turning point for women?
Men were again called to become ‘soldier citizens’ in the Second World War, with over 200,000 serving in the armed forces from 1939 to 1945, and more than 11,000 casualties. For women the war years are often considered a turning point, a moment of fundamental social change.
Some historians emphasise the opportunities women gained for new forms of employment and the impetus this gave to demands for equal treatment in the workplace. Others point to longer-term continuities in women’s work and the ways in which wartime policy maintained women’s first duty as one of caring for children and ‘home’.
Women’s war effort
Propaganda at the time encouraged women to do their bit for the war effort. After some initial reluctance, service organisations established women’s auxiliaries in the army, navy and air force – the WAACs, WRNZS and WAAFs, respectively. A small number of these women were posted to service in Europe and the Pacific. Recruitment remained on a voluntary basis.
However, women were most needed in the labour force in New Zealand – mostly in the clothing and food production industries, along with clerical work. They also did some jobs normally done by men. Wartime demands provoked debate as to what was suitable work for women and men. Women’s work in the home and in the paid workforce was underlined as being of national importance.
Setting up house
Getting married, having a family and setting up house in the suburbs was never more popular or possible than in the post-war years, 1945 to 1965. Prosperity and peace underlaid this era of almost universal marriage and the ‘baby boom’.
Women’s and men’s lives were complementary, at home and in the wider community. Although increasing numbers of women were in paid employment, men remained the main breadwinners. Leaving work when they married or became pregnant was usual for women, even if many later took up paid work as their children grew up.
This was a period of high and increasingly modernised domesticity (for city-dwelling Māori as well as Pākehā). By the beginning of the 1960s most New Zealand homes had a refrigerator, an electric or gas stove and an electric washing machine. A man’s ability to provide these ‘mod cons’ was often a source of satisfaction and pride. Among women, pride in modern, productive homes and healthy, well-adjusted children – the science of child rearing increasingly paid attention to social and psychological as well as physical dimensions of health – was emphasised in the notion of marriage as a career.
Most New Zealand women made a large proportion of their own and their children’s clothes, and each year processed fruit and vegetables into bottled produce for family consumption. The relatively high cost of manufactured clothing and food often made this a necessity.
Work allowed men to support a family, but limited their part in family life. Full-time hours, with overtime and commuting added in, left little but the weekends. Many continued the male tradition of responsibility for home repairs and building, maintaining vegetable gardens and disposing of rubbish.
Weekends also allowed time for the pub, the Returned Servicemen’s Association, gambling at the TAB, and watching or playing sports, particularly rugby. Although men had little involvement in care of babies and toddlers, older boys often tagged along with dad.
Suburban living – heaven or hell?
Suburban living was not always the ideal, as it was presented. For some women it could be a place of private hell and social isolation. In the late 1960s Fraser McDonald, a psychiatrist at Auckland's Kingseat Hospital, drew attention to the very high rates of suburban neurosis, and use of anti-depressants amongst women in New Zealand's suburbs.
By the 1960s many women were beginning to question whether marriage and family life was sufficient – as a career, or as an end in itself. Better educated than ever before and interested in adult company and rewarding work once their children were at school, they questioned the role of women.