Scoop Review of Books

Women at the Centre

A History of New Zealand Women by Barbara Brookes
(Bridget Williams Books, $69.99)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

A-History-of-NZ-Women-WebIt was the creation stories that grabbed me. In the first chapter of her epic History of New Zealand Women, Barbara Brookes places a version of the Māori creation story alongside that of the Pākehā colonists, setting the scene for how each society saw women. The contrast is startling.

For Māori, the world emerged (in part) through the union, and separation by their offspring, of Rangi (the Sky Father) and Papa (the Earth Mother). It’s an intricate story with myriad twists and turns that, Brookes writes, “presented models of powerful women: of a female element to be reckoned with”.

Compare that to the Christian creation story of a lone male God, the model for man, where woman is created as an afterthought, “a helper fit for him” (as Genesis has it). What’s more, that “helper” is also a temptress, responsible for the Fall who must be punished: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis again, quoted by Brookes.)

The stories, set one after the other, provide a powerful entry point to the first quarter of the book covering the early period of Pākehā colonisation. Brookes touches on the question of just how much Western sex-role stereotyping contaminated Māori societies. She argues that for Māori, status and mana trumped sex/gender, and that the role and authority of women “was not always understood by male observers who came from societies in which social structures served to limit the activities of women”. Or, as I read it, the colonists didn’t have the first clue about Māori societies, couldn’t see past their own prejudices which they unconsciously and consciously mapped onto Māori.

From the Māori side, Brookes asks us to imagine encountering Endeavour arriving in 1769, a ship filled entirely with men. “For Māori, the absence of women aboard the ships was perplexing, and perhaps reinforced their view that those aboard “were tupua, strange beings or ‘goblins'”.

Flowing from that ghastly Christian creation myth, its patriarchal systems seem to have infected every part of the society they touched. Even in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi “the patriarchal implication of British law became clear. British officials sought the signatures of leading men, and gave little or no thought to the mana of leading Māori women”.

The consequences for Māori women and Māori societies of the imposition of colonial sex roles were immense, and likely in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Brookes covers a few, including Māori women’s loss of property inheritance rights, the effort to confine Māori women to the domestic sphere, the introduction of corporal punishment for children, and missionary women’s efforts “to cover Māori women’s bodies with long gowns and to have them cut or bind their hair” — the list goes on.

It was this first part of the book that most held my interest, throwing up questions and issues that are too seldom explored. It was also a useful reminder that this history of New Zealand women covers only about about one quarter of the time there have been women living in this land.

Like similar large-scale works being produced by Bridget Williams Books (for example, last year’s Tangata Whenua: An illustrated history, reviewed here by Mark Derby), the production of A History of New Zealand Women is lavish, beautifully designed with thick glossy paper and packed with images. (Its 554 pages weigh in at around 1.8 kg, or nearly 4 pounds.) It is meticulously footnoted — though lacks a bibliography, perhaps for space reasons.

Brookes has worked hard to give equal time and space to Māori and non-Māori both in words and pictures, even if they occasionally sit rather awkwardly alongside one another. Again, as she moves through the decades, it’s the Māori history that is most absorbing, even though there is often a paucity of information about Māori women’s lives compared with the relatively well-documented lives of colonial or Pākehā women. (Or should that be, a paucity of information that follows Western academic rules and is accessible to a Pākehā researcher?)

For example, in the chapter covering the first two decades of the 20th century there’s a lot to write about on the Pākehā side, around political struggles for the right to stand for Parliament, opposition to the Contagious Diseases Act which targeted prostitutes, equality in divorce laws, efforts to organise workers and, of course, World War I. While all these struggles certainly involved and affected Māori, there is much less material about what was going on inside Māori communities themselves. Brookes provides a few snapshots of individual Māori women’s lives  — of marriages and families, farming and working the land, of some of the clothes they wore, but the picture is thinner, again, probably because of a lack of source material. (An exception is Te Puea Herangi, whose life was the subject of a biography by Michael King.)

Brookes alludes to that lack in discussing newspaper coverage of Māori women at the time “as performers in romantic depictions of New Zealand’s tourist spots, or in discomforting court reports about the sale of liquor to Māori women (illegal since 1895) or obstruction of Pākehā plans”. (It’s hard not to wonder if New Zealand newspaper readers of 2016 are any better informed about the lives of Māori women than their 1910 counterparts.)

This reveals a problem academic historians have in writing about other people’s cultures, particularly oral societies, where meeting Western scholarly standards means having to leave a whole lot out. It can also make for heavy going for the non-academic reader.

For all its scholarly rigour, however, I ultimately found A History of New Zealand Women to be a bit of a hagiography. Yes, “feminism is the radical idea that women are people” – a quote Brookes cites in the book and one that adorns the masthead of the feminist blog The Hand Mirror. But in these pages, women tend to be not just “people” but “good people”. Sure, a few bad apples grace these pages, but if this were a history of men (aka society in general), it’s hard to imagine a similarly rosy account.

History is littered with conservative racist women who campaigned against progressive causes. One such example recently revived is that of Dr. Doris Gordon, whom Brookes praises for her efforts in the 1920s and 1930s to lower the country’s high maternal mortality rate. Dr. Gordon has recently been honoured through the revival of defunct trust in her name, money from which will pay for a medal, honorarium and annual “Doris Gordon Memorial Lecture”. (For more on this see Honouring our Prejudiced Past? and A Questionable Honour.)

Yet where in Brookes’ account is the discussion of Dr. Gordon’s fears of “race suicide” or her enthusiastic and explicit campaign against access to contraception and abortion — or at least access for the ‘wrong’ kind of women? To quote from Gordon’s own book Gentlemen of the Jury, which was written as part of that campaign:


It is worth remembering … that the abuse of birth control knowledge in New Zealand has already reduced this country to a dangerous state of stagnation, and, coupled with the rising tide of abortions, threatens in a very few years to extinguish its white people.


Birth control information, which was meant to benefit the few, has become a way of escape from duty for the majority.


Gordon was indeed a woman of her time, but that also means a lot of other women of her time held similar views. Yes, Brookes does refer to “eugenically charged discussions” and debates about “the dangers of ‘Race Suicide'”, but there are few explicit accounts of the role of women in this and some of the other unsavoury chapters of our history.

And speaking of contraception and abortion, the omission from the text of Dame Margaret Sparrow and the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) is notable, especially since their primary opponent during the law reform struggle of the 1970s, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, gets several mentions. (By way of disclosure, I have a personal interest, and a bias here, as a member of ALRANZ’s executive committee.)

Contrast that absence with the inclusion, particularly in later chapters when the history has gotten a lot “thicker” (“more people, more events, and more books written about them”, to quote A.J.P. Taylor), of myriad chefs, singers, writers, MPs, sportswomen, businesswomen and so on. Indeed, the later chapters, which take us up to 2015, are necessarily not history at all but, as Brookes herself acknowledges, are “speculative” and as such, much weaker than what came before.

Brookes has surely succeeded in her aim of putting “women fully at the centre of the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand” — the breadth and depth of the work is staggering. I’ve read a good many of the other New Zealand women’s histories out there, but still I found much I didn’t know, again particularly about the lives and struggles of Māori women.

Which left me wondering: How do they tell this story?