Book Review: Barbara Brookes, ‘A History of New Zealand Women’
The history of women in New Zealand is a rapidly changing field of historiography. As new feminist theories, activist movements, and sources of knowledge have emerged, historians have produced accounts of the past that are increasingly diverse and nuanced. Barbara Brookes’ book A History of New Zealand Women is one of the latest contributions to the historiography and has quickly established itself as a landmark publication. The diversity of women’s experiences in New Zealand is the key theme which underpins the book, and the history of women, both “exceptional” and ordinary, is detailed chronologically. A History of New Zealand Women represents a major historiographical shift in the way that the history of women in New Zealand is told.
A comprehensive analysis of the writing of New Zealand women’s history, conducted by Sheryl D. Morgan in 1982, identified several key patterns and trends in the history of women. Early historians of gender noticed the absence of women in history and sought to fill this gap by attempting to write women into the traditional historical accounts of New Zealand. Accordingly, these histories tended to focus on the contribution of women to ‘male-defined society’. While these historical narratives are ‘essential preliminary work’ in recording the history of women, they tend to focus on the experiences of “exceptional” women who achieve success by male standards. As such, while these historical accounts are useful for beginning to build a picture of the experiences of women in New Zealand, they do not capture the range of lifestyles, beliefs, and ideas of women.
Since Morgan published her thesis in 1982, several key texts have emerged as foundational in the history of New Zealand women. In 1986 the edited collection Women in History: Essays on European Women in New Zealand was published, with a focus on the experiences of European women in New Zealand around the period of 1860-1945. In this book, the experiences of women expand beyond those of the “exceptional women”. For instance, Raewyn Dalziel contributed a chapter about the ‘Colonial Helpmeet’: ordinary women who were considered to preserve the moral integrity of the nation through their work in the domestic sphere. The second edition of this book was published in 1992, titled Women in History 2, and this edition covered a broader expanse of time and reflected the greater diversity in gender scholarship which was developing in New Zealand. While Māori women feature in some chapters of these histories, this can be considered as an exception to the rule rather than the norm, and they do not occupy the primary focus of these histories. This issue remained largely unresolved until Brookes published A History of New Zealand Women in 2016.
In A History of New Zealand Women, Brookes tells the history of New Zealand women in a new way by consistently interweaving the perspective of Māori women into the narrative to uncover the contrasts in experience and points of tension and collaboration between Pākehā and Māori since the beginning of colonialism in Aotearoa. Brookes begins by outlining the pre-European contact view of gender amongst Māori, whereby a person’s mana was derived from their whakapapa and therefore genealogy, rather than gender, determined a person’s status. Moreover, Brookes highlights that both men and women could draw upon their whakapapa to assert their authority. Brookes juxtaposes this view of gender with the status of women in eighteenth-century England, where ideas about the role of women were shaped by biblical ideas, particularly the dichotomous characters of the evil Eve and the virgin Mary. Throughout the book, Brookes demonstrates how Māori women retained aspects of their traditional culture and worldview while also engaging in new customs and practices. This approach to the history of women in New Zealand is unique.
In addition to illuminating changing understandings of gender and race, A History of New Zealand Women makes a major contribution to knowledge regarding the unequal relationships between Pākehā and Māori. Throughout the book, Brookes demonstrates how the growth of the Pākehā population in New Zealand and the consolidation of their power adversely impacted Māori. As settler families expanded and prospered, many Māori whanau struggled to cope with the issues of land confiscation and disease. At the same time, the patriarchal and nuclear structure of Pākehā families which came to dominate social relations in New Zealand undermined Māori communal interests and resulted in the dispossession of many Māori. Brookes connects these inequalities to the activism of Māori women in the 1960s and 1970s, with organisations such as the Māori Women’s Welfare League challenging the inequalities in health, education, and welfare between Māori and Pākehā. In consistently drawing attention to the different experiences of Māori women and Pākehā women in New Zealand, rather than ‘insert[ing] the hurried “of course things were different for Māori women” and mov[ing] on’, Brookes changes the field of the history of women in New Zealand.
Brookes adopts a chronological approach to the history of women in New Zealand which situates their diverse stories and experiences within key moments in New Zealand’s history, including wars, depressions, and technological revolutions. Within each chapter, Brookes connects the broader trends and patterns in the experiences of women in New Zealand to the stories of individual, historically obscure women in order to ‘reveal the texture of women’s lives’. To do so, Brookes draws upon a diverse range of archival and print sources to examine anecdotal evidence and connect it to broader trends and events in New Zealand history. In so doing, Brookes ‘renders visible and memorable’ the diverse experiences of lesser-known women who have not previously occupied the central focus of women’s histories in New Zealand or the popular imagination. Critically, this methodological approach results in the introduction of a more complicated and nuanced understanding of the lives of women in New Zealand into the historiography.
A History of New Zealand Women marks a new direction in the history of women in New Zealand. The histories of Māori women and Pākehā women are told alongside each other, and attention is given to the diversity of women’s experiences over time and cultures in a comprehensive, chronological account of New Zealand history. Moreover, Brookes follows the historiographical trend of moving beyond the histories of “exceptional” women towards a broader understanding of the experiences of ordinary women who have been voiceless in our histories for so long.
Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying New Zealand history. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.
 Gerda Lerner, “Placing Women in History: A 1975 Perspective”, in Liberating Women’s History: Theoretical and Critical Essays, ed. Berenice A. Carroll, p.358, quoted in Sheryl D. Morgan, The Writing of New Zealand Women’s History, Master’s Thesis, University of Canterbury, 1982, p.11 & 12.
 Morgan, The Writing of New Zealand Women’s History, p.12.
 Raewyn Dalziel, “The Colonial Helpmeet”, in Barbara Brookes, Charlotte Macdonald, & Margaret Tennant, eds., Women in History: Essays on European Women in New Zealand, Sydney, 1986, pp.55-68.
 Bettina Bradbury, ‘Review: A History of New Zealand Women’, Australian Historical Studies, 48, 1, 2017, p.141.
 Patricia Grimshaw, ‘Review: A History of Women in New Zealand, by Barbara Brookes’, Women’s Studies, 47, 1, 2018, p.116.
 Barbara Brookes and Margaret Tennant, ‘Māori and Pākehā Women: Many Histories, Divergent Pasts’, in Barbara Brookes, Charlotte Macdonald, & Margaret Tennant, eds., Women in History 2, Wellington, 1992, p.29.
 Grimshaw, ‘Review: A History of Women in New Zealand, by Barbara Brookes’, p.115.
 Barbara Brookes, A History of New Zealand Women, Wellington, 2016, p.6.
 Grimshaw, ‘Review: A History of Women in New Zealand, by Barbara Brookes’, p.115.
 ibid., p.116.
 ibid., p.115.