Breadwinning: New Zealand Women and the State

Melanie Nolan

Canterbury University Press 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
New Zealand is known for having given women the vote relatively early — in 1893 — but also for its imposition of domesticity on them. In Breadwinning Nolan explores both the ideology and practice of domesticity (and of a male "breadwinner" wage) as they changed between 1890 and 1980. One focus is on the role of the state, where she stresses the ambiguity of policy, the often discordant goals of different state actors, and the limitations of state power. Another is on the influence of women's lobby groups and differences between them, notably between liberal and communitarian feminists. The result is an effective history of New Zealand women's economic relations with the state, covering welfare, labour legislation, and education policies. Nolan really only covers Pakeha women, however, with Maori issues touched on incidentally.

The chapters of Breadwinning are centred on particular issues, often specific pieces of legislation, but Nolan always sets these in their broader context and, though the details are sometimes dry, she works them into a readable narrative. Breadwinning is also effectively illustrated: halftones, sometimes accompanied by bio-sketches, provide a more personal feel for some of the people involved, while political cartoons are used extensively, not only serving as a guide to contemporary opinion but often still entertaining themselves. Those involved with the current politics of welfare and labour in New Zealand will find useful historical background in Breadwinning, and it should be a gold-mine for students of comparative women's history — though Nolan herself makes few international comparisons.

An opening chapter introduces domesticity, both in practice and as an ideological construct. Nolan surveys both class and gender explanations of domesticity, gives a brief history of New Zealand industrial relations, and presents some of the theory on the role of the state. Eight chapters, roughly chronological, then address specific topics.

Protective labour legislation at the end of the nineteenth century was gendered: anti-sweatshop legislation tried to improve working conditions for women, but there were also restrictions on their employment in certain jobs (as barmaids, for example). Women and women's groups were divided on the latter issue, as were trade unions. Nor was there a consistent attempt by the state to restrict women's work: the Liberal party and the public service were split on the issue and, perhaps more importantly, "employers wanted women workers, and the state was not going to stand in their way".

There had been some legislation for compensating women who lost husbands in industrial accidents and 1911 saw the Liberal government introduce a limited widow's pension. But state support on a new scale entirely was extended to widows (and temporary or "grass" widows with husbands serving overseas) created by the First World War and the 1918 influenza epidemic. This set an important precedent and became "the benchmark for lobbies for other types of widows and other women without breadwinners".

Long-running debates over domestic education involved (among others) middle class women deploring the shortage of domestic servants, the Plunket Society and activists such as Truby King worrying about the effects of women's education on their children, and feminists trying to improve educational opportunities for women and raise the status and conditions of domestic workers. Despite 1917 regulations mandating domestic education for girls, however, the state "lacked an aggressive policy" on the issue: the regulations were part of broader educational policies, were not implemented effectively, and were undermined by more liberal state actions.

The 1926 Family Allowances Act introduced a means-tested benefit for low-income workers with large families (the family allowance was made universal in 1946). This clearly undermined the idea of a "breadwinning" family wage, though the latter gained formal recognition in the 1936 Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment, as a wage "sufficient to support a man, his wife and three children". Debates over different approaches to improving conditions for poor children were tied up with broader struggles over wage-fixing, with the government under pressure from unions and employers.

The plight of unemployed single women during the Depression stimulated women's organisations both to practical relief efforts and to lobbying. The exclusion of women from the 1930 Unemployment Act — even though they had to pay unemployment levies — created particular outrage. In 1938 Labour granted the right to unemployment relief and, though given only to respectable single working women, granting of "the right to be regarded as unemployed" to some women was still a significant step towards equality.

The post-war period is sometimes seen as the high point of domesticity. While political rhetoric idealised the family and social-security policy encouraged women to stay in the home, however, they failed to stop a rise in the proportion of married women working. Moreover, the state increased the amount women could earn without affecting their husband's dependent tax exemptions, and employed married women itself: "the state's post-war labour market policy encouraged married women into paid employment and ... further undermined the male breadwinner wage".

Campaigns for equal pay ran through the 50s, 60s, and 70s: key events were the granting of equal pay in the public service in 1960 and the Equal Pay Act of 1972, after which the focus moved to anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation. While some issues attracted broad public support, there were divisions on others, over the undermining of the breadwinner ethos and the appropriate degree of state intervention, and these became tied up with partisan party politics.

The Domestic Purposes Benefit, introduced in 1973, was a grant to solo parents. It sparked a public backlash, with demonisation of single mothers, and debates on the fairness of treatment of one- and two-income families. Again, state policies were "fragmented" and, while radical, liberal, and communitarian feminists "agreed on the DPB and matrimonial property issues, they could not find agreement on a mothers' wage or superannuation".

April 2002

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%T Breadwinning
%S New Zealand Women and the State
%A Nolan, Melanie
%I Canterbury University Press
%D 2000
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0908812973
%P 386pp