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The Women of New Zealand

5 — Occupations

page 145


The First Number of the New Zealand Journal gives a summary of the trades and occupations of emigrants granted free passages by the New Zealand Company in the first nine ships sent out by them. Among these are six dressmakers, one dairywoman, one laundress, three milliners, four nursemaids, nineteen sempstresses, one straw-plaitter who was probably, though not certainly, a woman, and forty-three servants. Of the 'servants' we may suppose that a fair proportion would be women. If we disregard all the other women passengers—some at least of whom probably had trades they might follow on arrival, though they were not called upon to give any undertaking—and estimate the servants very moderately at only twenty, this makes a total of fifty-five—nearly nineteen per cent of all the women, and just over twenty-two per cent of the women steerage passengers carried by these nine ships. This means that a large proportion of the first New Zealand women came out prepared to earn their page 146own living. It is possible that some of the domestic workers at least were already married, and almost certain that many of them, others as well as domestic workers, married before very long. There was, however, no ban on married women workers; and the demand both for wives and for women workers was so great that no doubt many of them would contrive to carry on with their work after marriage. By 1847 there were in Wellington at least ninety-two, of a total number of one thousand nine hundred and seventy-one, women who were engaged in work outside their own homes. One of these kept a lodging-house, eight were school-mistresses, ten were engaged in laundry and needle-work, nine were 'milliners and straw bonnet makers,' and sixty-four were in domestic service.

The figures cannot be said to prove anything very much except that by far the greater number of women who were wage-earners were employed in domestic work of some kind. The population increased very rapidly, and the demand for domestic servants was never satisfied. Every incoming ship was besieged both by young men looking for wives and by people in need of domestic help. It would seem that many young women must have signified to the authorities their willingness to act as domestic servants who either had never had any experience of this kind of work, or had very little idea of what would be expected of them in the colony. The great page 147majority of New Zealand households could not afford more than one 'help,' and a young woman who had competently enough filled the position of a housemaid or a parlourmaid in England, might find that of a 'general' very different, especially when the extremely difficult circumstances of early housekeeping are considered. Their 'utter ignorance and inefficiency' was a fruitful subject of lamentation, too frequently heard to be dismissed as groundless. One woman who came out in the sixties, when the flood of emigration was at its height, recounts some of her experiences. 'A girl will come to you as a housemaid,' she says, '… and you will find that she literally does not know how to hold a broom, and has never handled a duster.' Most people complained of the 'independence' engendered in them by the excess of the demand over the supply; but this woman was evidently a 'good mistress,' and her true sense of humour enabled her to see and sympathise with their point of view. For one thing she had to confess her own 'perfect ignorance' when abandoned to her own resources. It is evident that she made no pretences, and she found the girls she engaged as maids quick to respond. Though she lived on one of the up-country stations, and found herself 'changing servants' every two or three months, partly because of the loneliness of the life, and partly because of 'the rapidity with which a nice tidy young woman is snapped up as a wife,' she was generous in her page 148appreciation of the really admirable qualities of these 'rough, queer servants' so much slated by the majority of employers. They were, she says, 'as a general rule, perfectly honest, and of irreproachable morals, besides working, in their own curious fashion, desperately hard. Our family was an exceptionally small one, and the "place" was considered "light, you bet", but even then it seemed to me as if both my domestics worked very hard. In the first place, there was the washing; two days' severe work, under difficulties which they thought nothing of. All the clothes had to be taken to a boiler fixed in the side of a hill, for the convenience of the creek, and washed and rinsed under a blazing sun (for of course it never was attempted on a wet day) and amid clouds of sandflies. Not until evening was this really hard day's work over, and the various garments fluttering in the breeze up a valley behind the house…. We had a mangle, which greatly simplified matters on the second day, but it used not to be uncommon on back-country stations to get up the fine things with a flat stone, heated in the wood ashes, for an iron. After the washing operations had been brought to a more or less successful ending, there came the yeast making and the baking, followed by the brewing of sugar beer, preserves had to be made, bacon cured, all sorts of things to be done, besides the daily duties of scrubbing and cleaning, and cooking at all hours for stray visitors and "swaggers".' page 149It was all done, she says, willingly, and with the greatest cheerfulness.

This was acknowledged to a be a 'light place.' A small family (there were no children), a sympathetic mistress who herself took a share in the work, and two maids—the only serious fault was perhaps the isolation. But other 'places' were less ideal. Some of the girls started work at a very early age—twelve, thirteen or fourteen. There is a record of a Nelson girl who at thirteen became maid-of-all-work in a family of nine. The house was large, and this child had everything to do—she made butter and cheese, did the cooking, the baking, and all the housework, and, apparently at her own desire, helped to milk the nine cows. She had help only with some of the cooking. Small wonder that it was often midnight before she was in bed, and that many tears were shed. 'I used to cry and work but I got used to it.' More, 'I liked it. They all got very fond of me and I did of them.' Her wages were two shillings a week, doubled at the end of three months; and before she left, after fourteen months, they had risen to six shillings—'so,' she says, with apparently quite unconscious pathos, 'I got myself some nice things.' This was during the bad times in the forties. It may have been an unusual case; but we cannot with any confidence flatter ourselves that it was an isolated one. In the late seventies we hear of a girl of fourteen who entered domestic service near Christchurch at a page 150weekly wage of four shillings; and she too worked single-handed. Even as late as the eighties we have the evidence of a woman visiting New Zealand that 'in the Colonies one servant does the work of three,' and with a lack of conveniences that in itself 'doubled' work.

At first there were no 'afternoons off.' In the fourteen months of the Nelson girl's domestic service she went home (a few miles away) only four times; and the Christchurch child had one evening a week free from seven to nine, a privilege which she forfeited if the family wished to go out, or if unexpected visitors arrived. Conditions were very slow to improve. By the end of the century wages had risen. They varied in different districts; but nowhere was a 'general' paid more than fifteen shillings a week, and the average was twelve shillings. A cook might earn as much as thirty shillings, and could everywhere demand not less than twelve; while a housemaid's wage was about the same as a 'general's.'

Given sympathetic and kindly employers, the domestic servant's position might be exceedingly happy. There were many mistresses who took care to consider the comfort and well-being of their maids. They would see that they had, as far as was possible in the conditions by which all, maids and mistresses alike, were bound, some time to themselves during the long day, and would take them, if they lived in the country, for little outings. But this was a page 151matter of individual character; no rule was possible. All other occupations came by degrees to be regulated by legislation: for domestic service in private households it has not yet been found possible, chiefly owing to the difficulty of making any satisfactory arrangement as to hours of work. Efforts have from time to time been made, and have recently been renewed, to bring domestic servants within the protection of a union, and the matter is still under consideration. It seems likely now, however, that this is one of the much needed social reforms which will be made to stand over in the present 'state of emergency.'

It is obvious that conditions of domestic service have, nevertheless, improved since the earliest days in New Zealand. From the very beginning, as we have seen, employers, as well as employees, have found cause for complaint; and attempts were early made by the schools, primary, secondary and technical, to remedy the ignorance, inefficiency and lack of training lamented over the first New Zealand tea-tables. Even the University has taken a hand, and raised domestic science to the status of a degree subject; while quite recently a movement has been started to establish training hostels which, if successful, might be of more general use, and one at least of these is actually in being. What is perhaps more necessary than any of these things is a more enlightened public opinion on the subject of domestic work. page 152Why for instance in a recent Parliamentary debate, should vacuum cleaners and washing-machines have been referred to, on both sides of the House, as luxuries, while milking-machines, tractors and the like were classed as necessities?

Meanwhile it is just that we should recognise that the part played by the 'rough, queer servants' of the early days and by their nameless successors throughout New Zealand's first century is at least as worthy as that of any other women of consideration and praise.

The considerable rise in the scale of wages of domestic workers by the last decade of the nineteenth century represents in part the progress of the colony and the generally rising prosperity. It also reflects the steadily increasing diversion of girls and women from domestic Service to industry and trade and the professions. As early as 1891 the Secretary of the Labour Department noted the 'tendency of the young women … to obtain work either in shops or factories.' 'They prefer,' he added, 'the slightly higher wages and regular hours of commerce and manufacture to the obligations of domestic service'; while the need for industrial workers made their choice 'useful to the bulk of the community.' The census returns of that year show that nearly three thousand girls and women were employed in the factories representing the main New Zealand industries. This was more than double the number page 153returned for 1881; and by 1901 it was itself almost trebled. In no instance do these numbers include the tailoresses, dressmakers and shirtmakers, nor the large numbers of women who were employed as teachers, or in the various departments of the nursing service, nor any of those who had found work in the shops. By 1901 there were over four thousand women and girls employed in the tailoring, dressmaking and millinery, and shirtmaking establishments; there were one thousand six hundred and more nurses; and nearly four thousand five hundred women teachers (including teachers of music and painting). There were about nine hundred more in the shops.

The industries absorbing the largest numbers of women, apart from the mainly feminine occupations of tailoring, dressmaking and millinery, have been from the outset clothing factories and woollen mills, boot and shoe factories, and printing and bookbinding works. Although it was said that the 'slightly higher wages' were one of the factors in the growing preference of women for work other than domestic, the rates of pay, and the conditions of work that obtained do not now seem very attractive bait. A girl entering the boot and shoe trade for instance started at the age of fourteen, and worked nine hours a day for a weekly wage of two and sixpence for the first year. The workshops were cold and miserable, and the work was heavy—old treadle machines, page 154stuck away in any corner of the shop where space could be found. In the printing trade the hours were similar but the wages rather better, particularly in the North Island, where a healthful influence seems to have been exercised by the Government Printing Office. A girl in this trade might start at as much as five shillings a week. In a few years, and with increasing skill, a woman could earn on the face of it as much as any domestic help (always excepting the favoured cook), and her hours would at least be regular, though the possibility has always to be remembered that she was carrying at least a part of the domestic burden in her own home. She had too to provide her own food, whereas the domestic's board was found for her in addition to the wages quoted. Many of the trades too employed a system of piece-work, and women frequently worked in their own homes, especially after marriage.

Tailoring, dressmaking and millinery still supply employment for a large number of New Zealand women, as they have done from the earliest years. The story of the sweating of tailoresses, which gave rise at the end of the eighties to the Tailoresses' Union, is told by Mr J. T. Paul in his little book Our Majority, written to celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of the Union's birth. To that story readers are referred. The conditions there described are appalling; and they were hardly better in the allied trade of dressmaking. In 1895 a girl, starting her life's work page 155at fourteen, received no pay whatever for the first twelve months. In her second year her wage was two and sixpence; but even this was not a certainty— if work was short she might have three or four months' enforced holiday. At the end of four years this girl, who became a very well-known dressmaker in one of the chief cities, was skilled enough to be put in charge of a table—and her wage had risen to eight shillings. Yet women continued eagerly to seek such work. In 1901 there were 2,865 employed in the dressmaking and millinery trades alone, more than twice as many as in the tailoring and shirtmaking, which had now for some ten or eleven years been protected by their union. There was a Factory Act— 'Bradshaw's', the Employment of Females Act, 1873, amended in 1874, 1875, 1881, 1884 and 1885— which aimed at guarding the interests of all women working in trades and industries; in 1894 a woman was appointed an Inspector of Factories, the first woman inspector in New Zealand; but these measures would seem to have failed for too long in their purpose. If these were the conditions which so many women preferred to domestic service, there must have been more hardship in the latter than we are likely ever to know.

Of the 'professions' as distinct from the 'trades,' that of teaching has always been the one which has attracted New Zealand women in the largest numbers, and the one to which their right of entrance page 156has been, apart from nursing, the least disputed. The women teachers have possibly always outnumbered the men in New Zealand as in other countries; by 1896 they did so by more than two to one; in 1926, the latest date for which full figures have been accessible, the proportion was much the same, although in 1921 it appears to have been more like three to one. The position created by the war had probably not at that date altogether adjusted itself.

The establishment of schools was always among the first cares of any group of settlers in New Zealand; and much valuable work was done also in the homes of those who had themselves received a good education. From these homes came many of the young women who later conducted the various excellent private schools for girls, some of which, though with other names and altered constitutions, are still recognised as among the best in the Dominion. Education was an important part of the plans for colonisation. But although the earliest schools, which were in the first instance all supported in part by one or other of the different churches, were attended by girls in numbers almost equal with the numbers of boys, it was of course the education of the boys that the founders of the colony had in mind. The education of girls after the primary school stage was left to the private schools, many of which, being in the hands of the most eager and enthusiastic women, were well equal to the task, and splendidly page 157prepared the way for what was to follow. But when the University of New Zealand, rather casually than of set purpose, left its door ajar, and women walked in, the movement for the 'higher education' of girls was fairly begun. Girls' High Schools began to be established in the principal towns, and the first young women graduates were appointed to their charge. It was not all plain sailing; the quarters provided were terribly cramped, and, as was to be expected, there was plenty of opposition from public opinion, and not only male opinion. All kinds of evils were foreseen. The schools, nevertheless, grew rapidly and rapidly increased in numbers; and although even now from time to time an antediluvian doubt still raises here and there its heavy head, there is no serious question of the value of girls' as distinct from boys' education. All that is needed is enormously to improve both.

The first nurses in New Zealand were probably largely untrained except by nature and experience; they were able nevertheless to do much good work. The conditions in which they had to struggle were difficult, and those in the country districts particularly had to suffer great hardship and overcome many obstacles, in order to bring what help they could to the sick, making long and difficult journeys over the inevitable rough unformed roads, bush tracks and dangerous rivers. As the towns grew and prospered, hospitals were established, training became page 158possible, and nursing here as in other countries gradually became recognised as a high and honourable calling, followed, by the nineties, by well over a thousand New Zealand women. And in 1895 Mrs Grace Neill, who had for a year occupied the position of Inspector of Factories, became the first woman in the empire to be appointed an Assistant-Inspector of Hospitals, Asylums and Charitable Aid. The work done by her in improving the training of nurses and raising the status of the profession is still remembered with gratitude by the older New Zealand nurses. In spite of minute salaries, Spartan conditions, long hours and nerve-racking work, the profession is one that has drawn increasing numbers to its ranks; and all hospitals, public and private, have as a rule long waiting lists of would-be entrants. The establishment of the Plunket system and of the Karitane Hospitals has too provided an opportunity for many girls and women who might have found themselves hardly equal to the extremely arduous general training; and they, like other New Zealand nurses, are always assured of work in almost any part of the world.

It is now over forty years since New Zealand women began to enter the medical profession. The census figures of 1896 show that while there were in that year no women medical practitioners, there were seven medical students. Of these one qualified in that year but went to England for further study page 159and experience, and a second in 1897, becoming the first registered medical practitioner of her sex in New Zealand. By the date of the next census (1901), six women were returned as practising medicine in various parts of the country, and five years later the number had been increased to twenty. Since then, in spite of a certain amount of prejudice, women have steadily made their way in this exacting profession and have for some years undertaken work not only as general practitioners but as pathologists, bacteriologists, radiologists and, notably, dietitians. Their number now is approximately seventy-five.

Dentistry has proved less popular with New Zealand women than medicine, although they appear earlier to have turned to it as a means of livelihood. According to the figures there were already in 1896 seven women dentists, a number which had increased in the following ten years to thirty-one. The next decade, however, showed a big falling off, to three in 1916, to be followed by an upward leap to forty-eight in 1926.

The law has hitherto attracted few women, although an enabling act was passed in 1896; but is apparently now coming to be regarded with more favour by girls in search of a profession; and within the last twelve months at least half a dozen young women have been admitted to the Bar. Since 1926 women have been eligible for appointment as Justices of the page 160Peace, and many have held office and proved their worth. They are as a rule associated with the Magistrates in charge of the Children's Courts, but do not sit in the ordinary courts. Among the remits placed before the annual Conference of the Labour Party at Easter in 1939, was one recommending the appointment of a larger number of women justices. The same remit advanced the claim that the appointment of women as magistrates would be in the interests of the community as a whole, and in particular of women and children; and urged further that the formation of a corps of women police should be carried out with as little delay as possible. The committee of the Conference before which the remit came made the encouraging report that there was in fact nothing to prevent the appointment of women as magistrates, except the general lack of qualified persons, there being so few women in the legal profession. As more women become eligible and this sole bar to their appointment disappears, we may hope that the Government will take advantage of the service they could undoubtedly render. With regard to the question of women police, a statement had already been made to the Conference by the Minister in Charge of the Police Department that applications were actually then being called for; so that we may expect before long to hear more of this matter.

It is impossible to deal even so briefly with all the page 161occupations of women in New Zealand. Women are found in all sorts of work, likely and unlikely; and to a certain extent this has been so from quite early days, though the field is now greatly enlarged. Even before the turn of the century the returns show a few women employed in such unexpected places as coach building and painting workshops, flaxmills, sawmills, iron and brass foundries, and chaff-cutting establishments, though it is impossible to say just what their work was in these unusual trades. The early returns do not distinguish between productive and administrative workers. Employers were supposed to include in their returns the numbers of productive workers only; but it appears that this rule was not certainly obeyed. Nevertheless, when in 1919 the regulations stipulated for. separate returns of employees engaged in administrative, productive and distributive work, we still find numbers of women in the 'productive' columns of such industries as have been mentioned.

In our own day the list of 'gainful' occupations followed by New Zealand women is of formidable length. It contains evidence that while by far the largest number are still engaged in domestic work (as cooks, kitchen, pantry and scullery maids, housemaids, 'generals,' charwomen and washerwomen, waitresses, companions and lady-helps), and in teaching and nursing, or as shop-assistants, there are also very large numbers in other occupations which page 162have not always nor for very long been considered exclusively or even largely as fields for women. It is only within the last thirty or forty years that girls have in any number been clerks, book-keepers, stenographers and typists; they now hold these positions in banks, shops and offices, and in the Public Service, about 15,000 of them. In addition to being dentists and dentists' assistants, they are dental mechancis in numbers nearly equal to men; they are photographers, librarians and library assistants, bookbinders, printers, compositors, proofreaders; public accountants and auditors; architects; harness-makers and leather-workers generally; electricians; tin-smiths; silver-smiths, manufacturing jewellers, opticians and optical mechanics; manufacturing chemists; fishers and trappers; kauri-gum diggers and sorters. And large numbers are farmers and farm labourers, orchardists, market-gardeners, poultry farmers, fruit pickers and other agricultural and pastoral workers. This, of course, by no means completes the list; it is perhaps enough to show that the 'occupational' section of the census returns is full of interest and instruction. It may be well to quote the warning of the officer responsible for its compilation in 1921, who was evidently a little startled by the results he obtained. 'An examination of the table,' he wrote, 'shows occasionally the presence of females in occupations which are usually considered solely masculine. It is possible that some, or page 163even most, of these are cases of incorrect statements in the original returns.' He was, however, constrained to admit that 'inquiries made in cases where opportunity permitted proved that a number of such unusual vocations were actually correct.'

The statistics do not of course reveal against what opposition women may have had to struggle to gain an entrance into these various trades and professions, nor in the face of how great discouragement they have kept a footing, however precarious. Nor can we be sure whether they are all really 'gainful' occupations. The war of 1914-1918 no doubt did much to open doors, some of which it has been found profitable to leave wide, and none of which it was possible entirely to close again.

As artists of whatever kind, the women of New Zealand stand, again, beside the men. The subject is more fully treated in another volume; and all that need or can be done here is to make some very general mention of the position. In music it need only be said that New Zealand women have held, and continue to hold, their own with the women of other countries. Every year some few make their way, to Australia, to England, and farther afield, and, whether as singers or as instrumentalists, have little difficulty in taking a place beside all but the very greatest. Many of them do not return to New Zealand; thus far there has been too little encouragement offered them to do so. We profess to be proud page 164of them as New Zealanders, and crowd eagerly into the light they shed, we suppose, upon ourselves. We do not do enough, if they return, to make possible their continued shining. The art of painting too has found among New Zealand women many competent professors who have deserved better than they have very generally received. A comparatively few of these have sought, and obtained, recognition overseas; and the work of one, Miss Frances Hodgkins, has received the seal of the highest authorities. She is, actually, one of the older generation, and her later work is little known in her own country; nor is it likely that it would be very popular if it were known better. It shows, nevertheless, the marks of genius and of the true artist: it has never ceased to develop. Miss Hodgkins has not for many years lived in New Zealand.

In literature several New Zealand women have achieved distinction. Katherine Mansfield's name of course shines out above all others. Her early death was deplored by critics in England as dealing to English literature the greatest blow it had received since the death of Keats. She too showed that she possessed not only genius but the finest artistic sense—showed it not only in the rapid development of her performance through the few small volumes that appeared during her lifetime, but also in the power of self-criticism revealed in the letters and journals published after her death. There are competent novelists also page 165among New Zealand women, though the really great New Zealand novel has yet to be written. Robin Hyde might have done it had she lived; her work too had still to reach its full maturity; and there are others still working who have already won distinction and may yet achieve greatness. A slightly more restricted field has been entered with easy triumph by Miss Ngaio Marsh, whose detective novels are more than competent and have gained for her a reputation beyond our own narrow shores. Poetry in New Zealand developed earlier than the other arts, and there have always been women able to take their place beside the men. In the older tradition Jessie Mackay's small fierce flame, unquenched by years and the body's frailty, made her name known and honoured outside New Zealand; while in our own day the work of Miss Eileen Duggan, of much power and beauty, has begun to make its way in the greater world, and is not yet done. Last and greatest, Miss Ursula Bethell need fear comparison with none. Her spacious scholarship, wide humanity, and delicate perceptiveness have been, with exquisite craftsmanship, transmuted into poetry at once rich in content and finely austere in form. Hers is the most individual voice in New Zealand literature to-day: no other woman's, and only one man's, can compare.