What would a history of New Zealand look like that rejected Thomas Carlyle’s definition of history as ‘the biography of great men’, and focused instead on the experiences of women? One that shifted the angle of vision and examined the stages of this country’s development from the points of view of wives, daughters, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts? That considered their lives as distinct from (though often unwillingly influenced by) those of history’s ‘great men’?
In her ground-breaking History of New Zealand Women, Barbara Brookes provides just such a history. This is more than an account of women in New Zealand, from those who arrived on the first waka to the Grammy and Man Booker Prize-winning young women of the current decade. It is a comprehensive history of New Zealand seen through a female lens.
Brookes argues that while European men erected the political scaffolding to create a small nation, women created the infrastructure necessary for colonial society to succeed. Concepts of home, marriage and family brought by settler women, and integral to the developing state, transformed the lives of Māori women. The small scale of New Zealand society facilitated rapid change so that, by the twenty-first century, women are no longer defined by family contexts.
In her long-awaited book, Barbara Brookes traces the factors that drove that change. Her lively narrative draws on a wide variety of sources to map the importance in women’s lives not just of legal and economic changes, but of smaller joys, such as the arrival of a piano from England, or the freedom of riding a bicycle.