Material Objects Tell the Story of an Occupational Therapist Working in Post-World War II New Zealand

By Sewell, Alison; Bethell, Kerry | New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Material Objects Tell the Story of an Occupational Therapist Working in Post-World War II New Zealand


Sewell, Alison, Bethell, Kerry, New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy


Abstract

This paper uses material objects to tell the story of Miss Audrey Newton and her role as a New Zealand occupational therapist from 1946 to 1952. Using historical biographical and sociocultural methods we use visual and material sources as evidence to examine the everyday work of occupational therapists at that time. Their pioneering work was informed by psychology and the therapeutic use of crafts to support the rehabilitation of returned servicemen in post-World War II, and to meet the needs of mentally and physically ill children and adults. These findings place the work of occupational therapists today within the social, cultural, and gendered context of women's historical entry and advancement in the work force.

Key words

History, identity, occupational therapy, working women.

Reference

Sewell, A., & Bethell, K. (2017). Material objects tell the story of an occupational therapist working in post-World War II New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy, 64(1), 4-13.

World War II and its aftermath in New Zealand were for women a time of turbulent social and political change that brought to the fore political and moral questions around the place of women in the workplace (Montgomerie, 2001). Propelled in unprecedented numbers into the public domain to assume what had been male roles, women confronted a rapidly changing set of social expectations, gendered assumptions, values and norms. It was assumed that women's wartime work would only be temporary; that as the men returned to their previous occupations, single and married women would return to the home. While there was no radical change in gender roles, the war intensified occupational trends under way since the 1920s (Montgomerie, 1989).

For some single women, the construction of a new society in the post war period brought new opportunities in occupations that came to be seen as women's work. Women's occupations, such as kindergarten teaching and occupational therapy expanded as a means to ameliorate the impact of war, providing paid employment for single women. Caught between the traditional and the modern, single women inhabited a borderland - a largely unmapped space, forging for some, new possibilities within shifting gendered and class constraints (Gleadle, 2009).

For Miss Audrey Newton, the effect of the war was significant. She celebrated her 19th birthday in September 1939 when war broke. Living in her family home in Wellington, she was training to be a kindergarten teacher. Over the next few years Audrey saw her brother and father leave for war whilst she remained at home, tasked with caring for her mother, Grace. Throughout the duration of the war, Audrey worked as a kindergarten teacher in Wellington. In the initial months following the end of the war, Audrey considered her future and made a decision to resign from kindergarten teaching to become an occupational therapist.

This case study uses material objects to tell a story of Audrey Newton's experiences as a diversional therapist and occupational therapist from 1946-1952. The use of objects, enables the authors to tell a fuller story of her experiences. These in turn reflect New Zealand women's roles within a professionalising occupation as well as their changing personal and professional identities as they took control of these roles (Wilson, 2003). In particular, we highlight the interaction between agency and structure in women's lives over the post-war period that provided Audrey, and others like her, opportunities to build new personal and professional identities. Figure 1 shows Audrey in her occupational therapy uniform in 195' when she worked in the Occupational Therapy Department at Dunedin Public Hospital.

Methodology

This historical biography draws on a range of personal and professional primary sources, including objects and official records, as well as secondary sources such as books and articles relating to occupational therapy to shed light on its past. …

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