Deborah Montgomerie. the Women's War: New Zealand Women 1939-45

By Spurling, Kathryn | Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Fall-Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Deborah Montgomerie. the Women's War: New Zealand Women 1939-45


Spurling, Kathryn, Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military


Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland Univeristy Press, 2001. 200 pp. Index. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 1-8694-0244-8.

Reviewed for H-Minerva by Kathryn Spurling, School of History, University College (UNSW), Australian Defense Force Academy, Canberra, Australia

Questioning the Real Role of New Zealand Women in the Second World War

New Zealand is uniquely situated for a gender case study. Geographically it is isolated, Pacific islands far removed from the British origins of the population, which signed The Treaty of Waitangi with Maori Chieftains in 1840. Such a tyranny of distance from the "motherland" resulted in a loyalty to the British Empire not evidenced elsewhere. It was New Zealand, which, proportional to population, suffered the worst Allied casualty rates of World War I. The sacrifice made by its servicemen resulted in a military legend New Zealand was proud of and future generations emulated. When Great Britain declared war on Germany for a second time, in 1939, New Zealanders again answered the call to arms with alacrity. Again, young men in their prime were dispatched in increasing numbers to fight yet another war in another hemisphere. As the war effort expanded, more and more of those living in New Zealand became involved. It is here that Deborah Montgomerie takes up her study, offering a treatise on what effect this Second World War had on women and the gender balance of labour, or as the first sentence of the book puts it: "The Second World War raised a barrage of questions about the role of women in New Zealand society."

There have been several examinations of the role women played in various nations during the world wars but this is the first comprehensive analysis of the New Zealand experience. New Zealand was the first nation to allow women to vote, in 1893. One could assume that such social enlightenment would augment progressive gender relations prior to 1939 and certainly during the 1939-1945 war. But was this the case? Certainly as the wartime manpower shortage worsened, employers, both Government and commercial, were forced to accept more women employees. A comparison of the New Zealand census figures of 1936 and 1945 shows there was a significant change in the number and distribution of women workers in six broad industrial categories and that the number of women employed in domestic service had declined. But how substantial was this? Montgomerie shows how difficult it is to work out exactly which occupations were involved because Government statistics were broken into industry classification rather than occupation, so we can observe some broad trends, but not the fine detail of women's choices. An example was that while there was an increase of 1,000 women in farming, it is unclear which duties women were undertaking within the industry. There was certainly a 25% increase of female employees in the engineering and metalworking industries but this was somewhat a statistical anomaly insofar as there was only an increase of 1,000 women in these industries. With exception of some highly visible and very publicized exceptions like railway porters and tram conductors, New Zealand women continued to work in conventional female areas. Unlike their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom opportunities in heavy industry were small. New Zealand's war effort was geared to the production of food. Any new employment opportunities for women workers were carefully monitored by union and Government authorities to ensure women did not undertake exact duties previously the province of male workers. The uneasy relationship between women workers and the union movement was exacerbated by the temporary status of women's employment as well as the ideology surrounding women's voluntary war service. The industrial conscription of women in 1942 did little to ease the tension because it contravened the widely held belief that women's energies should be focused within the home.

Montgomerie offers a very detailed examination of women's civilian employment during the war. …

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