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Grandmother’s Wartime Experience Inspires New Book

9 APRIL 2001

Grandmother’s Wartime Experience Inspires New Book About “The Women’s War”

A family story about Deborah Montgomerie’s grandmother and her wartime experience has inspired Deborah’s new book "The Women’s War: New Zealand Women 1939–1945".

Deborah’s grandparents married in the late 1930s, and by the early 1940s her grandmother was living in the inner city Auckland suburb of Parnell with three small children, while her grandfather was stationed across the harbour at the Devonport Naval Base cutting sailors’ hair.

Deborah’s mother’s enduring memory of this period is of her own mother disguising herself in men’s clothes. The roof was leaking, there wasn’t any money to pay a tradesman to fix it – and anyway, tradesmen, like so many other things, were in short supply. So Deborah’s grandmother had no choice but to try and patch the roof herself. Before climbing up she got changed into a pair of her husband’s trousers and a workshirt, then bundled her long red hair into a cloth cap to hide it. The children were sworn to secrecy; “Ma didn’t want anyone to know it was her up on the roof.”

In the 1980s as part of the work for her Masters degree in history, Deborah started doing research on the impact of World War Two on the lives of New Zealand women.

“I wanted to work on a period where women’s lives changed dramatically, where there were famous ‘firsts’ and heroic breaks with tradition. A documentary film about the way American women had fought for access to high paying jobs in war industries had recently been released and it seemed worth looking for our own equivalents of Rosie the Riveter.”

Yet, she found the story about her grandmother kept coming back to her. “If the war had released women from convention why had she been so ashamed to be seen to be doing a man’s job fixing the roof?”

In an effort to put her grandmother’s story into perspective Deborah included in her research wives and mothers as well as women doing more pathbreaking war work.

“Women who spent the war in traditional women’s jobs also had to be considered”, says Deborah. “After all there were many more teachers than tram conductors, thousands more clothing machinists than women engineers, more nurses than all the WAAFs, WAACs and WRENs put together. And at the end of the war, far from being pushed out of their wartime jobs, New Zealand women voluntarily left their workforce in droves. Voting with their feet, women war workers transformed themselves into wives and mothers.”

So many women left the paid workforce in 1945 and 1946, in fact, that one of the most pressing problems facing the New Zealand government in the transition to peace was a severe shortage of women workers.

"The Women’s War" balances discussions of the challenges the war presented to New Zealand women with consideration of the continuities in family relations and in ideas about men and women.

It draws on newspapers, magazines and government reports to establish the boundaries of wartime change, then supplements the public sources with private reminiscences to draw out the emotional context of the period. Diaries, letters, memoirs and oral interviews all underscore the ways in which women fought to stay “feminine” even while they were doing men’s work, and the continuing preoccupation with child care and home-making.

At the end of the war most New Zealanders were still in the curious position of believing that men and women were “naturally” different, but that those differences required rigid legal and social reinforcement. Men continued to receive preference in employment, pay and promotion. Women continued to be seen as temporary workers whose future lay with marriage and domesticity. Men were ashamed to have wives who worked outside the home, feeling it cast doubts on their ability to support their families. Many women agreed that it was right and proper for women to take charge of cooking, cleaning and bringing up the kids, while their husbands concentrated on earning a wage.

Deborah concludes, “Far from liberating women, the war highlighted the contradictions between women’s capabilities and the conventions of feminine behaviour. It would be many years before women in so-called ‘men’s jobs’ – police officers, firefighters and even roofers – felt free of the accusation that their work was unfeminine and inappropriate.”

Deborah Montgomerie lives in Mt Eden, Auckland, and lectures in history at The University of Auckland. After completing a master’s degree at The University of Auckland she worked as a researcher for the Waitangi Tribunal. In 1989 she went to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, receiving a PhD in American History from Duke University in 1993. She was co-editor with Caroline Daley of "The Gendered Kiwi" (AUP, 1999).

"The Women’s War: New Zealand Women 1939–1945" Deborah Montgomerie Now available 204p, paperback, illustrations, ISBN 1 86940 244 8, $39.95

– ENDS –

Christine O'Brien Marketing Manager Auckland University Press PB 92019, Auckland

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