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Oral History: Work

Paid Work: Working Women

Complementing the idea of the working man was the ideology of the married woman as mother and housewife. After marriage women worked at home and raised their children. The time involved in providing for the needs of the family precluded outside work. Widows and abandoned wives sometimes had to work outside the home but no women were paid enough to support a family. Those without access to a man's wage were often doomed to poverty and struggle. Even after the introduction of the Widows' Pension (1911) and a means-tested Family Allowance (1926), most widows with dependent children remarried fairly quickly.

From the 1890s onwards there were increasing work opportunities for women before marriage in Dunedin. Many of them reflected the industrialisation of traditional women's work, especially the clothing industry which in 1901 employed 27% of the Dunedin workforce. Eighty percent of them were women. Increasingly there were also new jobs for unmarried women as office workers and shop assistants. By 1926 this service sector was the major source of employment for women.

Violet WatsonUntil the 1880s, domestic service - working for money in someone else's home - was almost the only respectable employment available to young women. But with the new jobs in factories, offices and shops, fewer and fewer girls wanted to be servants. By 1940 domestic servants had almost disappeared. Housework had come to be seen as drudgery unless on your own account, and even then best tackled with the aid of modern domestic appliances. Pictured is Violet Watson, domestic servant to Mrs Jefcoate at 'The Hollies', College Street, Caversham. (Undated photograph, Hocken Library - Uare Taoka O Hakena, University of Otago)

Roslyn Woollen MillsAs illustrated by this photograph of the Roslyn Woollen Mills, unlike today, there was no competition between men and women for jobs in the workplaces of early twentieth century Dunedin. Instead there were parallel worlds of work: some jobs were for men, others were for women. This was seldom questioned. The gender difference lay at the heart of the social order. (Hallenstein's Archives)

Hudson's women workersThe young women of the south Dunedin suburbs were close enough to town to take advantage of the new opportunities in city jobs. Every morning crowds of them would tram in to the Exchange in the centre of the city. From there they would fan out to Hallensteins' clothing factory, Hudson's biscuit and sweet factory (now Cadbury Confectioners), the D.I.C. department store and a host of other shops, offices and factories within a ten minute walk of the tram stop. This undated photograph shows some of Hudson's women workers operating biscuit packing equipment. (Hocken Library - Uare Taoka O Hakena, University of Otago)

The New Zealand Clothing CompanyThe New Zealand Clothing Company factory was opened on Dowling St in 1883. The factory was only five minutes walk from the Exchange and two sections by tram from Caversham township. (Although most workers thought little of a 40 minute walk to work in the 1890s by the 1910s younger ones refused to walk such distances.) Many young women from all parts of 'the Flat' were among the approximately 300 employees here. Ross and Glendining also had three factories near the Exchange which employed large numbers of young women. In all these factories they did work exclusively carried out by women. (Hallenstein's Archives)

New Zealand Clothing CompanyThe machinists sit with their backs to the camera in the New Zealand Clothing Company's factory in this photograph taken about 1900. In the dressmaking department each machinist operated her own electrically-driven machine. The more skilled finishers sit closest to the camera and no machine can yet do their work. This factory was one of the most modern when it was built in 1883 and included 70 sewing machines, (most of which attained a speed of 1800 to 2300 stitches per minute) and five buttonhole machines - although a machine which sewed buttons on, known as 'the bachelor's friend', was an innovation which attracted much attention. (Timeframes Online Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa)

HairdressingRita Grimmett was born in 1902 and began working as a hairdresser at the age of sixteen. Her parents chose this occupation for her, after seeing a position advertised in the paper. There was no formal training but she was instructed on the job and learnt a full range of cutting techniques. By her early twenties Rita was an accomplished hairdresser with a good reputation among her customers. In 1926 Rita's parents decided to set her up in her own business. Her builder father fitted out a shop for her in King Edward Street, South Dunedin. The business got off to a good start. Within months Rita was joined by her sister. Louisa, seven years younger, had no previous experience and no real enthusiasm for hairdressing. Her parents pulled her out of a job as a dressmaker to join the family's business venture. As it prospered the girls imported a permanent waving machine to help them keep up with the fashion for curled hair. These machines were notorious for scalding customers' scalps with the steam used in the waving process. In 1933 a customer took the girls to court, claiming severe pain from a burn. The negative publicity damaged their business. Rita got married just before the court case and gave up work. Louisa carried on for a while on her own but then closed the business and went to work for another hairdresser. This 1930s photograph is not the Grimmetts but does show the equipment similar to that used in their Dunedin salon. (Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

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