The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s challenged expected gender roles, including that of the housewife. The contraceptive pill had already given women more control over their lives, and soon they began campaigning for safe, legal abortion. Though the resulting Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 restricted their choices, other legislation increased women’s rights.
- ‘It is not your penis we have been envying all these years, but your freedom.’
- Sue Kedgley, feminist, 1972
Women’s roles, men’s roles
Until the 1960s, the prevailing opinion in New Zealand was that a woman’s place was in the home. A man’s domain, on the other hand, was the paid workforce, the pub, and the garden.
Women had been ‘manpowered’ into essential work during World War II, but most returned to domesticity in the 1950s, running the household and raising children.
In 1961, the contraceptive pill allowed women to better separate sex from child bearing and let couples plan families more reliably or avoid pregnancy altogether. Increasingly, women began to question their social situation and enter higher education and the workforce. They also began to seek jobs not traditionally associated with women.
Women’s liberation movement
The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s challenged the received wisdom that a woman’s place was naturally in the home, and demanded equal rights with men. Maori feminists also tackled racism and land issues.
Abortion law reform
Abortion law reform was a particularly divisive issue. Abortion was a crime in New Zealand, unless it was needed to save the life of a mother. Illegal abortions happened but were mainly hidden.
Much of the debate in the 1970s centred on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy versus an unborn child’s right to life. Groups for and against abortion law reform emerged. The most active were the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) and the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC).
The Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 followed a Royal Commission of Enquiry. The Royal Commission had acknowledged ‘that the right to life is a sacred principle of civilisation’. At the same time the Act ended up limiting women’s choices. After massive public pressure, it was amended in 1978, giving doctors the means to carry out abortions if women requested them and if certain criteria were met.
Other law changes in the 1970s increased women’s rights, and ‘Girls can do anything’ was the slogan of the 1980s.
By the end of the 20th century, women held many powerful positions, including that of Prime Minister. For many women, the new struggle was balancing the roles of mother and wage earner.