Story: Sport and society

Page 6. Ethnicity and gender in sport, 1860–1910

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Māori engagement with Pākehā sport

Māori were involved in many early anniversary day celebrations and other community sports gatherings, and some observers felt that this was important to the process of developing harmonious race relations.

But, contrary to popular myths that ‘naturally athletic’ Māori quickly accepted Pākehā sports, and especially rugby, the evidence for widespread participation during the 19th century is not convincing. A study of Akaroa suggests that Māori participation declined as the scale of colonisation increased and conflicts between Pākehā and Māori intensified.

Those Māori who did participate at club and provincial level had generally been educated in the Pākehā school system and their regular contacts with Pākehā were not those of most Māori. It is also probable that they were drawn from those tribes who had been most cooperative with and loyal to the Crown during the New Zealand wars.

For many other Māori, especially in the central and northern North Island, contact with Pākehā in general, let alone their sport, was at a minimum until the late 19th century.

Anniversary Day race relations

A Wellington newspaper reported on Anniversary Day sports in 1847: ‘Another feature, and to us not the least interesting one, was the number of natives present, who appeared equally disposed with the settlers to participate in and enjoy the diversions of the annual holiday. The occasion is perhaps of greater importance to them than to us, as the attempt to colonise New Zealand must have the most material influence on their improvement and civilisation, and opportunities like the present display the good feeling existing between the two races’.1

Gender and sport

Women and girls faced specific barriers to sporting participation. Although colonial women generally enjoyed wider opportunities than their British counterparts, these were largely within their roles as wives, mothers and homemakers. For most of the 19th century women supported the male sporting community. They launched boats, donated trophies, provided food for participants and offered a civilising and festive atmosphere by their presence as spectators.

Opposition to women's sport was based mainly on flimsy medical ideas that vigorous exercise would damage their ability to have and raise children. The common view that women should behave with modesty and gentility counted against their involvement in games that were seen as ungraceful and unfeminine. There was also the practical impediment: their skirts and tight sleeves restricted movement for all but the most sedate exercise.

The development of higher education for New Zealand women during the late 19th century, and the growing recognition that healthy rather than delicate bodies helped women fulfil their roles in society, gradually led to an acceptance of some physical activity. But the sports that were largely tolerated for women were those, such as tennis, croquet and golf, which could be pursued as social rather than competitive activities, or within a school or family setting away from public view.

Swimming also became acceptable in the early 20th century because it was easy to segregate women from men.

When women did begin to play team sports during the same period, they opted for those sports, such as hockey, that were less associated with displays of masculinity. Netball, which arrived around 1906, was regarded as the ideal sport for women. It did not involve physical contact or require significant space. Nor was it a challenge to anything men did. Women’s cricket grew slowly, while participation in any of the football codes was strongly discouraged until later in the 20th century.

Footnotes:
  1. New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian, 23 January 1847, p.2. Back
How to cite this page:

Greg Ryan, 'Sport and society - Ethnicity and gender in sport, 1860–1910', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/sport-and-society/page-6 (accessed 25 January 2020)

Story by Greg Ryan, published 5 Sep 2013