Public perceptions and beliefs about women’s health in 19th- and early 20th-century New Zealand were contradictory. Women were seen as weaker than men and more prone to ill health, yet many women were vigorous and able, undertaking activities that had been thought impossible or inappropriate, such as mountain climbing or political campaigning. Class played a part – some middle- and upper-class women might be delicate, but domestic servants and factory workers were expected to be sturdy and hard-working.
Many women, like men, benefited by moving to New Zealand as colonists. The improvement in diet was often remarked on, and the relative freedom delighted in. For European women (and men), New Zealand led the world in terms of health.
‘Those awful corsets! How did women stand for them?’ asked Dr Eleanor McLaglan, born in 1879. They put ‘tremendous pressure’ on the liver, pancreas and spleen, and immobilised the lower chest. Many girls were ‘languid, breathless and of a greenish pallor’, suffering from ‘chlorosis’.1 Although it was thought to be an iron deficiency, Dr McLaglan noticed that chlorosis vanished once tight corseting was no longer fashionable.
Causes of death
Infectious diseases, particularly tuberculosis, were a leading cause of death among Pākehā women in the mid-19th century, along with cardiovascular disease and death associated with childbirth. Women of childbearing age had a higher rate of death than men of the same age, but in some ways their health was better than that of men. Women’s rates of committal to mental asylums were lower, as were rates of accidental injury and death, and industrial accidents and disease.
Causes and rates of death are not the only way to measure health, but sickness that didn’t kill was not recorded. It was often dealt with at home, by a general practitioner, or a healer.
Maternal mortality and birth rate
The health of Pākehā women was tightly bound to maternity: pregnancy, childbirth and abortion caused a variety of illnesses and difficulties, and sometimes death. An estimate for the mid-19th century suggests that maternal mortality accounted for 9% of deaths among women. Between the late 1870s and the 1930s the rate moved up and down between just over 3% and nearly 7%, dropping quickly once antibiotics were introduced in the 1940s.
Dr Ferdinand Batchelor, a specialist in women’s diseases at Dunedin Hospital, reported in 1909 that 50% of the ‘decent married women’ admitted were suffering from venereal disease.2 Those women were working class – middle and upper class people were usually cared for at home. Batchelor regarded husbands as the source of infection, and argued that as the behaviour of well-to-do men was no better than that of their poorer brothers the rate among better-off women was probably similar.
The rate of birth in the 19th century was extraordinarily high – between 7 and 9 children for each Pākehā married woman. It dropped sharply to 3.4 per married woman in 1921, and 2.1 in the 1930s. With each child the risk of death for the mother increased. There was also the possibility of ongoing health problems related to childbearing, such as a prolapsed uterus, urinary incontinence and varicose veins.
Maternity care in the 1920s moved from home to hospital birth, and from midwife- to doctor-led care. Neither shift was primarily responsible for the drop in maternal deaths – that owed more to the drop in the number of children born (from the 1890s), the rigorous application of antiseptic measures (1920s and 1930s), and the introduction of antibiotics (1940s).
Most women worked in the home, and the outstanding source of danger was fire (relied on for heating, cooking and washing clothes). Burns and scalds were the only kind of accident that afflicted women to a similar degree to men. Other kinds of accidents – drowning was a notable one – killed far more men than women.
Women spent most of their time at home, and conditions there varied according to socio-economic status. In Dunedin’s southern suburbs a poorer woman might find herself living on Anderson’s Bay Road, breathing the fumes of the nearby gasworks, or in the area known as ‘the Swamp’, where drains were not installed until 1909. Better-off women were more likely to enjoy a light sea breeze in St Clair.
Occupational health and safety
Women’s work was less dangerous than that of men, and the pattern of women leaving employment on marriage meant that their exposure to industrial or workplace disease was further reduced.
For those women who were in paid employment, conditions were often bad. Hours of work were sometimes long – up to 15-hour days and six-day weeks for some shop or clothing workers, while many live-in domestic servants had only one afternoon off a week. Shop workers who stood all day were more likely to endure painful feet and varicose veins. Tailoresses and seamstresses engaged in ‘close work’ sometimes had sight problems, those sitting at machines were likely to suffer from ‘menstrual troubles’.