Story: Women’s networks and clubs

Page 1. Social and friendship networks

All images & media in this story

Women socialise together both in formal organisations and in informal groups of friends, acquaintances, neighbours and relatives. Some aspects of women’s social networks have changed over time, but opportunities for female friendship remains important to many women.

Friends and family

Nineteenth-century women often spent their spare time with female relatives. It was common for unmarried women to develop particularly strong bonds with their sisters. However, some women were distant from their families, so female friends and neighbours became vital for support. Until the later 20th century, women might be close to their brothers but did not usually have male friends – men were potential marriage partners only.

Family of friends

In 2003 Jane Westaway, a first-generation New Zealander, wrote of the importance of her female friends: ‘When others declare that family are always there for you, I don’t think of those on the far side of the world in whose company I spent the first lonely eighteen years of my life; I think of my family of friends. I see a circle of faces all the more dear because what they offer – affection, empathy, laughter (so much laughter), comfort, teasing, respect, kindness, advice, all kinds of support, companionship, and, from time to time, some straight talking – comes untainted by expectation of duty.’1

In the early 21st century many women still rely on female friendship networks. Friends can become substitute family, especially for immigrants, or women without partners or children. These relationships may be formed while they are students, through employment, sport, church attendance or participation in ante natal groups. Book groups or networks formed among parents with children at the same school are also important ways of getting to know other women. Women are increasingly involved in online friendships with other women.

Women and the home

The belief that a woman’s place was in the home was widespread from the 19th century. To venture outside the neighbourhood or go into male preserves such as pubs was socially unacceptable. After marriage, some women, especially in rural areas, rarely went out alone. Few had independent transport. Childcare often kept them at home – for example, some women did not attend church because they had to look after small children, who were unwelcome at services. Groceries were usually delivered.

Attitudes changed slowly during the first half of the 20th century as women took up walking, cycling, driving and sports, went from school to higher education, and entered the workforce in greater numbers.

Time issues

The boundaries between labour and leisure were often blurred for housewives – for example, when relaxing they did domestic tasks such as sewing, mending and knitting. A woman with young children could not go out in the evening, and during the day only if they could bring their children. These constraints still affect many women.

Few places to meet

Until the 1900s there were not many public places where women could meet. There were few tearooms until the 1890s, and going to town was difficult because of the lack of public toilets for women. In contrast with men’s organisations, hardly any women’s groups could afford to have their own clubrooms. Churches were approved meeting-places, and many women belonged to church women's guilds and associations. However, home was the venue for most women’s social activities. While limitations on when and where women can gather have disappeared, many still hold meetings or entertain friends at home.

Paying calls

For the upper classes, the English tradition of paying or returning formal calls on days when the lady of the house was ‘at home’ continued from the 1840s. New immigrant Charlotte Godley wrote, ‘There is as much etiquette about visiting, and so on, at Dunedin as I ever saw anywhere at home [the UK]’.2 Other women made more casual visits to the homes of female friends and family.

Happy birthday to you

In the early 1900s women friends observed social proprieties. Palmerston North neighbours Helena Monro and Ethel Russell were so friendly that they shared the same birthday celebration each year. But they never called each other by their first names. It was always ‘Many happy returns of the day, Mrs Monro. And many happy returns to you, Mrs Russell.’3

Morning and afternoon tea

Home calls and visits evolved into morning and afternoon teas (and, by the 1950s, coffee mornings), when a woman could show off her baking skills to an appreciative and knowledgeable audience. Savouries, cakes and biscuits were served on the best china with embroidered tablecloths and napkins. On these occasions talk (sometimes dismissed as ‘gossip’) was extremely important as a way of keeping up with current events in the neighbourhood or town, acquiring general knowledge and forging social networks. Uninhibited conversation remains a key part of many women’s social activities.

Although morning and afternoon teas diminished in importance after more married women entered paid work in the 1970s, fancy baking and associated entertaining have remained popular. From the 1960s American-influenced social events such as baby showers, kitchen teas, and Tupperware, lingerie and other parties were hosted at home. Serving alcohol became more acceptable when women socialised with friends.

Women’s organisations

Demonstrations of domestic arts, with a tinge of competitiveness, extended to get-togethers beyond the home. These increased as more women’s organisations were set up. While some organisations, such as the National Council of Women of New Zealand, connected women in a range of different social groups and advocated for women, children and families, others operated mainly as social support groups. As well as encouraging familiar rituals, these gatherings provided opportunities to explore novel ideas, learn new skills and push back the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Footnotes:
  1. Jane Westaway and Tessa Copland, eds, It looks better on you: New Zealand women writers on their friendships. Dunedin: Longacre, 2003, p. 13. Back
  2. Quoted in Beryl Hughes, ‘Godley, Charlotte, 1821–1907.’ Dictionary of New Zealand biography, updated 22 June 2007, http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1g11 Back
  3. Dorothea Joblin. Behold the plains: the story of the old houses of Massey. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1970, p. 60. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Women’s networks and clubs - Social and friendship networks', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/womens-networks-and-clubs/page-1 (accessed 15 November 2019)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 15 Jul 2018