To a great extent, marriage retained its privileged status for much of the 20th century. It entitled spouses to rights that were not available to unmarried people, whether in sexual relationships or not.
These rights were wide-ranging. For example the family benefit was only available to married women, and a joint family home was exempt from gift duty, stamp duty and death duty, and could not be seized by creditors. A spouse could not be compelled to give evidence against the other spouse (unless the crime was against them). A wife who assisted her husband after he had committed an offence could not be charged with being an accessory to it. The higher wage paid to all men was justified on the grounds that they were, or would be, married and supporting a family.
Sanctity of marriage
Marriage was widely considered a serious matter, not to be put aside for the comfort of individuals. When a judge said in 1921 that allowing people to divorce by mutual agreement would be a ‘grave and mischievous departure from the requirements of the public interest in the sanctity and permanence of the marriage tie’ he expressed a common feeling.1
Over this period the duty of spouses to live together, undertaking manly or womanly tasks and providing companionship and sex, remained. But the legally unifying effect of marriage substantially reduced over time, particularly in relation to property. The religious aspect of marriage also weakened.
By the early 1940s there were more divorced than widowed people remarrying – the number of divorced people had increased, and the number of widows and widowers decreased.
Who people married – whether they were of the same or different faiths, cultures, countries, and skin colours – often prompted comment, and sometimes disapproval.
Rate of and age at marriage
The rate of marriage per 1,000 people per year increased slightly from just under 8 in 1900 to nearly 9 in the 1960s. This steadiness was more apparent than real – there were increases at the beginning and end of the two world wars as people hurried into marriage. Tough times decreased marriage – the rate dropped during both world wars and the 1930s economic depression.
The first New Zealand law stating a minimum age at marriage was passed in 1933, with 16 as the minimum for both girls and boys. Occasional marriages of girls under 16 had drawn the attention of women’s groups, and their representations to government resulted in a minimum age being legislated.
Marriage continued to be prohibited between partners closely related by blood or marriage. A man could not marry his own or his wife’s mother, grandmother, daughter or granddaughter, his niece, aunt, stepmother or step-grandmother, daughter-in-law or granddaughter–in-law. Equivalent limits applied to women.
Information on the number of women pregnant at marriage began to be collected in 1913. The younger a bride was, the more likely she was to be pregnant. Nearly two-thirds of first births to those under 21 occurred within seven months of marriage, compared with a quarter of first births to those aged 25–30. In the 1920s, 20–25% of all first births occurred within eight months of marriage.
Religious faith and marriage
Although marriage between people with different religious beliefs was common in New Zealand, it was sometimes controversial. The early 20th-century Catholic insistence that civil marriages or those conducted by ministers of other faiths were invalid caused great agitation. Legislation passed in 1920 made it an offence to suggest any marriage was illegitimate.
Attempts to encourage marriage within faith boundaries had limited effect. Some communities were simply too small for marriage within the group to be possible for all its members. Although Jewish religious laws forbade marrying outside the faith, 25–50% of Jews were doing so by the early 1950s. In the early 20th century non-Jews who married Jews often converted to Judaism, but this became less common over time, as marrying outside the community became more frequent.
Wartime relationships did not always become successful marriages. Writing during the Second World War about the First World War, a senior bureaucrat urged caution because of the ‘many examples of life-long unhappiness resulting from marriages of New Zealand soldiers with women in foreign countries’.2
War prompted many marriages: the annual rate climbed immediately before and after the two world wars, reaching a high point in 1946 of 12.4 marriages for every 1,000 people in New Zealand (a rate not equalled before or since). Most of these marriages were between New Zealanders, but others involved military personnel serving overseas and women they met there, or, during the Second World War, US soldiers stationed in New Zealand and local women.
In the Second World War more than 3,000 wives, 1,000 children and 700 fiancées came to New Zealand from 35 countries in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. Around 3,000 New Zealand women married US troops stationed locally.