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Mill wives: a study of gender relations, family and work in a single-industry town

The experiences and everyday practices of wives of production workers in a town with one dominant industry that imposes a variety of demands on workers and their spouses is the focus of this thesis. The town is Kawerau, established for the milling and manufacture of timber, pulp and paper, and situated in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. It has a specifically masculine character on account of restricted employment opportunities and traditionally male occupations. I am concerned with the ways in which the women are engaged in maintaining home and family. Marriage constitutes the ground for establishing a household, and the complementary relationship between spouses is central to creating a home. This complementarity is expressed through male employment, for many involving shiftwork, and the primary involvement of women with domesticity. Those women who were also employed modified their involvement according to domestic and family obligations, which were given prior importance. Though both may be wage earners, wives and husbands have different obligations and orientations to the family. Complementarity is made visible through gender distinctions; a major one being the wife and ‘home’s’ reliance on the husband’s job. His job provides the necessary financial basis for the home. Its contractual and disciplined character pervades the home and furnishes the conditions under which the women as wives are expected to cope domestically. A wife’s access to housing and income sufficient to maintain personally acceptable standards are influenced by the husband’s contract with the mill. Creating a home and maintaining family life are continual processes, achieved through managing the consequences of the husband’s job by the wife, in the confines of their home. This thesis highlights three aspects of his job which, as ‘givens’, constrain the woman’s organisation of the household in significant ways: the husband’s wage, hours of work (especially shiftwork) and industrial disputes. It is the contradictions and ambivalence involved in coping with these aspects that I explore. The study is influenced by feminist theoretical work concerning the relationship between ‘home’ and ‘work’ and ‘public’ and ‘private’ as symbols and experience.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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