It hasn't been marked yet so I've no idea if academia thinks it's any good, and putting this up here is the equivalent of a different kind of person asking someone "Do you think I'm pretty?"
So if you want to critique, please be gentle.
For many political ideologies, particularly liberal ideology, the spheres of public and private life are held in dichotomy, with the belief that government’s responsibility rests in the public sphere and families are responsible for their own affairs (Pateman 1989, 118). The government established in New Zealand in the mid-1800s was ostensibly a liberal one, espousing minimal state interference in individual affairs (Koopman-Boyden and Scott 1984, 101). An exception to this liberal ideology was the law relating to marriage and children, which was imported directly from Britain along with the norms and practices of the British colonists (ibid, 95).
This essay examines the way in which matrimonial and child welfare policy in New Zealand has developed from the 19th century to the late 20th century, and analyses how policy has been used to regulate behaviour within the private sphere. This will be done using an exploration of policy relating to ex-nuptial births*, with particular attention to the way in which policy has been used to regulate women’s sexuality and the definition of family through state intervention.
When New Zealand established a government and began organised settlement, British laws were directly transferred from England, including matrimonial law (Koopman-Boyden and Scott 1984, 95). Britain’s marriage laws were based on the Hardwicke Marriage Act 1753, which constructed the husband as head of the household and breadwinner, and the woman housekeeper and child rearer (Frost 2008, 9). Marriage was seen as a means of upholding the morals of society through a system of obligations (Lewis 2001, 76), and the laws reflected this.
Any children born outside of marriage were considered to be illegitimate, and not even the parents marrying at a later date could legitimise them. England’s Bastardy law treated illegitimate children as literally parentless, removing any rights to the inheritance of property – in the eyes of the law, ‘my children’ referred only to legitimate children and unless named specifically in a will, illegitimate children could not inherit property (Frost 2008, 9). The responsibility for maintaining illegitimate children was placed on mothers, removing the opportunity for women to name the fathers of their children and receive support from them (ibid, 12). In contrast, men were only obliged to support children born within marriage, and had no responsibility for the welfare of either the women they impregnated or their illegitimate children. This placed women with illegitimate children at a disadvantage when marrying as a woman’s property became her husband’s upon marriage, rendering her incapable of providing for her children herself (ibid, 27).
In a society that had made monogamous marriage the only respectable way to form family, illegitimate children were evidence of sexual activity outside the accepted norm, which jeopardised the idealised view of women and family (Frost 2003, 295) and brought shame to the mothers of illegitimate children and to their families. The law also precluded women from obtaining abortions, and any woman found to have attempted to perform an abortion on herself was liable for a prison sentence of between two years and life (Koopman-Boyden and Scott 1984, 105). Thus under the laws of the day a woman who engaged in sex outside of marriage and became pregnant had no way of avoiding the shame associated with her status as a ‘fallen woman’. Many women with illegitimate children were simply written out of their family stories in order for the family to retain their respectability. Other women’s children were ‘adopted’ by the maternal grandparents, and both mother and child continued to live in the family home as siblings. Still others resorted to infanticide, and some women simply abandoned their illegitimate children (Frost 2003, 295).
The New Zealand government maintained that social welfare was a function of the family. In 1877, in response to collapsing family networks due to a low proportion of married couples within the population and an economic downturn leading to men deserting their families to seek transient labour, the government passed the Destitute Person’s Act, making families responsible for the welfare of their destitute relatives (Koopman-Boyden and Scott 1984, 101). This law impacted particularly severely on women as they owned no property of their own and had no means of supporting the children they were responsible for if they were either unmarried or their husbands had deserted them. The liberal state hesitated to legislate family relations despite the existing marriage laws’ effect on the private lives of its citizens, and was reluctant to take on a social welfare function, therefore relief relied mainly on charity and local aid (ibid).
Some provinces established ‘industrial schools’ for the support of deprived children, however the demand for places increased dramatically between 1877 and 1881, leading to the state’s first policy specifically for the care of these children - the Adoption of Children Act, which was designed to encourage legal adoption of children under 12 years (ibid, 102). Opposers of this act felt that it would undermine the institution of marriage by legitimising illegitimate children and removing social and legal sanctions which were felt to be upholding the moral code of marriage as the only appropriate context in which to engage in sex (Gillard-Glass and England 2002, 22). The passing of the Act did create a means for unwed mothers to provide a ‘respectable’ home for their children, yet the stigma of the immoral woman remained associated with ex-nuptial pregnancy. Women were expected to be the gatekeepers of virtue and thus were held to strict codes of conduct, yet men were expected to ‘sow their wild oats’, and the agency and responsibility of men in these pregnancies was ignored (ibid, 19).
In the early 20th century, government became more involved in family life as the liberal state gave way to a welfare state (Koopman-Boyden and Scott 1984, 111). The state began to introduce welfare measures for the support of people who could not support themselves, however initially this support was limited to the old age pension and a widow’s benefit (ibid). Even when benefits were extended to families the notion of the ‘deserving poor’ remained, with eligibility being reliant on marital status and moral character, and families consisting of one woman and her children only being included within the state’s definition of family if she was ‘blameless’. In addition, a law enacted in 1939 allowed illegitimate children to be legitimated if their parents later married, with all legal rights of children born within wedlock (ibid, 121). The number of ‘shotgun’ weddings, in which marriage occurred after conception, occurring during this time (Gillard-Glass and England 2002, 19) indicates the desirability of a traditional marriage over sole parenthood, which demonstrates the power of the state to influence behaviour within families through legislation and seems to imply a certain amount of social engineering.
In the post-World War II era, women began participating in the public sphere in large numbers through work, however legislation relating to marriage, adoption, abortion and illegitimate children changed little (Koopman-Boyden and Scott 1984, 131) and thus the state retained control of the private sphere which was mainly inhabited by women. Women in the workforce could expect to earn considerably less than their male counterparts, providing limited opportunity for a woman with children to support her family. As a result, an unmarried woman who found herself pregnant had few options. Her options were to marry, adopt her child out or seek an illegal abortion, rendering the issue of unwed motherhood socially invisible for much of this period (Furstenberg 1991, 129).
In the late 20th century, a series of changes occurred in both the public and private spheres. Increasing access to contraception made it possible for women to choose when they would have children. The Status of Children Act 1969 removed the legal difference between legitimate and illegitimate children, giving children born outside of marriage the rights of full citizens (Koopman-Boyden and Scott 1984, 131). The Equal Pay Act 1972 attempted to produce pay parity between women and men, and the introduction of the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB) in 1973 provided an income for women raising children alone. Additionally, de facto relationships became recognised in law by the Property (Relationships) Act 1976, removing the legal disadvantages associated with being unmarried. This would seem to be an end to the state’s legislational control of women’s morality and sexuality, and a stepping-back from government’s engineering of family structure.
However, almost immediately, teenage pregnancy began to be constructed as a social problem, despite the fact that birth rates to female adolescents had been declining since the late 1950s (Nathanson 1991). In the years following the advent of the DPB, policy decisions began to focus more and more on the perceived disadvantages borne by children of young mothers, namely educational underachievement, socioeconomic disadvantage, welfare dependence and marital instability. Young mothers were constructed as immature, uneducated and immoral, and these traits were at risk of being passed to their children (Fergusson and Woodward 2000, 147, 159). Socially, young mothers were seen to have ‘made their bed’ (oddly, the man that the bed was made with is rarely mentioned), and therefore to be deserving of all the hardships and limitations associated with single motherhood (Nathanson 1991). In 1976 the Horn Committee concluded that the DPB was influencing women’s sexual behaviour and benefits were reduced for up to 6 months as a preventative measure (Goodger 1998). State regulation of women’s sexuality had now become entrenched in policy in response to the moral panic over young mothers, yet the policy made no actual difference to women’s sexual behaviour, only to their income (ibid).
Recent research has demonstrated that rather than social and educational disadvantage being a product of teenage motherhood, teenage motherhood is likely to be a product of disadvantage (Geronimus 1991, 464), and moreover that for poor, less-educated women having children young can be advantageous as it increases the chances of family support and of survival of their children (ibid, 465). This research has advised policy related to assistance and support for young mothers to continue education and careers while raising their children. In 2010, New Zealand has a range of support programmes in place to assist young mothers, as well as sex education in schools aimed at prevention of teenage pregnancy (Kiwi Families website, accessed 18/8/2010). However, the vestigial Victorian view of the ‘proper’ family still exists in that the DPB is contingent upon the mother’s relationship status (Kingfisher and Goldsmith 2001) – implying that a partner is still expected to support a woman with children. Additionally, the construction of teenage pregnancy as a social problem and the policy response to this demonstrates the continuing involvement of government in matters of family.
Addendum: A 1924 study found that 77% of first-born children were conceived outside wedlock. In the much freer legislative framework of 1971, 80% of first-born children were conceived outside wedlock (Gillard-Glass and England 2002, 18). This demonstrates that legislation related to marriage and children, and attempts to regulate morality have made little difference to people’s sexual behaviour – they have simply changed the consequences for those affected by the legislation, and thus shaped the definition of family in New Zealand.
The development of laws relating to ex-nuptial births in New Zealand followed a liberal ideology of non-interference until the early 20th century, however marriage laws affected people’s private lives by defining what was acceptable in the law as family, and social norms followed this definition in moral codes.
As the liberal state became a welfare state, government involvement in family affairs increased and the power of the state to regulate the private sphere became entrenched in policy by exclusion of those considered undeserving of welfare. It was not until the late 20th century that the state removed sanctions against unmarried mothers and their children, however the debate and policy decisions surrounding teenage mothers indicates that government is still interested in regulating the private lives of women, and that social norms have followed law in defining what personal behaviour is acceptable to society. Therefore, the public/private dichotomy in ideology is a false one.
Word count: 1992
* Policy and experience relating to ex-nuptial births in the Maori community are acknowledged as different from that of Europeans. This essay focuses on the European society which has been dominant throughout New Zealand’s history of settlement, as the issues surrounding Maori ex-nuptial births are complex and sufficient to warrant an essay of their own, therefore outside the scope of this one.
Personally, I'm not satisfied with it. But I never am with my essays, because I know how much other stuff I could've put in there if I didn't have such a pissy word count.
Blah blah disclaim disclaim.