Read an extract from Promises Promises


Extract from Promises Promises: 80 years of wooing New Zealand voters, by Claire Robinson.

If the male voter’s duty to the state was as head of his nuclear family, female voters were told their duty was as wife and mother; that the nation’s welfare was best served when men worked and women raised the nation’s children, which were its greatest assets — especially boys, who were a valuable supply of the nation’s future labour force. Mothers were often pictured with children and without fathers, but when they were seen with fathers they were smaller in height than their husband, generally placed off to the side of the father and more often than not with their arms around children or holding babies.

They may have been considered subordinate to men in the family hierarchy, but by no means did the parties regard women as unimportant to the economy. Initially both parties considered it acceptable for young unmarried women to work in factories. Nursing was also an acceptable occupation to both parties. But once women got married, this all changed, and a married woman working became a sign of political failure. In the advertisement on page 40, for example, National framed work for married women as a sign of bad times caused by the Labour Party. Instead, political parties positioned the duty of a married woman to support the economy by managing and spending the household finances.

From the late 1940s, women were depicted in ads from both parties holding their husband’s pay envelope. Women were urged to purchase products that had been in short supply during the war, particularly new labour-saving devices. National positioned itself as the party that helped a mother spend her husband’s wages in order to keep the family happy and the economy productive. It offered to emancipate women ‘from the increasing handicaps imposed on them by the operation of the socialist state’ by drawing their attention to the shortage of items that they could no longer buy under a Labour government.

While National’s ads from the 1940s were promoting consumption, Labour’s ads pitched it as the party that would safeguard the home from poverty and want. By 1951, however, Labour recognised that to attract women voters away from National it also had to position women as consumers and encourage consumption, and it attacked National for preventing women from buying things. By 1960 Labour was promoting the welfare state as a protection to maintain the buying power of families and age beneficiaries.

It is no surprise, then, that major party advertising depicted female voters as modern, sophisticated and fashionable: qualities that made them look like the standard, happy postwar American consumer. They were consumers, and the fact that political ads were positioned in the middle of stocking ads in newspapers only reinforced the political call to action to buy, buy, buy. Nowhere is this more explicit than in National’s 1954 election slogan, ‘More to spend! More to buy! Hold fast to prosperity — vote NATIONAL again!’.

Underpinning this promotion of consumption and desire was the seductive allure of being ‘better off’; a clever slogan with myriad meanings from which voters could pick and choose depending on their circumstances. Better off than under the previous government; better off compared with what the other party is offering; better off than others in terms of personal wealth; better off as a country than before. And, in that period, better off than people in Britain. The promise of being better off was not only a pathway out of poverty, it was also a road to modernity, something people in New Zealand desired, being so far away from the big cities and sophisticated cultures of the northern hemisphere. They wanted to prove to people ‘back home’ that the upheaval of immigrating to New Zealand had been worthwhile.

 The idea that the postwar international economic recovery required women to be in the home consuming is not new. Keeping women relegated to domestic work and tied to labour-saving appliances is often thought to have been a commercial imperative in the postwar years; a way of ramping up consumption in order to expand the capitalist economy. But what might surprise some is how much the New Zealand electoral contest was also invested in keeping women in the home; how complicit the major parties were in encouraging women’s economic dependence on men in the interests of maintaining their hold on political power.

Marxists will argue that ‘consumerism, as the cultural logic of capitalism, is the ideological and practical means to reproducing hegemonic domination of the exploitative and oppressive system global capitalism’.[1] What is interesting is that consumerism wasn’t just a political imperative of the capitalist ‘right’ in New Zealand. It was also an imperative of the social democratic ‘left’. Both major parties needed women to buy the goods that kept the businesses and factories afloat that employed staff and paid tax to support government expenditure on public services. New Zealand in this period is often described as a model social democracy. From the 1930s through the 1960s it was more of a consumer democracy.[2]


[1] Nicki Lisa Cole and Alison Dahl Crossley, ‘Feminism in the Age of Consumption’, in Consumers, Commodities, Consumption 11, 1 (December 2009),

[2] See Martyn J. Lee, Consumer Culture Reborn: The cultural politics of consumption (London: Routledge, 1993), 92–93 for a critique of the relationship between forms of cultural production like advertising and construction of the family as a consumption unit.