Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Ladies of Empire: Governors' Wives in New Zealand, 1887-1926

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posted on 2021-11-15, 12:58 authored by Burgess, Sarah

Across the years 1887 to 1926, at a time when the British Empire was at its height, nine governors and their wives took up vice-regal office in New Zealand. This study is concerned with the public enactment of the position of vice-regal wives’ in New Zealand in these years. It explores what it meant for a woman to be a public figure with a prominent profile and at the same time a wife within a marriage during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, the thesis looks at three distinct aspects of vice-regal life, as played out in public: official vice-regal ceremony and social life; involvement in voluntary welfare and women’s imperialist organisations; and the display of vice-regal life through governors’ wives’ appearance and the furnishing of Government House. Of key concern is the way in which these aspects of vice-regal life are conveyed to the public through newspapers, and so Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity is considered as a way to think about the position occupied by governors’ wives.  As women married to men in public office, governors’ wives occupied a particular position and space within the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The position was defined and created through marriage and through the enactment of the duties of vice-regal office. Governors' wives were present at vice-regal ceremonies and social events as both witnesses and wives; they involved themselves with voluntary welfare and imperialist organisations with a particular focus on women as mothers and contributors to Empire; and through their dress and the decoration of Government House governors’ wives presented a display of their suitability for holding vice-regal office. The enactment of these duties over the period from 1887 to 1926 was remarkably consistent. Alongside this a degree of change occurred in the recognition afforded to governors’ wives in the fulfilment of vice-regal office.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Macdonald, Charlotte