Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies: Pre-1970 Lesbian Life in Aotearoa/New Zealand

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posted on 2021-11-08, 05:19 authored by Laurie, Alison J

This study explores pre-1970 lesbian life and lives in Aotearoa/New Zealand before the impact of women's and gay liberation and lesbian-feminism, using written sources and oral histories. The thesis argues that before 1970 most women could make lesbianism the organising principle of their lives only through the strategies of discretion and silence. Despite apparent censorship, many classical, religious, legal, medical and fictional discourses on lesbianism informed New Zealand opinion, as regulation of this material was one thing, but enforcement another, and most English language material was available here. These discourses functioned as cautionary tales, warning women of the consequences of disclosure, while at the same time alerting them to lesbian possibilities. Though lesbian sexual acts were not criminalised in New Zealand, lesbianism was contained, regulated and controlled through a variety of mechanisms including the fear of forced medical treatment, social exclusion and disgrace, as well as the loss of employment, housing and family relationships. Class and race affected these outcomes, and this study concludes that learning how to read a wide variety of lesbian lives is essential to furthering research into lesbian histories in New Zealand. The study examined pre-1970 published and unpublished writing suggesting lesbian experiences by selected New Zealand women, within a context informed by writing from contemporaries who have been identified as lesbian, and oral histories from pre-1970 self-identified lesbians.. Many of these women led secretive, often double lives, and of necessity deceived others through silence and omission, actual denial, or sham heterosexual marriages and engagements. The lies, secrecy and silence of self-censorship has often meant the deliberate destruction of written records such as letters or diaries, by women themselves, or later by family members and friends. The study concludes that the private lesbianism of most pre-1970 lesbian lives cannot be understood in isolation, and that scholars must move beyond the women's necessary masquerades to place their lives into a lesbian context in order to recognize and understand them. Each life informs an understanding of the others and by considering them together the study provides a picture of lesbianism in pre-1970 New Zealand, with the stories of the narrators illuminating the written experiences. Silences should not be mistaken for absences, or heterosexuality assumed for all pre-1970 New Zealand women. The stories of resistance and rebellion told by the self-identified lesbian narrators indicate that the women whose lesbian experiences are suggested by their writings similarly resisted societal expectations and prescriptions. Learning how to interpret and understand these materials is essential for moving beyond superficial and heterosexualised accounts of their lives. Towards the end of the period, influenced by other social changes, some lesbians in this study began to resist the need for caution and discretion, providing the basis for the liberation movements of the 1970s.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Gender and Women's Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Clark, Margaret