Sport, 1940-1960

Page 3 – Women's sport, 1940-60

Women in competition

Women’s sport matured in New Zealand after 1945. Mass participation in a period of prosperity, and increased mobility thanks to the now-common motor car, were crucial factors. Interprovincial competitions introduced between the wars peaked in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Many were won by sparsely populated regions such as Eastern Southland and Maniototo – the strongest player base was the rural heartland.

Outdoor basketball and hockey teams first competed internationally in this period, with the support of administrators like Pearl Dawson. Marching girls enjoyed their heyday, and lawn bowls was also popular, producing champions such as Elsie Wilkie. Sports journalist Dot Simons helped to bring women’s sport to wider public notice. The individual star in this period was Yvette Williams, who won the long jump at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 and set a world record in 1954, as well as snaring Commonwealth titles in the shot put and discus.

Fit mothers and children

Another factor in the development of women′s sport was the state’s long-standing interest in encouraging mothers to be fitter (in all senses of the word). The Department of Internal Affairs employed physical welfare officers who trained recruits during the war and worked in local communities after it. University of Otago staff including Philip Smithells and Jim and Emilie Bellwood trained physical education teachers who challenged uncoordinated children in weekly gymnastics classes and coached sports teams outside school hours.

How to cite this page

'Women's sport, 1940-60', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 29-May-2023