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Published 17 October 2018

2018 Humanities Aronui Medal: Reshaping history to take account of women

Historian Professor Barbara Brookes MNZM has been awarded the Humanities Aronui Medal by Royal Society Te Apārangi for her outstanding contribution to humanities scholarship.

Professor Brookes from the University of Otago is an authority in the history of women, medical history and New Zealand history.

Her debut book Abortion in England, 1900-1967 (1988) marked the launch of a new field of enquiry: the social history of abortion. It is an examination of the social history of abortion in twentieth century England prior to the 1967 reform of the law that allowed doctors in Great Britain to perform abortions lawfully so long as certain conditions were met. That book, reprinted in 2012, is today regarded as the landmark achievement in the field and was the only book on display at a conference to mark 50 years since the passing of the Act held by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in October 2017. Barbara was invited to give a keynote address at that conference.

Barbara has since produced numerous edited volumes and journal articles that provide historical perspectives on current health debates, reshaping the scholarly landscape in medical history with a new focus on gender and health.

Professor Brookes has produced an innovative range of studies in gender history that are marked by their attention to the complications wrought by the different histories of Indigenous and settler women.

Her work culminated in the 2016 book, A History of New Zealand Women, published by Bridget Williams Books. The first history of its kind, the book examines the changing lives of both Māori and Pākehā women from the pre-contact period to 2015, thereby examining the intersection of gender and race as well as the dynamic relationship between the personal and the political.  Furthermore, Barbara was able to draw on her expertise in medical history and the history of emotions and migration, to write a narrative that reveals the extraordinary complexities of women’s lives in both Indigenous and settler society in New Zealand.

A History of New Zealand Women was the winner of the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Best Illustrated Non-Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2017 Ernest Scott Prize, the 2017 Bert Roth Award, the 2017 W H Oliver Prize and the 2016 New Zealand Heritage Non-Fiction Book Prize.

In awarding this medal, the selection committee said that Professor Brookes' scholarship has consistently been of the highest quality and she has inspired students with her zest for history and shown remarkable generosity as a colleague, mentor and teacher. “Through her work she has changed how we understand the worlds of women and men, medicine and the social world.”

On receiving this award, Barbara said: “I’m delighted to receive this honour in the year of celebration of Suffrage125. Understanding our history is central to New Zealand’s progress in the future. I see this honour as an acknowledgment of the importance of my academic field, and of all those who have worked to enlarge it.”

Barbara's expertise in medical and gender history has brought her a number of other distinctions. She has been invited to deliver prestigious lectures such as the Keith Sinclair Lecture at the University of Auckland, a keynote address at the Canadian Historical Association Conference and a Sawyer Lecture at the University of Sydney. Her far-reaching contributions to the history of women were celebrated at the ‘Making Women Visible’ conference held in her honour at the University of Otago in 2016.  She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2018 for services to historical research and women.

Humanities Aronui Medal Medal:

For research or innovative work of outstanding merit in the humanities.


To Barbara Lesley Brookes for her outstanding contribution to Humanities scholarship, reshaping the history of New Zealand by putting women at the centre of a substantial and internationally recognised body of scholarly work culminating in A History of New Zealand Women.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi