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Altrusa International (New Zealand)

1966 –

This essay written by S and y Bardsley was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1966 – 1993

Altrusa was formed as an organisation for professional and business women which aimed both to enhance the status of women and to support community services, operating on three levels: international, national and local.

Founded in Nashville, Tennessee, USA in April 1917, Altrusa was the first international women's service organisation. By the early 1990s it had over 17,000 members in sixteen countries. New Zealand's first clubs formed in 1966 when field officers from Altrusa International travelled throughout New Zealand and Australia to establish 'clubs-at-large'. By 1984 there were 24 clubs in New Zealand, and the Australasian Altrusa Conference in Hastings that year recommended their unification into an international district of Altrusa. New Zealand clubs were united as District 15 early in 1985.

The international connections of Altrusa were valued. District governors were trained in the USA and were members of the International Board of Directors. District 15 was responsible for launching the International Career Exchange Programme in 1990, through which an overseas Altrusan was hosted by New Zealand clubs for several weeks, enabling her to study the way in which both her profession and the operations of Altrusa were practised here. A New Zealand Altrusan made a reciprocal visit. Other international activities included involvement in the Altrusa International Foundation, a charitable corporation whose special aim was to support literacy programmes.

In 1992 there were over 700 members of Altrusa in 26 clubs throughout New Zealand. District governors were elected biennially, and each selected a slogan or theme for her period in office, usually reflecting some aspect of the Altrusa motto, 'Patriotism-Efficiency-Service'. District 15 members kept in touch through quarterly newsletters and annual conferences to which all members were invited. Clubs were also visited annually by the district governor or board area officer, and a national award was made each year to the club with the most impressive service programme.

Most clubs had about 25 to 30 members and all met at least once a month. The size of a club did not always correlate with the size of its town: several small towns supported large and active clubs, perhaps because women had few other outlets outside their employment and family. Club records show that one early task was to establish how women in Altrusa saw themselves in relation to men in the workplace and to men's service clubs.

Altrusa members presenting baby with a book
Audrey Cooper of the Altrusa Club of Wellington presents baby Diana Tautai with a copy of Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy to mark World Literacy Day in 1994.  Altrusa provided a book to every baby born that day.

In the early 1990s, members of Altrusa had an average age of 45-50 years. Annual subscriptions were in the range of $60-$100 annually. In addition, members were expected to contribute both time and money to community service campaigns, and to pay fines (known as 'Alteasers') for misdemeanors such as late arrival at meetings or failure to wear the Altrusa badge, and for having a birthday. Reduced subscription rates were available for long-standing members who had retired. District 15 had no male members, although there was provision for them in the constitution. A junior Altrusa group, Astra, was founded in Ōamaru in 1991 to cater for members aged 13-25.

Altrusa classified members by their trade, profession or business. No more than 10 percent of members were accepted from any one occupation, and membership was by invitation. Members were expected to hold a position of responsibility in their jobs, although the organisation took pains not to be portrayed as élitist.

The main focus of Altrusa at a local level was on serving the community, and it sought imaginative and practical ways to do this. For example, the Altrusa club of Dunedin ran a library service for housebound readers; it also endowed a design bursary at Otago Polytechnic and presented a whirlpool bath to a local home for the elderly. An Altrusa club was more likely to take over specific expenses of a group in need, or to hold a public meeting to discuss particular problems, than simply to give out cheques. One of the organisation's primary concerns was always with literacy, and members were strong supporters of adult literacy programmes, as well as encouraging reading among children and young people by presenting books to new-born babies and to libraries.

Sandy Bardsley

1994 – 2018

Altrusa New Zealand clubs continued to flourish in cities and towns throughout the country. New Zealand hosted the International Convention in Christchurch in 1995, the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere. About 600 attended from around the world. Margaret Inch of Wellington was installed as International President 1995–97, the first New Zealander to hold this office. In 2013 hundreds of Altrusans from the Americas, Britain and Asia were welcomed to the International Convention in Rotorua, and in 2017 Leanne Milligan of Te Awamutu  became New Zealand’s second International President. Other New Zealand Altrusans elected to International office included Chris Mouter, Nelson, as Director 2011–13, as well as two international Trustees: Rosemary Watson , Dunedin, 2009–2013, and Patricia O’Donnell, Wellington, 2013–17.

Altrusa members in Christchurch
Altrusa Club members at the dedication of their seat donated to Halswell Quarry Park, Christchurch, 2000.

The career exchange programme continued until 2013. Astra (Altrusa for college members) continued to do well, with another club opened in Auckland. Membership of Altrusa was no longer by classification, but was still by personal invitation of the Club. There was also a shift to accepting men as members, and one man had joined the Wellington Club. In 2018 there were 460 New Zealand members in 19 clubs, and a new club was to be chartered in December 2018.

The main focus was on bettering communities in practical ways, with an emphasis on the promotion of literacy. An International Project called Days For Girls was set up to supply handmade sanitary packs to girls who would otherwise not be able to attend school during their periods.  All the New Zealand clubs were involved in this project, as were many Altrusa Clubs in other parts of the world.

Locally, the Nelson Club established a house in the hospital grounds to provide accommodation for family members of patients. Many clubs provided second chance scholarships for women.  Wellington Club put up a Xmas tree with decorations made by local Brownies, inviting the public to buy books for children at the Women’s Refuge Houses. Clubs also put together Christmas Boxes for children and for adults in night shelters. Members regularly listened to children reading aloud in classrooms; gave practical help at local playcentres, kindergartens and primary schools; and ran collecting stalls for local foodbanks. Fundraising ideas included garden rambles, fashion parades, wine tastings, fabric fairs, book fairs, garage sales, quiz nights, sales of bulbs, movie evenings, and running stalls at market days. Each club chose the ways in which they were involved in their local communities, always considering how women and children could be assisted to achieve more.

However, clubs were finding it difficult to get people to commit to regular meetings, and felt that there was less interest in society than there used to be in working in community groups. Many of the clubs used social media and found it a great tool. Information such as agendas and minutes, Governor’s newsletters and Information from International was all sent out by email. Clubs also used Facebook to advertise events and issue invitations, as well as local sites such as Eventa Wellington to invite new people, and sites such as Trello to do their planning. Public events were open to all. The members looked forward with enthusiasm to bettering their communities in numerous ways, in order to make people’s lives happier and easier.

Patricia O’Donnell

Unpublished sources

Altrusa, ‘Altrusa in New Zealand 1966–1991' (pamphlet), 1991

Altrusa Club of Christchurch records, 1966–1990, Canterbury Public Library

Altrusa Club of Dunedin, Official Programme of Inaugural Dinner, 1966, Hocken

Altrusa Club of Dunedin records, 1966–1985, McNab Collection, Dunedin Public Library

Altrusa International District 15 records, 1985–1989, in possession of Jenette Borrell, Oamaru

Altrusa International District Fifteen Archives, 1966–2018, held by Altrusa Archivist Patricia O'Donnell, Wellington

Olwen Norton, District Governor, interviewed by Sandy Bardsley, 7 May 1992

Olwen Norton, District Governor, correspondence with Sandy Bardsley, 14 May 1992

Published sources

‘Altrusa Club of Dunedin 25th Jubilee', ODT, 6 November, 1991, p. 22