Auckland Feminist Teachers

1979 – 1991

Auckland Feminist Teachers

1979 – 1991

Theme: Education: girls and women

This essay written by Helen Pearce (Watson) was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

Auckland Feminist Teachers (AFT) was an active group of women primary and secondary teachers which wanted to increase the influence of women and to promote feminist concerns in the education system. At its third meeting in October 1979, it established the group's feminist perspective and aims: to bring together women concerned about sexism in education for friendship, support and sharing of information; to establish means of changing the present unequal system for both pupils and teachers; and to undertake action to do so, for example by encouraging feminist-oriented teaching, and developing, promoting and using non-sexist teaching material. Although the group was an Auckland one, as its reputation spread it gained members further afield. In January 1990 there were 150 members, including 40 outside Auckland.

Publicity about the neglect of the needs of women and girls in education had emerged from the 1975 Department of Education conference on the equality of the sexes in education, and the responses of the teacher unions. Although women made up 63.2 percent of primary teachers and 35.4 percent of secondary teachers in 1979, their influence was small, because of structural inequalities in conditions and promotion, and the dominance of men in the teacher unions. The immediate catalyst for Auckland Feminist Teachers was a workshop on education at the 1979 Hamilton United Women's Convention in Hamilton. It was convened by Lenore Webster, a Wellington secondary teacher and member of the PPTA's Sex Equality Advisory Committee (SEAC), established in 1976 following the department's conference.

Webster and four secondary teachers who attended her workshop—Jenelle Ingham, Gay Simpkin, Shona Hearn and Helen Watson (PPTA executive and SEAC member)—decided to test the climate for a feminist teachers' group in Auckland by holding a meeting on 26 May 1979, at Bayfield Primary School. The response was far greater than anticipated: 50 women came, and 65 attended a second meeting in July.

The group arranged to share the convening of meetings and set up a communications network. Hearn became media spokeswoman, and Webster convened a group to publish a newsletter at least three times a year. The only feminist education periodical produced in New Zealand, it contained meeting reports, union news, curriculum and resource reports, book reviews, letters and reprinted articles. It was greatly valued by members, especially those outside Auckland and in rural schools.

Although AFT's founders were secondary teachers, primary teachers quickly responded. Pam Hill, Pat Collings, Fiona Johnston and Paula Johnston, all active in the NZEI, joined and contributed greatly by taking workshops and meetings. Until the teacher unions established women's networks—PPTA in 1986, NZEI in 1989—the group provided the only feminist teacher development in Auckland, home to a third of the country's schools. From 1983 it held full-day seminars (called 'feminars') as well as shorter meetings of large and small groups in the evenings and at weekends. Topics included the promotion system, assertiveness, speaking and meeting skills, curriculum issues, current political issues, union matters, and cultural issues. Responsibilities for these meetings were shared to increase members' skills. Social occasions took place too, and informal social contacts were an important part of all meetings. Members forged strong personal friendships and professional networks, and took feminist concerns into their schools and other teacher networks.

AFT believed that greater participation of women in the teacher unions was essential, and made great efforts to achieve this. The eleven Auckland women on the PPTA executive from 1979 on came from the group, and members held many regional union positions. [1] The development of both unions' policy on women and girls, their women's conferences, and the establishment of the women's officer positions were all first raised and promoted by AFT members.

The group also undertook political action outside the teacher unions. After narrowly failing to have the 1980 PPTA conference adopt a policy opposing corporal punishment, members set up the Campaign Against Violence in Education (CAVE); they achieved success in 1985, when corporal punishment was banned in all schools. In 1982, AFT campaigned against cuts in the public service, including in education. Letters on women’s issues and the curriculum were regularly sent to ministers of education and to the department.

Over the years there were conflicts within the group—over the structure, the name ('Feminist' was seen by some as repelling potential members), and whether AFT was primarily a political or a support group. Lack of formal decision-making processes made it difficult for AFT's media spokeswomen to speak with authority, and after the first few years the position was dropped. As the initial activists became more involved in the unions, and the union women's networks were established, interest in AFT waned and it became difficult to find organisers. The newsletter was still valued, but the group was no longer urgently needed. In 1991 it decided to go into recess, after twelve years of influential activity in the education system and enormous personal importance to its members.

Helen Pearce (Watson)


[1] Hearn was PPTA president 1990–91, Watson the first women's officer, and Simpkin industrial officer, then deputy general secretary, 1984–91. Maryan Street, Iris Hutchinson, Moira McGuiness and Barbara Hill were field officers. In NZEI Pam Hill became a field officer, Collings and Helen Duncan executive members, and Lynn Middleton the first women’s officer.

Published sources

Feminist Teachers' Newsletter, 1979–1990, National Library of New Zealand

Hearn, Shona, ‘Feminist Teachers Chalk Up the Changes’, Broadsheet, No. 93, October 1981, pp. 32–34

Hearn, Shona, 'Uppity Women', NZPTA Journal, Term 3, 1992, pp. 32–39

Street, Maryan, Shona Hearn, Gay Simpkin, Helen Watson, ‘Marking Time’, Broadsheet, No. 113, October 1983, pp. 23–27

Watson, Helen, ‘The Impact of the Second Wave of the Women’s Movement on Policies and Practices in Schools’, in Sue Middleton (ed.), Women and Education in Aotearoa, Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1988, pp. 97–113

Watson, Helen, 'Learning to Win the Game: Auckland Feminist Teachers', Women’s Studies Journal, Vol. 7 No. 1, May 1991, pp. 55–65

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