Canterbury Women’s Institute

1892 – c.1920

Canterbury Women’s Institute

1892 – c.1920

Theme: Political

This essay written by Margaret Lovell-Smith was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

The Canterbury Women's Institute (CWI) was one of the longest lived of the early feminist groups in New Zealand. The initial meeting to discuss the formation of a women's institute was called in September 1892 by James Reeve Wilkinson, an early graduate of Canterbury College who was to become well known for his advocacy of women's dress reform. An ardent supporter of the emancipation of women, he believed there was 'more scope in New Zealand than anywhere for the full development of women'. [1] Although gentlemen were initially able to be honorary members of the institute, this policy appears to have lapsed and attempts to re-introduce it were turned down.

At first the institute had four departments: literary, convened by the writer Edith Searle Grossmann; economics, convened by Kate Sheppard; hygiene, convened by Sheppard's sister Isobel May; and domestic science, convened by Elizabeth Garsia. But after some problems in the first year—such as the health and dress section of the hygiene department becoming too radical for the rest of the institute—members decided in 1894 to operate as a single committee.

The CWI worked like other pressure groups: members discussed issues of concern, read and wrote papers, passed resolutions, wrote letters, circulated statements or manifestos, and organised deputations, public meetings and conferences. The institute also 'networked' with other groups in Christchurch. It invited them to join in its campaigns, and to attend the women's conferences it organised from 1894 'to discuss the subjects for which united action is desirable'. [2] In 1896 the CWI convened the first meeting of the National Council of Women (NCW).

The CWI platform included non-party government, the abolition of the Upper House, the removal of all civil disabilities from women, equal marriage and divorce laws, the economic independence of men and women, old age pensions, and equal pay for equal work. Many members of the CWI were also active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The institute, however, being secular and non-temperance, attracted a wider membership and filled the role played by franchise leagues in other centres.

Membership figures for the CWI were not generally recorded. Although more than 100 women attended the inaugural meeting in November 1892, the active membership seems to have been confined to the committee of up to 23 members, with a larger pool of women coming to special meetings. Outstanding in the history of the CWI was the contribution of Ada Wells, who became secretary to the economics department in 1893. She continued to serve the institute until its demise, as either secretary, president or committee member, working latterly in partnership with Sarah Saunders Page.

The CWI campaigned constantly to get women elected to public bodies. Although many of its nominations were unsuccessful, Wells, Emily Black and Jessie Henderson were elected to the charitable aid board, and Page, Eveline Cunnington, Emma Wilson and Sarah Ensom to the hospital board. During World War I Wells and Page, president and secretary respectively of the CWI, were prominent in anti-war activities, and the institute took a strong stand on peace issues. The two women were also involved in the Labour movement; in 1917 Wells became the first woman member of the Christchurch City Council, and both Wells and Page were Labour candidates in the 1919 local body elections.

For CWI leaders to identify themselves with a political party was a major shift from the institute's early objective of non-party government, and probably alienated some of its members. Such women may have been attracted to other, more moderate organisations such as the Canterbury Women's Club (established in 1913) or the NCW (revived in 1916). Although the CWI had at least eighteen members in 1919, by 1921 it had gone into 'recess indefinitely'. [3]

Margaret Lovell-Smith


[1] Lyttelton Times, 8 September 1892.

[2] Lyttelton Times, 14 February 1895.

[3] NCW Christchurch Branch minutes, 28 November 1921.

Unpublished sources

Canterbury Women's Institute minute book, 6 October 1905–1 May 1908, Canterbury Museum

National Council of Women Christchurch Branch minute book, 1917–1922, NCW Christchurch Branch Archives, University of Canterbury

Thompson, Susan, 'The Canterbury Women's Institute and the Role of Women in the Nineteenth Century', MA research essay, University of Canterbury, 1988

Published sources

Havelaar, M. G., and H. K. Lovell-Smith, A Short History of the Christchurch Branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand from 1896 to 1950, NCW, Christchurch, 1950

Regional Women's Decade Committee, Canterbury Women Since 1893, Pegasus, Christchurch, 1979

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