Federation of New Zealand Housewives

1957 – 1978

Federation of New Zealand Housewives

1957 – 1978

Theme: Political

This essay written by Raewyn Dalziel was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

The Federation of New Zealand Housewives developed out of a conference convened by the Dunedin Housewives' Association in March 1955. The federation brought together, in an often stormy relationship, two separate strands of housewives' organisations – unions and associations. The housewives' unions, on the political left, had a history stretching back to 1912; the housewives' associations, representing more conservative, consumer-oriented interests, had appeared in the 1930s.

The earliest housewives' unions were established in 1912, following concern over increases in the cost of living. Ada Wells, Sarah Page, Elizabeth Taylor and Emily Gibson had presented evidence to the 1911 Royal Commission on the Cost of Living. Along with Elizabeth McCombs and W. T. Mills, a visiting American labour organiser, they formed a national housewives' union with Taylor as president and McCombs as secretary. Delegates from the union attended the Labour Unity Conferences of 1912 and 1913, called to bring together political and industrial labour. Branches were set up in Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill, Wellington, Gisborne and Auckland. These either folded before the end of the war or became women's branches of the Labour Party.

In October 1930, Alice Herbert revived the Dunedin Housewives' Union to look after the interests of working class women. The union was broadly concerned with home, women and children, and in particular the effects of the Depression on single women and families. Although not affiliated to the Labour Party, the union was frequently addressed by Labour candidates and MPs. It also helped to form housewives' unions in Timaru, Invercargill, Napier and Gisborne.

When prices rose toward the end of the 1930s, women began to form associations more directly concerned with consumer interests. The New Zealand Housewives' Association (NZHA) was formed in 1939, with several branches in Auckland and Whangarei, and the ambition of becoming a nation-wide organisation. Its formation prompted the Dunedin union, which had become disenchanted with Labour, to rename itself the Dunedin Housewives' Association (DHA). Wellington had a housewives' union, and also, from about 1946, a housewives' association.

Group photo of Federation members

Lecagraph Studios / Hocken Library, AG-002-15/001.

Delegates at the first full conference of the Federation of New Zealand Housewives, Christchurch, 1957. It was organised by May Furey (in front, second from left).

The most radical and political of all the organisations, the Canterbury Housewives' Union (CHU), was founded by the moderate Neta Neale in 1942 and taken over by May Furey, a member of the Communist Party, in 1944. Like some other unions it became a Popular Front organisation, which linked it with other left-wing activists. Furey, the driving force behind the CHU until her death in 1962, was a Londoner, in her fifties when she joined, a good story-teller who chain-smoked roll-your-owns. She was a tough fighter, whether it was to get the Christchurch City Council to put hooks on the front of trams for carrying prams, to win equal pay, to battle with the government over the cost of living, or to condemn New Zealand's participation in the Korean War.

The various housewives' unions briefly considered a national organisation in 1944, but it was 1951 before they met in Wellington at the instigation of the Auckland Women's Union (AWU), led by Rita Smith, to form a Federation of New Zealand Women (FNZW). The AWU was primarily a peace organisation and the FNZW, although concerned with the care and protection of children, the improvement of working conditions and high prices, saw international peace as its main purpose. It did not attract much support and by 1954 had ceased to operate.

In September 1954 Jean Rust of the DHA invited unions and associations around the country to a conference the following March. Delegates from eight organisations gathered in Dunedin and discussed a wide variety of remits, including a call by the Mangakino Women's Auxiliary of the New Zealand Workers' Union to wipe out racial discrimination, the Hastings Housewives' Union's demand that contraceptives be supplied only by chemists, a complete ban on horror comics, sex and crime films demanded by the Greymouth union, and Dunedin's request for all electrical appliances to have safeguards. The delegates decided to hold annual conferences but agreed that a national organisation was beyond their resources.

Two events following the conference indicated the interests and tensions that would in the future unite and divide the housewives' organisations. First, Ethel Taylor of the NZHA organised a bulk purchase of tea for sale throughout the country as a first step in consumer resistance to high prices. Secondly, the Wellington Housewives' Association found itself confronted by a breakaway group aided by the Auckland-based NZHA. This generated a bitterness in Wellington which prevented its full co-operation with a national body.

In October 1956 the NZHA convened a conference in Auckland at which it was decided to form a federation. All organisations with the word 'housewives' in their title were entitled to affiliate. A brief constitutional conference took place in Wellington in March 1957 and the Federation of New Zealand Housewives came into being. Later in 1957 a full conference organised by Furey was held in Christchurch.

The federation operated largely through its conferences, held at first annually, and then biennially from 1963 until the 1970s. The executive was provided by the centre that was to hold the next conference. The initial purpose of the federation was to co-ordinate the activities and efforts of its affiliated organisations. It was 'non-party political' and non-sectarian. The objects were later expanded to include the promotion and advancement of the interests of the home, women and children, and the support of, or opposition to, legislation affecting women. The federation regarded most current issues as within its brief. It opposed the selection of racially segregated sports teams, nuclear tests and increased defence spending. It supported equal pay and the entry of women into politics. Protests over prices and shoddy goods remained an important part of its work, and many housewives' associations were disappointed in the 1960s when their members were passed over for appointment to the newly created Consumer Council and its local committees.

The federation never represented all housewives' organisations. For some it was too radical; with others there were personality clashes and long-standing rancour. By the mid 1960s a number of the local unions and associations, especially those on the left, were collapsing. The last to remain in existence were Dunedin and Whangarei. Whangarei took over the duties of the federation in 1977 and carried on until March 1978, when the federation was wound up. By that time the remaining members of local associations were elderly and finding that 'the whole of society has changed'. [1] The consumer boycott organised in 1977 by a younger generation of women was something that members of the federation could not join. The housewives' unions and associations of the 1930s had been overtaken.

Raewyn Dalziel


[1] Margaret Hunter to Una Shanks, 20 November 1975, Dunedin Housewives' Association records, Hocken.

Unpublished sources

Auckland Women's Union records, 1948–962, Auckland University Library

Canterbury Housewives' Union records, 1940–1960, Canterbury Public Library

Dunedin Housewives' Association records, 1930–1977, Hocken

Mary McLean papers, ATL

Tauranga Housewives' Association papers, 1957–1965, Tauranga Public Library

Wellington Housewives' Association papers, 1949–1971, ATL

Published sources

Dominion Housewife (magazine of the Housewives Union), 1951–1954

Every Woman (journal of the Auckland Women's Union) [dates unknown] 

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