Graduate Women New Zealand

1921 –

Graduate Women New Zealand

1921 –

Theme: Education: girls and women

Known as:

  • New Zealand Federation of University Women
    1921 – 2000
  • New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women
    2000 – 2016
  • Graduate Women New Zealand
    2016 –

This essay written by Janet Angus was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Ann Pomeroy in 2018.

1921 – 1993

By 1993 the New Zealand Federation of University Women (NZFUW) had been offering intellectual stimulation and friendship to graduate women for over 70 years. It consistently encouraged women to advance their education, and to use it for worthwhile public service. By the early 1990s its membership was close on 2000 in seventeen branches, and included prominent community leaders such as Dame Dorothy Winstone, who believed that: 'Our privilege of education is recognised in that we can give leadership which is balanced and unprejudiced.' [1]

During the early 1900s, informal associations of graduate women were formed around the world in connection with many universities which admitted women. After the carnage of World War I, the determination to promote peace and international understanding was one of the forces which drew university women closer together.

In 1918 three such women, meeting on a Universities Mission in New York, discussed an international federation of university women. They were Professor Caroline Spurgeon, the first woman to hold a British university chair (of English literature, at Bedford College, London); Rose Sidgwick, lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham; and Dr Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard (Columbia University women's college). Sidgwick's death from influenza left others even more determined to carry on. In 1920, the first conference of the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) was held in London, and eight national associations were affiliated.

In New Zealand, the Otago University Women's Association (OUWA) had formed earlier, in 1914. The first steps toward the founding of NZFUW were taken at OUWA meetings in 1920 and 1921. In May 1920 an interim committee was set up, convened by Helen Rawson of the School of Home Science; she had met promoters of international federation overseas in 1919. This committee arranged for university women to meet at the 1921 Easter Tournament in Christchurch, where Otago was asked to draw up a draft constitution. The NZFUW was formally founded in Otago on 14 May 1921; Professor Rawson, now dean of home science, became its first president. At the second IFUW conference in Paris in 1922, Kate Hogg, an Otago graduate studying at the Sorbonne, presented the constitution, and NZFUW became affiliated.

The Auckland branch was formed in November 1920 as a branch of IFUW, and formally adopted the NZFUW constitution in May 1921. It held lectures, garden parties and dinner parties for visiting graduates, often hosted by Dr Hilda Northcroft. The Wellington branch, formed in June 1922 with Dr Agnes Bennett as president, organised a two-day bazaar and staged plays and a concert. The Christchurch branch, with Mary Gibson, principal of Christchurch Girls' High School, as president, celebrated its inauguration in September 1921 with a dinner party for 70 women; the university college gave 'the front half of a small cottage' where members would meet for the next 25 years. [2] By 1922 the Otago branch had over 60 members, and in September held a conference on vocations for women. [3]

The NZFUW's aims were to promote understanding and friendship among the university women of the world, to encourage international co-operation, to further the development of education, and to represent university women in international organisations. Teachers and lecturers then predominated as members. At the first conference in Dunedin in 1923, approximately 30 women discussed the status of married women in the professions, and the branches undertook to raise money so that Crosby Hall, London headquarters of the British FUW, could become a women's international hall of residence.

In 1929, with fewer than 500 members, NZFUW embarked on amassing a fund to provide scholarships enabling women to study overseas or come to do research in New Zealand. Money came in slowly from the usual bazaars, garden parties, whist drives and lantern lectures; but in 1932 a much more effective method was found, when Otago member Esme Turner suggested making hoods to hire for graduation ceremonies. Gradually the branches built up a stock of gowns, hoods and trenchers to service the growing demand.

In 1944 a fifth branch began in Nelson, the first outside a university centre; it was followed by nine more in the 1950s and two in the 1960s. By 1993 the newest was Southland, formed in 1984.

World War II limited time, travel, scholarship and funds. The federation sent money and goods to Europe's distressed women graduates, and in 1939 helped to bring Austrian Jewish refugee and law graduate Dr Gertrud Marton to New Zealand.

The goal of a full fellowship had been steadily pursued, and in 1948 president Beryl Jackson appealed successfully to Prime Minister Peter Fraser for enough extra funds to offer the first NZFUW research fellowship to English geographer and anthropologist Eila Campbell. By 1993 NZFUW was awarding up to eight fellowships annually, as well as numerous smaller grants and scholarships.

NZFUW was represented at IFUW conferences from 1922. Daphne (later Dame Daphne) Purves, a member since 1938, became international president in 1977, and in 1986 Canterbury branch hosted the twenty-second IFUW conference, attended by members from 37 countries. As travel became easier after 1945, more contact with members from other countries became possible. An IFUW regional meeting in Manila in 1955 focused attention on the needs of Asian and Pacific women. NZFUW's contribution was a special scholarship to a graduate from South-East Asia; later, it gave support for a student at the University of the South Pacific.

At home, federation women were notable for their active support of the post-war equal pay campaign; but by 1962, president Patricia Webb was warning that too great an involvement in general public affairs could dissipate energies. However, members chose to increase their commitment to matters of public concern. In 1972 IFUW endorsed this approach with a fifth aim: to encourage university women to apply their knowledge and skills fully to 'the problems which arise at all levels of public life'. [4] The public affairs committees expanded their work, presenting their case on matters such as maternity leave, curriculum reform and matrimonial law. According to federation member Dame Silvia Cartwright, the NZFUW submission to the Royal Commission on the Courts, urging a better way of dealing with family disputes, was 'pivotal in ensuring that changes did take place'. [5]

Janet Angus

1994 – 2018

The organisation changed considerably after 1993, due partly to the changing role of women and their far greater participation in the paid workforce (leaving less time to engage in voluntary work), and partly to government legislation.

Recognising that polytechnics and wānanga as well as universities issued degrees, the word ‘University’ changed to ‘Graduate’ in 2000, and in 2016 it became Graduate Women New Zealand (GWNZ). In 2005, with the assistance of treasurer Heather Rae, the Executive was incorporated as The New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women Charitable Trust (renamed Graduate Women New Zealand Charitable Trust (GWNZ CT) in 2017), and registered as a charity in 2007. The separation at branch level of advocacy and policy work from the funding activities supporting charitable purposes met taxation and Charities Commission requirements, but resulted in a loss of branch focus. Branch membership declined, and in 2018 only four branches remained, although Independent membership grew. The branch charitable trusts continued as independent entities (with branch oversight).

By 2018, the regalia hire businesses operated by the branch trusts and GWNZ CT were disbursing over a million dollars annually, through university endowments and their own funding of awards and scholarships for lifetime education. In addition to paying for women getting university level qualifications and supporting graduates taking higher degrees at prestigious (and expensive) overseas institutions, the grants encouraged women into non-traditional trades, such as building, painting, electrical, and automotive. They also supported solo teen mothers and female refugees, preschool educators and education, mature women university entrants, women in leadership and management training, and women undertaking small research projects. Branches also partnered with other organisations to support international efforts (for example, Otago Branch supported preschool and primary education in Sierra Leone).

Between 1993 and 2012, GWNZ policy work continued to focus on a very wide range of issues in addition to education, including employment, pay equity, health, housing, violence, women’s refuges, corruption, peace and disarmament, the environment, and representation of women on public bodies. After 2012 efforts were made to focus more exclusively on educational topics, particularly the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 4 (quality education) and 5 (gender equity).

GWNZ logo

The organisation was reshaped in 2012, with national executive members drawn nationwide instead of via regional rotation, facilitated by video-conferencing on a monthly basis.  In 2016, as well as becoming Graduate Women New Zealand (GWNZ), in line with the international body’s name change to Graduate Women International (GWI), the organisation formally added the Māori version of its name: Whakaminenga Wāhine ō Aotearoa Kua Whiwhi Tohu.

GWNZ contributed keenly at international level, with the ambitious goal of all women globally achieving secondary education. Louise Croot (Otago) was IFUW President (2007–2010); Rae Duff (Wellington) was GWI Vice-President (Legal and Governance) (2016–19) and Lorraine Isaacs (Otago) held constitutional roles at international conferences, which more members were attending, providing papers and workshops. Beverley Turner (North Shore) became Pacific Graduate Women Network liaison with IFUW/GWI in 2000.

Changes to the GWNZ Constitution and the Charitable Trust Deed aimed to future-proof both entities, and annual general meetings superseded the former triennial conference structure. In 2018 GWNZ embarked on a major strategy to appeal to younger women, and publicise its contributions at home and abroad through social media and a more streamlined integrated website.

Ann Pomeroy [6]


[1] Interview with Dame Dorothy Winstone, February 1992. Dame Dorothy and another NZFUW member, Helen Garrett, were among the first New Zealand women to undertake jury service after this opened to women in 1942.

[2] Macdonald, 1982, p. 93.

[3] The OUWA, which included non-graduates, had decided to 'run parallel, amalgamating in practice but not in theory' with the new organisation. It continued until 1947. See Angus, 1984, p. 17.

[4] See Angus, 1984, pp. 56–57.

[5] NZFUW National Bulletin, May/June 1992, p. 1.

[6] GWNZ President 2014–18. 

Unpublished sources

GWNZ Retrieved 27 September 2018

Louise Croot, Rae Duff, Dorothy Meyer and Heather Rae, personal communications

Moore, Rachel, 'Dunedin's Bluestockings: The FUW in Otago', MA thesis, University of Otago, 1982

NZFUW records 1920–1985, ATL

NZFUW and Otago Branch records, 1922–1989, Hocken

NZFUW branch histories, in possession of Margaret Stockwell, Timaru

Otago University Women's Association minutes, Hocken

Published sources

Angus, Janet C., By Degrees: The History of the Otago Branch of the New Zealand Federation of University Women 1921–1983, Otago Branch NZFUW, Dunedin, 1984

Macdonald, Winifred, Footprints of Kate Edger [History of NZFUW, 1921–1981], NZFUW, Auckland, 1981

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