Women Together introduction

To mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in 1993, the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs compiled a history of women’s organisations: Women together: a history of women’s organisations in New Zealand / Ngā ropū wāhine o te motu. Edited by Anne Else, the book was published In August 1993. Each of the 13 fields covered, beginning with Ngā Ropū Wāhine Māori, had its own overview essay, and more than 130 organisations, past and present – a fraction of the known total – were written up in detail.

Anne Else

Anne Else

Anne Else with a copy of Women together in 1993

Until at least the 1970s, women’s organising represented an extraordinarily broad and deep stream of endeavour. These efforts were led by a talented, energetic, steadily growing crowd of citizens who had been legally or traditionally excluded from almost all other forms of public action and leadership. Yet until the project unearthed it, little was known of these efforts.

Recording the ways in which different groups of women had responded in different times and places to particular circumstances provided fresh perspectives on the nation’s history. It also shed light on the multi-faceted history of gender relations and the politics of power and agency.

Women together formed part of the huge effort that went into rediscovering and retrieving women’s and feminism’s lost history, as a result of the ‘second wave’ of feminist activism. The stories it told were not easily accessible anywhere else. Over the following quarter-century this unique resource continued to be widely used by professional researchers and historians.

But in the internet era, it was clear that being able to access this history only in print was not sufficient. In 2018 the Research and Publishing team at Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage decided that they would not only digitise Women together, but also update it, as a Suffrage 125 project. This involved putting online the original text, with additional essays covering 1994–2018, as well as updates for those featured organisations still in existence, and accounts of how others had ceased to exist. Entries on a range of new groups were planned for 2019.

In general, women, past and present (let alone feminist perspectives), were still nowhere near equally represented on the internet. In 2017, the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia was getting 16 billion page views per month; but only 17.6 per cent of its 1.5 million biographies in English featured women, and only around 10 per cent of its contributing editors were women.

In the 2010s, as a new surge of women’s activism gathered pace, publishers began to resurrect, both in print and as ebooks, a striking number of the most notable works by prominent second-wave writers overseas. In terms of New Zealand-specific work, however, there were huge gaps. For example, the only biography of Kate Sheppard, published in 1992, was long out of print. The second wave’s own history in New Zealand was itself endangered. Even its most significant campaigns and achievements had been at least partially buried.

Fortunately the University of Auckland had put Broadsheet, the world’s longest-running feminist magazine, online; in 2018 it was frequently consulted, not least by journalists seeking women’s movement material for the 125th anniversary (with more widespread interest than they had shown in 1993 – perhaps because their ranks now included many more women). Thanks to a Suffrage 125 grant, the Women’s Studies Journal was also being fully digitised, making 24 years of local feminist research and thinking freely available online. Some local publishers, too, were doing their best to make other significant work about women’s history digitally available.

Although so much more remained to be done, putting the updated Women together online helped to redress the balance for this country. The ability to include links to other important historical sources, such as the Dictionary of New Zealand biography, as well as to contemporary material on women’s organisations, meant that a reliable web of information about women’s history in New Zealand was beginning to be built up.

Women’s Organisations 1994–2018

Over the quarter-century from 1993 to 2018 women’s organisations continued to survive, disband, emerge and flourish, in response to political and economic change, as well as technological developments, ideological shifts and global movements.

A remarkable number of the groups featured in the original book in 1993 still existed in 2018, though some were in decline. The oldest was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which provided the original impetus for the women’s suffrage movement. By contrast, the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective was one of the youngest, scarcely six years old in 1993; yet, like the WCTU, it was instrumental in bringing about a major law change – legalising sex work. Its campaign was joined by an ‘unlikely range of partners including the Venereological Society, the Māori Women’s Welfare League, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Public Health Association, the Massage Institute, the Council of Trade Unions, and some nuns and churches who supported decriminalisation of sex work.’ [1] In 2018 its founder, Catherine Healy, was made a Dame.

Moving in and moving up

Looking back over women’s organising across 25 years, several themes emerge. First, women became more visible in public leadership beyond their own organisations. In terms of politics, they came to hold the country’s most powerful positions for the first time: by 2018 the country had its third woman prime minister and governor-general. The image of leadership irrevocably changed, particularly in 2018 when Jacinda Ardern became the first prime minister to give birth while in office.

As Raewyn Dalziel points out in her essay on women’s political organisations, the introduction of MMP in 1996, supported by groups such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby, did as expected lead to a higher proportion of women in parliament, from only 21 per cent in 1993 to over 38 per cent in 2018. MMP also brought more Māori women into Parliament, as well as Pacific and Asian women. The number of gay women MPs grew too, and in 1999 the first transgender woman, Georgina Beyer, was elected.

Women also became far more visible in sports, as Charlotte Macdonald’s essay about sports organisations shows, with the success of both female athletes and team leaders ‘powerfully demonstrat[ing] the prominence, accomplishment and diversity of New Zealand women on the global stage’, even in high-status sports formerly assumed to be male preserves, in ways ‘unimaginable in 1993’. By 2018 female players were the fastest growing sector within rugby union, nationally representative teams in both rugby union and rugby league were playing on professional contracts, and New Zealand was to host the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2021.

Stalled progress

A second theme, however, is the way in which, despite these highly visible successes, progress for women seemed to have stalled. In both Parliament and Cabinet, the goal of equal gender representation remained out of reach. There was a marked increase in the number of businesses with no women in senior management roles. [2] Even in occupations where women predominated, such as the public service and teaching, men continued to be appointed to a disproportionately high share of senior positions.

Women themselves had not stood still. In terms of paid employment, by 2017 their labour force participation had risen to a record 63 per cent, and their qualifications had greatly increased too. As Kay Morris Matthews notes in her essay on girls’ and women’s education, women’s rate of degree completion was over 60 per cent higher than men’s; yet women continued to cluster in a relatively narrow band of occupations, and marked gender pay gaps persisted, particularly for Māori and Pacific women. The lack of pay equity – equal pay for work of equal value – remained a major factor, with 68 per cent of those on the minimum wage being female, regardless of how much skill and responsibility (for example, as caregivers or teacher aides) their jobs required.

Historic pay equity win, 2017

Stuff Limited

From left: Telani Esene, Eneata Apineru and Kristine Bartlett (right) celebrate their historic pay equity win.

New research prompted by the pay gap revealed the impact of unconscious bias. As Melanie Nolan suggests in her employment essay, the idea that women were merely secondary earners, particularly after they became mothers, still apparently held sway. Employment-related organisations, formed, reformed and spurred on by women, worked on these stubborn inequalities, with one notable success: in 2013 the E tū union supported aged-care worker Kristine Bartlett in lodging a claim for pay equity under the 1972 Equal Pay Act. The courts ruled in her favour, and 55,000 low-paid female care and support workers had their wages raised. The public responded by voting Bartlett New Zealander of the Year in 2018, and the government began work on new pay equity legislation.

The time and energy crunch

Another emerging theme is the impact of juggling paid and unpaid workloads on the extent to which women could continue to undertake voluntary work for non-profit organisations of all kinds. Despite their growing paid work hours, women continued to carry a heavier load of unpaid family work than men. By 2018, as Helen May’s essay on early childhood education sets out, years of campaigning for better parental leave provisions and easier access to affordable childcare had improved public provision and workplace legislation to help parents; but this fell far short of full recognition and support. The time and energy crunch affecting so many women, together with rising living and housing costs, inevitably impacted on their ability to sustain the voluntary work needed to run formally structured organisations.

Among organisations with no or few paid staff, such as church groups or smaller service groups, one after another reported that while women were still keen to take part in activities, finding those with enough time to do the required organising was increasingly difficult. Ageing was another factor, as women who had long been stalwart organisers were no longer able to carry on – and could not be replaced. Moreover, paid work involvement among women aged 65 and over rose from 2 per cent in the mid 1990s to 15 per cent in 2013. Nevertheless, about 30 per cent of women in this age group (compared with under 23 per cent of men) were continuing to volunteer in 2016, and contributed 1.8 million more hours to non-profits than the men did. [3]

Changing rules, increasing need

Making the task more difficult was a plethora of legislation affecting non-profit groups. [4] As Margaret Tennant’s essay on welfare organisations notes: ‘A volunteer base already diminished by women’s paid employment, the intensification of work demands and changing leisure patterns was faced with new pressures and accountabilities.’

Women’s organisations contracted by government to provide various services, from counselling and courses to shelter and advice, turned into quite large-scale employers. One major driver for this enlargement was persistent high levels of child abuse and both family and sexual violence, with women living in New Zealand experiencing extremely high rates of intimate partner violence. Data collated by the Family Violence Clearing House showed that one in three women experienced some form of violence within their relationship; and although many family violence incidents went unreported, by 2016 dealing with these was taking up 41 per cent of police time. [5] Stemming from a Green Party campaign led by Jan Logie, the Domestic Violence – Victims’ Protection Act 2018 provided paid leave for victims of domestic violence, making New Zealand the first country in the world to offer this type of leave as a universal entitlement. Yet major, essential groups such as Women’s Refuge had to cope with a decade of static government funding, and relied heavily on fundraising and volunteers.

Inequality among women

From 1990 on, a marked rise in overall inequality became evident, particularly among women, with Māori and Pacific women worst affected. While some women did increasingly well, others did much worse, with a growing number – particularly sole parents – facing an even more severe struggle to house and feed themselves and their families. Besides the existing organisations, trying to cope with rapidly expanding need, women responded by setting up new groups dedicated to alleviating aspects of serious hardship. For example, the Wā Collective tackled ‘period poverty’ (causing teenage girls who could not afford sanitary products to miss school) by selling reusable menstrual cups and other affordable and sustainable menstrual solutions. This kind of social enterprise became a new method of influencing change in the twenty-first century, often combining a desire to advocate for women’s rights, social wellbeing and/or environmental sustainability with business innovation.

Voice and leadership

Another emerging feature of twenty-first-century organising is the way in which venerable organisations related to institutions such as the churches, the agricultural industry and the professions tended to become more outspoken about the urgent need for women’s voices to be genuinely heard and heeded, as well as for women to maximise their contribution by sharing in leadership of the institutions.

Susan Jones, in her essay about religious organisations, and Rosemarie Smith, in her essay about rural organisations, as well as the accounts of many organisations, make this newly assertive direction clear. From 1994, for example, Baptist Women New Zealand made women in leadership a main focus, and by 2018 the Baptist Union had had five women leaders; meanwhile Katie Milne, a former Dairy Woman of the Year, became the first female president of Federated Farmers.

Digital media

One helpful new factor was that in many respects, running and publicising organisations and setting out their stands became much easier, thanks to computer technology, the internet, and social media. By the 2000s, these had become a hallmark of contemporary society and a key mode of communication, and were playing an important role in connecting women of all ages, both within New Zealand and internationally, for a huge range of purposes.

New channels

‘Social media has given women a microphone, a soapbox and a public square. It has provided a digital lounge in which to congregate, commiserate and organise. It has introduced likeminded women to each other and given them an easy way to keep in touch. It has its challenges and its dark corners, but it is infinitely more valuable to feminism than it is damaging. In the digital age, women’s voices have rung out despite the many attempts to silence them. We won’t be shutting up any time soon.’

Lizzie Marvelly, That F word: growing up feminist in Aotearoa, HarperCollins, Auckland, 2018.

Many feminist activists, particularly younger women joining the latest wave, were successfully deploying digital channels to spread information, raise concerns and mobilise women, both locally and globally. Many groups and individuals operated within a digital landscape where they shared information from a variety of sources or personal perspectives, via blogs and vlogs, images, memes, videos and online campaigns. Two popular New Zealand examples were the internationally focused Ace Lady Network and home-grown Villainesse.

Out-on-the-street protests, solid pressure-group work and place-based activities, including social events, continued to be a significant part of the women’s movement and group activity. Social media became an important rallying device for these, as well as offering effective new opportunities for feminist conversations and information-sharing.

Around the world, feminist individuals and groups focusing on a wide range of issues were creatively using social media as a core mode for amplifying their messages. This was seen at its most powerful in the international Women’s March in 2017, which became the world’s largest global human rights demonstration and saw women mobilising throughout New Zealand. Social media was also integral to the best-known women’s protest action of 2018: the international #MeToo campaign to expose and oppose sexual harassment. However, there was concern among both older and some younger feminists about the reliance of such movements on individual women telling their stories of abuse, often obscuring the need to take concerted action to change the systems structurally oppressing women.

Protest march

Stuff, photographer: Joshua Gimblett.

Protesters in Wellington during the Women’s March, 2017.

Social media also facilitated unceasing verbal attacks and threats of discrimination and violence against women in general, and feminists – especially feminists of colour – in particular, both as individuals and on group sites. [6] It quickly became clear that while the internet had led to one of the ‘dramatic shifts in the borders, boundaries and institutions that underpin political and social life’, when such shifts take place, ‘inequalities based on class, race and gender – among other socially constructed and politicised forms of difference – continue to be reproduced’. [7] As a result, some women’s groups withdrew from open public space into closed forums, primarily to protect themselves, but also to ensure the free flow of ideas without encountering sexist attacks.

Young women and feminism

In secondary schools, young women began using the internet in this safer way. [8] Kay Morris Matthews, in her essay on girls and women in education, highlights the rapid spread of school-based feminist groups in the 2000s. This was partially due to the ease of access to international sources of information via the internet, as well as the ability to find talks, articles and video clips about and by contemporary feminists. [9] Feminist celebrities such as Beyoncé, Lorde and Emma Watson, who became a UN Goodwill Ambassador for women in 2014, all had a strong influence in the 2010s. By 2018, the impact of an increase in school-based feminism was filtering into the university, with some women academics noting a marked increase in well-informed students attending their courses. [10] However, outside educational institutions and employment groups, there was a perceived lack of feminist organising which would appeal to women aged 18 to 35, who had been the mainstay of the second wave.

The internet was also involved in the growing take-up of an intersectional approach to feminism, combining women’s rights with other social justice related causes, as well as environmental and cultural issues. For example, Jess Dellabarca, a founder of the Wellington East Girls’ club FeminEast, explained that the group learned about feminism on social media, and read US-based discussions on intersectional feminism. [11] This informed their focus on racial and socioeconomic inequality, as well as their active opposition to heterosexism, racism and transphobia. Laura O’Connell Rapira, director of the independent, crowdfunded, community campaigning organisation ActionStation, fought for gender equality alongside LGBTIQ+ rights and environmental causes. During the 2017 election campaign, ActionStation’s focus on empowering young Māori women to vote was intertwined with the rejuvenation of te reo Māori and land rights, as well as a range of other social and environmental issues.

Mana wāhine and ethnic diversity

As Tania Rei’s essay on Māori women makes clear, the idea of intersecting women’s rights with other issues important to them, such as land rights and Māori cultural values, extended back to the nineteenth century. The concept of ‘mana wāhine’, publicised in Broadsheet in the 1980s, encapsulated Māori feminism as well as identity, power and dignity, and was also interwoven with other important Māori ideologies, such as mana tāne, mana whānau, and mana atua. [12] Among Māori women artists in various fields, there was a resurgence of political creativity. In the 2000s, mana wāhine activist Jessica Hansell (also known as Coco Solid) used a variety of artistic mediums to highlight the perspectives of young Māori women and the effects of colonialism and racism in New Zealand. She also spearheaded the 2017 Equalise My Vocals campaign, discussed by Cherie Jacobson in her essay on the performing arts, which aimed to combat racism and sexism in the music industry.

New Zealand’s increasing ethnic diversity was also driving the formation of new organisations, as women from a variety of cultural backgrounds came to represent New Zealand in government, in sports, in business, and in women’s groups and organisations throughout the country. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of Pacific people living here increased by 11 per cent. As Moeata Keil’s essay about Pacific women’s groups explains, they continued to flourish and diversify, with the Pacific Sisters collaborating on a major Te Papa exhibition.

Te Papa YouTube.

Pacific Sisters create ‘Tāulaolevai: Keeper of the Water (Tuna)’.

Over the same period New Zealand’s Asian population increased by 33 per cent, and Middle Eastern, Latin American and African (MELAA) people by 35 per cent. [13] Rachel Simon-Kumar’s essay about immigrant women discusses how groups of women from around the world established organisations to address their specific needs in New Zealand; some focused on social activities, others on providing an opportunity to learn traditional skills such as dance, arts and crafts – in some cases using these to claim a public voice. For example, Latin American women established Mujerer in Aotearoa, a Wellington-based group for preserving and spreading Latin American culture and their experiences as migrants and refugees. The Wellington Arpilleras Collective explored the meanings and feelings of being here, while having roots elsewhere in Latin America, through the creation of hand-made, brightly coloured patchwork pictures known as arpilleras. [14]  

The need for specialist services for women in crisis became evident too. The WISE collective focused on helping refugee women. Shakti Community Council Inc. was established in 1995 to provide culturally specialist support services for Asian, Middle Eastern and African women in New Zealand, particularly those in violent and abusive situations. However, there seemed to be few initiatives aimed at bringing a range of diverse women’s groups together, to work on common structural problems or simply get to know each other better.

Expanding rights

For some women, new legislation following shifts in social attitudes greatly diminished the need to organise, both socially and to campaign for change. The 1993 Human Rights Act, for example, outlawed discrimination on a number of grounds, including sex, marital status, and sexual orientation, yet in the 1990s discrimination and inequality continued to be an issue for lesbians and transgender women.

Lesbian couple, Victoria Envy and Sinead O’Connell, get married in Auckland’s Pride Parade, 2018.

Stuff Limited

Lesbian couple Victoria Envy and Sinead O’Connell get married during Auckland’s Pride Parade, 2018

Law changes discussed by Alison Laurie in her essay on lesbian organising, such as the Civil Union Act 2004 and the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013, mandated equal rights in these areas for LGBTIQ+ people. These changes, along with shifts in social attitudes, due in large part to group activism over many years, enormously improved the lives of lesbians and transgender women. Another contentious rights-related issue was abortion, discussed by Margaret Sparrow in her essay about health organisations; in 2018 work officially began on options for removing abortion from the Crimes Act and making it a women’s health matter.

Looking ahead

Dorothy Page ends her essay on service organisations with a statement that could be applied to 2018’s vivid, complex tapestry of many groups, old and new, focused on helping others, empowering women, and enhancing their lives:

Some … may have faded away, but women had not abandoned the ideal of service. Rather, they had modified its implementation. By creatively using the internet to attract others to their cause and their services, foregrounding the role of volunteers, and creating networks through social media, they were remodelling the concept … for the twenty-first century.

Anne Else and Lynette Townsend


[1] Barbara Brookes, A history of New Zealand women, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2016, p. 470.

 [2] Grant Thornton, ‘Proportion of women in senior leadership roles has hit rock bottom, 2018, http://www.grantthornton.co.nz/press/press-releases-2018/proportion-of-women-in-nz-senior-leadership-roles-has-hit-rock-bottom/

[3] Statistics NZ, Volunteering and donations by New Zealanders in 2016, Statistics NZ, 2017. Retrieved from www.stats.govt.nz

[4] For example, the Charities Act 2005 mandated a Charities Commission to register and monitor charities as a condition of tax-exempt status. Health and safety legislation also required much more complex compliance.

[5] See New Zealand Family Violence Clearing House, Data summaries snapshot, June 2017. Available from: https://nzfvc.org.nz/our-work/data-summaries/snapshot

[6] See Lizzie Marvelly, That F word: growing up feminist in Aotearoa, HarperCollins, Auckland, 2018.

[7] Lynn A, Staeheli et al. (eds), Mapping women, making politics: feminist perspectives on political geography, Routledge, Abingdon-on-Thames, UK, 2004, p. 15.

[8] Emma Blackett, ‘“I’m allowed to be angry”: students resist postfeminist education in Aotearoa /New Zealand’, Women’s Studies Journal, vol. 30, no. 2, 2016, p. 48; Sue Jackson, ‘Young feminists, feminism and digital media’, Feminism & Psychology, vol. 28, no. 1, 2018, pp. 32–49.

[9] Jeremy Olds,‘The rise of high school feminism’, Stuff, 1 May 2015.

[10] Olds, 2015; Joyce Campbell, personal communication, October 2018.

[11] Blackett, 2016, pp. 38–52.

[12] Naomi Simmonds, ‘Mana wahine: decolonising politics’, Women’s Studies Journal, vol. 25, no. 2, 2011, pp. 12–13.

[13] https://www.stats.govt.nz/infographics/major-ethnic-groups-in-new-zealand

[14] https://www.arpilleraswellington.com/ See also the essay on Organisations in the arts and crafts.

The 1993 introduction to Women together

A history of women’s organisations in New Zealand was a particularly appropriate publication for 1993, the centenary of women’s suffrage. The winning of the vote in 1893 and the rapid enrolment of women voters which followed was largely dependent on the organised work of women; ever since, their organisations have constituted a significant feature of New Zealand history which for decades, like the history of women’s suffrage, received little recognition or attention.

The primary aims of this project were to give as comprehensive a picture as possible of the extent, variety and importance of women’s organisations and their activities over the last 150 years, and to provide a resource and inspiration for further work. The book contained 132 short histories of organisations, grouped in 13 sections representing various fields of activity or identification. The section on Māori women’s organisations took precedence. Next came organisations explicitly concerned with politics, from the suffrage movement to the modern ‘women's movement’. These were followed by sections focusing on welfare, religion, service, employment, health, education, rural women, sport/recreation/leisure, arts and crafts, immigration and ethnicity, and lesbian women. Each section began with an essay designed to provide a context and overview for the short histories. 

The many organisations featured or mentioned represented only a small proportion of the thousands formed or adopted by New Zealand women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were chosen on the basis of prominence or size – the two have by no means always been synonymous; type, from small, informal local groups to complex national organisations; location, representing as wide a geographical coverage as possible, though inevitably the major cities featured most often; and chronology, so as to sketch both change and continuity over time.

For the purposes of this project, ‘women’s organisation’ was initially defined as a voluntary organisation formed of women, by women, for women. However, many of the organisations in this book have not fitted all these criteria throughout their history. Most of the early groups, including those working for suffrage, included men, some of whom played a prominent part. Women’s civil disabilities, socially restricted mobility and lack of access to resources meant they could act on their own only to a limited extent. In some cases, for example the Plunket Society and the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, men were the initiators. One of the many areas requiring further investigation is the development of the process whereby organisations consisting mainly of women came to see the participation and membership of men, and in particular men playing leading roles, as problematic.

Women’s organisations emerge, flourish, survive or die in particular historical circumstances. As in other similar societies, many formed as an alternative to what in effect were men’s organisations, from parliament and the churches to service and sports clubs, officially or unofficially excluding women as women. Their own organisations offered women a civic and social life, public voice, and scope for influence and leadership, which were not available to them anywhere else. 

The organisations featured in 1993 were as diverse as women themselves, and equally difficult to generalise about. In particular, organisations founded by Māori and other non-Pākehā women, while they might use the same organisational structures, operate in apparently similar ways, and exist in the same time frame, resist being neatly fitted into interpretive frameworks which were not designed to accommodate them. Two possible approaches were to consider whether, and why, organisations stressed women’s sameness to or difference from men; [1] and to look at how they connected ‘self’ and ‘others’. 

Focusing on women's 'difference' from men, especially in connection with morality and maternity, seemed to be ascendant in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when organisations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) celebrated it and made it the basis of their claim for an enlarged sphere and voice for women. Yet such organisations also appeared to believe that this 'difference' was social rather than natural, insisting that 'a white life for two' was both desirable and attainable. Conversely, it was all too possible for women to fall to men's level. 

 Māori women were also concerned with winning the vote and with alcohol abuse, particularly as it related to the alienation of Māori land. They acted to preserve their own standing and rights, faced with a system which operated to deny both on the grounds of their gender. But their sameness to or difference from men does not usually seem to have been at issue; Māori/Pākehā, and tribal affiliations, were the main 'differences' which shaped their activities. 

Once the vote was won, no other cause of equal energising power seemed to arise for women until World War I began. The hundreds of patriotic women's organisations which sprang up all over New Zealand put a different emphasis on 'difference', stressing women's role as the supporters and comforters of the men at the front. But they also broadly revived the concept of organising among women, and the long slide into the Depression gave this further impetus. By October 1933, the first woman Member of Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs, could state in the House: 

I wonder whether these honourable gentlemen realise the strength of the women's organisations in the Dominion. Today there are hundreds of such organisations doing active work. Many of them did not exist five years ago – quite a number not two years ago. I am convinced that the members in the Government benches are only half awake to what is taking place throughout the country. [2]

Interwar organisations such as the Women's Institutes, the Women's Health League, the Women's Co-operative Guilds, the League of Mothers, the Women's Division of the Farmers' Union and even the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society (which became the Family Planning Association) reflected the interplay between the continuing strength of 'separate spheres' ideology and practice, with a heavy emphasis on the role of women as mothers, and the real content and value of the unpaid 'family work' of New Zealand women, rural and suburban, Māori and Pākehā. They focused not so much on differences between men and women as on what they took to be their complementary roles, arguing that in order to do their given and chosen work better, women needed better conditions. 

In the same period, new organisations sought to uphold the value of women's formal paid work, whether it was done alongside men, as in teaching, or in a separate sphere, such as nursing. The more thoroughly feminised the occupation, the less women's 'sameness' to men was discussed. Associations of women in occupations such as nurses and kindergarten teachers long rigorously resisted any appearance of mercenary or demeaning concern with wages and hours; instead they stressed concepts of womanly service, to be undertaken only by dedicated single women.

In World War II, women came far closer (though still not very close) to an equal footing with men than they had in World War I. In the post-war years, for the first time, the strong ideological distinction drawn by urban Pākehā society between the economically dependent wife and mother and the self-supporting single woman began to break down. Improving the conditions of women's and children's daily lives continued to form the basis of many post-war organisations, from the Māori Women's Welfare League to Playcentre. But there was a new emphasis on self-determination, and the needs of women as individuals.

Meanwhile new employment-focused organisations were forming, such as the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity and the Business and Professional Women's Clubs. From the mid-1960s they were joined by branches of international businesswomen's service organisations, such as Zonta, Soroptimists and Altrusa, which included affirming and raising the status of all women in their agenda. Like many post-war churchwomen's organisations, they were anticipating the later discoveries of international development agencies: that the wellbeing of societies depends on the welfare, education and status of women. 

Twentieth century women moved between 'home' and 'job' (often combining the two) according to their situation and stage of life. But in the post-war years this dual life became much more visible, as more and more women took up formalised paid employment. Their organisations, too, began to shift from focusing either on women's 'different' role as mothers and on making proper provision for it, or on women's paid work roles, toward challenging arrangements which made irrelevant assumptions about difference or sameness, and turned each to women's disadvantage. They were beginning to bridge the gap between the two standpoints, and working out ways to reconcile them.

The organisations formed in the women's liberation movement of the 1970s, often called the ‘second wave’, saw women and men as differently positioned – to women's detriment – with regard to paid and unpaid work, sexuality and reproduction, social life, politics, image and gaze. They rejected and attacked what they believed to be wrongheaded, damaging presumptions about women's innate difference from men, inferiority to men, and sameness to each other. Yet it was the sameness of women which served as the basis for the movement, just as it had done for nineteenth century activists. By the 1980s, organisations were having to come to terms with the full range of women's differences from each other. 

By the 1990s, the stated aim of the Girl Guides was 'to help girls develop into confident and self-respecting young women, responsive to the needs of others'. The uneasy conjunction of 'self’ (long linked for women with selfishness) and 'others' (denoting self-sacrifice) which this statement embodies has been a feature of many women's organisations. To women's benevolent organisations, definitions of self (the helpers) and others (the helped) were based on class and, to a lesser extent, race. They also divided the 'others' into those who deserved help, and those who did not – as did the early welfare state, which contemporaries often attributed to women's influence. Yet time and again, in helping others, women found themselves empowered. The organisations of the 1920s and 1930s, both Māori and Pākehā, demonstrated above all the spirit of self-help. Organisations devoted solely to some form of recreation also flourished between the wars. Post-war organisations continued this development, but with stronger emphasis on the claims of women as a group, in or out of the paid workforce. 

By the 1970s, women were prepared to contest openly the terms on which marriage and motherhood, the foundation of 'unselfish womanly service', were to be undertaken – or rejected. In scores of new groups, they asserted women's claim to self-definition and self-determination, on a far broader scale than all but a handful of their predecessors had envisaged. 

From the mid-1980s, however, as the economic situation worsened, and Māori women in particular were hit by soaring unemployment and dwindling social provision, more and more organisations again became preoccupied with women's day-to-day struggles and needs. At the same time, a very small proportion of women – often with a background of active group membership, or linked by employment networks – moved for the first time into the higher echelons of government and the public service, though rarely the private business sector.

Many of the questions which preoccupied nineteenth century women's organisations, from Māori land claims to married women's financial vulnerability, again became vital issues. A surprisingly high number of the organisations which began then still existed in the 1990s, albeit much altered, as did organisations from every twentieth century decade. The most flourishing seemed to be those which offered women recreation and renewal in the broadest sense, from weaving to mountaineering. Women's voluntary organisations have necessarily been formed and run by those with at least something to spare, in terms of time, energy, money, knowledge and confidence. It would be very hard indeed to imagine a New Zealand devoid of their work and their achievements. Yet in 1993, a high proportion of the accounts of living organisations ended on a note of uncertainty about the future. 

This book would, it was hoped, give rise to many questions, both historical and contemporary. But 'How can women be induced to do more work in voluntary organisations?' was not intended to be among them. Instead, one question was seen as particularly urgent: 'Now that women's unpaid labour can at last fill the gap no longer, how can we as a society ensure that all the needed work gets done?'

Anne Else


[1] See Carol Lee Bacchi, Same difference: feminism and sexual difference, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1990, for an illuminating discussion of this concept in relation to British, American and Australian feminism.

[2] NZPD, vol. 236, 1933, p. 519.