Labour Women's Council

1975 –

Labour Women's Council

1975 –

Theme: Political

This essay written by Rae Julian was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Barbara Hutchinson in 2018.

1975 – 1993

The goals of the Women's Council of the New Zealand Labour Party (commonly known as the Labour Women's Council – LWC) were 'to stimulate the interest of women joining the Party and to assist local organisations in achieving this; to improve communication among women in the Party; to transmit the views of women to the Executive and the Parliamentary Party; to assist in the formulation of policy which meets the needs of women; and to make representations on behalf of the Party where appropriate'. [1]

The LWC was founded in 1975. It replaced the Women's Advisory Committee (WAC) which had been formed in 1970, mainly through the efforts of Sonja Davies and Margaret Shields, to ensure that the views of Party women were heard in the policy-making process. Mary Batchelor, Dorothy Jelicich and Connie Purdue were also early WAC members. WAC was active in promoting issues such as childcare, the Domestic Purposes Benefit, equal pay in the private sector, and women's rights in general. Its newsletter Te Taki Taki (1974-75) highlighted the concerns and frustrations expressed at nation-wide Labour women's seminars – the lack of consultation by the Labour Party's Policy Committee, WAC's inability to send remits to the Party's annual conference, and especially the way the Women's Report was rushed through at the end of the conference agenda. Davies and Shields led a picket of women and some supportive men at the 1974 conference with 'banners calling for recognition for Labour Party women, more attention to their needs and a proper consideration of the Women's Report and its proposals'. [2]

The proposal to replace WAC with LWC was agreed to, and the first council was soon formed. [3] It comprised six members elected by Party women – two from the South Island, two from the North and two 'at large'; the women's representatives to the Labour Party executive, elected by the conference delegates; and all women on the executive and all women MPs as ex officio members. Men could not be members, but some always attended the Women's Day, held before the annual conference, when the LWC was elected.

The LWC was closely involved with all the key women's issues of 1975. Jelicich and Batchelor were on the Select Committee on Women's Rights; Pauline Penny organised an LWC workshop on Women and Politics for the second United Women's Convention; and Shields and Davies were members of the delegation to the International Women's Year conference in Mexico, led by Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. Labour was then in government and the LWC worked hard to ensure that its policies would be carried on to the next triennium. Te Taki Taki’s replacement, the newspaper Femina, lasted for only three issues because of financial constraints.

In November 1975 Labour was defeated and spent nine years in Opposition. The LWC concentrated at first on building up the strength and power of women in the Party. Its clearly feminist policies caused conflict with many Party men and some women. Abortion was especially contentious. Recognising that its 'women's choice' policy would not get through the 1977 conference, the LWC put forward a successful remit for a referendum in the belief that the results would support its stance. The 1978 conference approved the repeal of all existing abortion laws and the establishment of abortion clinics—along with the referendum. In 1978 Ann Hercus brought her energy and commitment to the Labour caucus and to the LWC. The following year a long-sought victory was achieved when Pam Nuttall was appointed the first Women's Co-ordinator of the Labour Party. Her organisational skills resulted in a nation-wide newsletter, the first Women's Policy Conference, and the formation of a number of policy-oriented women's branches throughout the country.

Working Women's Charter

Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-162446-F (sourced from Te Ara).

Working Women’s charter.

The Working Women's Charter was the LWC's next major issue. Davies had brought the concept back from Australia in 1976 and developed it through the Working Women's Council and supportive unions. Although there was bitter discussion of clause 12 (wide availability of quality childcare) and clause 15 (safe abortion as a woman's choice, along with freely available sex education and contraceptive advice), the charter was adopted by the Labour Party conference in 1980. The remit calling for an abortion referendum also survived. All the charter's elements appeared in Labour's 1981 election manifesto.

In 1981 the election to Parliament of Shields, Helen Clark and Fran Wilde brought another boost to Labour women. Nuttall resigned in 1981, but was not replaced by Sandi Beatie until 1983. From 1981 to 1984 the LWC worked hard on policy, sensing victory around the corner. From the 1983 women's policy conference emerged the concept of a Ministry of Women's Affairs, and policies such as the ratification of CEDAW and equality of employment and of educational opportunities.

These policies were all implemented during the first term of the 1984 Labour government, which included ten women MPs. Hercus, as Minister of Women's Affairs, with the support of Shields, played an active role and consulted with the LWC. This link was strengthened by the inclusion of the LWC chairperson at the weekly meetings of the Women's Caucus Committee. Margaret Wilson was the first woman Party president (1984–1987); she was followed by Ruth Dyson (1988–1993).

While the LWC was enthusiastic about the government's women-specific policies, many Party women were disquieted by the trend of its economic policies. The election of three new Labour women MPs, including Davies, to Parliament in 1987 brought hope, but election promises to implement social policy were not fulfilled. A number of LWC members switched allegiance to the New Labour Party. The LWC's Alternative Policy Statement in 1988 was a response to growing unemployment, free market policies and increasing corporatisation.

Labour's 1990 election defeat saw the departure of some Labour women MPs and a great deal of hard work for Beatie's replacement, Jo Fitzpatrick, who commented that the LWC was still the most active sector group in the Party. The LWC was an important agent for change in New Zealand society, as a launching pad for women and women's policies. Labour has been generally regarded as the party of reform; the Labour Women's Council sought to ensure that any reforms included the promotion of women's rights.

Rae Julian

1994 – 2018

After Labour's defeat in the 1990 election, the Labour Women's Council (LWC) continued as a force within the Party. The women's sector meetings, held on the day before the Party’s annual general meeting, continued to be very well attended. Informed and enthusiastic discussions on women's position within both the Party and in parliament led to two important constitutional changes: requiring the Party to elect a woman to the position of women's vice-president on the Party’s Governing Council;  and requiring each LEC to elect a women's liaison officer.  

The LWC actively continued to promote women into Party positions at both local and national level. Maryan Street became Party president (1993-1995), as did Moira Coatsworth (2011–2015). There was a significant increase in numbers of women MPs overall after the 1994 election, but there were still only 35 women MPs in total. When the electoral system changed to MMP in 1996, the LWC worked, lobbied and actively took advantage of the change, at both local and national level, to have women chosen for winnable places on the Party list and also for electorate seats.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark embracing Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, 2017

Stuff Limited

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark embracing Labour leader Jacinda Ardern during the Labour Party's campaign launch for the 2017 election.

Steady growth was achieved in the numbers of women, both in electorate seats and on the list, from 1994. Yet LWC came to believe that quotas were the only way to fully achieve gender equity goals. Amendments to the Labour Party Constitution were made over this period, including, in 2013, a change that read: 'that the resultant Caucus will comprise at least 45 percent women. For the 2017 and subsequent elections the percentage shall be at least 50 percent.’ The 2017 election was a watershed moment for LWC: eleven new women were elected to join the ten women returned to parliament. Overall, women made up 21 of Labour’s 46 MPs – eleven representing electorates and ten on the list. During this period, two women led the Party in parliament for the first time: Helen Clark, 1993–2008, and Jacinda Ardern, from 2017.

While the women's sector continued with their activities, including women's conferences and meetings, as well as the annual sector day at conference, they also encouraged and supported women to become active in other sector areas of the Party.  By 2018 the LWC Constitution reflected this activity and diversity, as each sector council elected a woman to be on the LWC Executive. 

The LWC continued to have a strong voice in the Party’s policies, promoting policies specific to women; but they also ensured that such policies were firmly embedded into all areas of Labour's manifesto. In 2018 plenty of work remained to be done, for example on abortion law reform; gender equity; pay equity; improved health outcomes for women; and the elimination of violence against women.

The LWC’s values remained strong – equity, respect, democracy and social justice – as did their principles: leadership engagement, empowerment, and having a positive impact for New Zealand women. These guided the work of the Labour Women's Council in 2018 and into the future. 

Barbara Hutchinson


[1] Women's Report to 1975 Annual Conference, New Zealand Labour Party.

[2] Davies, 1984, p. 225.

[3] Its members included Judith Aitken, Wyn Hoadley, Vicki Buck and Nancy Prebble.

Unpublished sources

Julian, Rae, interviews with Sonja Davies, Jo Fitzpatrick, Hannah Harwood, Lynne Renouf, Margaret Shields, 1992

Labour Women's Council records, 1975–2017, New Zealand Labour Party Headquarters, Wellington

Published sources

Davies, Sonja, Bread and Roses, ANZ Book Co. Pty Ltd, Auckland, 1984

Franks, Peter and Jim McAloon, Labour:  the New Zealand Labour Party 1916–2016, Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2016

New Zealand Labour Party, 1984 Policy Document, Wellington, 1984

The Role of Women in New Zealand Society, Report of the Select Committee on Women's Rights, Government Printer, Wellington, 1975

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