National Council of Women of New Zealand

1896 –

National Council of Women of New Zealand

1896 –

Theme: Political

This essay written by Roberta Nicholls and Dorothy Page was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Mary Gavin in 2018.

1896 – 1906, 1916 – 1993

By 1993, the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCWNZ, usually known as NCW) was the largest and most influential women's organisation in New Zealand. It is unique, in that it is a delegate organisation. In 1993 it comprised 47 nationally organised societies and 36 branches throughout the country; these in turn included local women's organisations and individual associate members. NCW is political, but non-party, with members from both major political parties, as well as special interest groups as diverse as the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and the Abortion Law Reform Association, and religious groups of all persuasions. In 1933 its Dominion secretary described the council as a 'body of reasonable women of various shades of opinion and thought, but having as one common object the welfare of the community', a description which members would have endorsed in 1993. [1]

While travelling in England in 1894, Kate Sheppard, leader of New Zealand's successful campaign for women's suffrage, was asked by the International Council of Women (ICW) to found a council in New Zealand. The request dovetailed neatly with a move in New Zealand to federate women's organisations; the first convention of the National Council of Women of New Zealand duly assembled in Christchurch in 1896 and elected Sheppard as president. Its aim was to 'unite all organised Societies of Women for mutual counsel and co-operation and in the attainment of justice and freedom for women, and for all that makes for the good of humanity', and to 'encourage the formation of Societies of Women engaged in trades, professions and social and political work'. [2] About 25 women attended, representing eleven societies. The group was solidly middle class and several women had been or were teachers.

A number of men – liberal or radical politicians, professionals or clergymen – as well as women addressed the first convention, helping to lay the foundation of some important long-term elements in the NCW programme. Topics they covered included universal old age pensions, the removal of women's civil disabilities, governmental and prison reform, and repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act. Derided by the Christchurch Press, the men were not invited again.

At this and subsequent conventions, the women of the NCW expressed the view that the state was 'but a family extended'. They wished 'to bring the woman spirit and the home atmosphere into the affairs as well of the State as of the parish'. [3] Purification of society was to be achieved by seeking increased government intervention.

NCW's aspiration to elevate family life met with social approval, but it was the means chosen to pursue this goal that many found disturbing. The women resolved that there should be absolute equality between the sexes within marriage: this entailed the repeal of the doctrine of 'possession', the economic independence of married women through 'a law attaching a just share of her husband's earning or income for her separate use', and the conditions of divorce for men and women being made equal. [4]

NCW sought to make New Zealand society more moral in many ways: by raising the age for women's legal consent to sexual intercourse to 21, teaching scientific temperance in schools, establishing homes for habitual drunkards, and more rigorously enforcing the liquor laws. It asked for free and longer education for children and better care of those who were disadvantaged, the extension of the municipal franchise, and the placing of women on boards and councils. Consistent with its middle class ethic of self-improvement, NCW considered that its 'duty to the Unfit' was to engender self-respect by fostering independence. [5]

A sense of grievance on the part of the underpaid women teachers attending the conferences fuelled demands for an equal wage for equal work. NCW deplored the build-up of militarism and advocated international arbitration. At the same time, it became increasingly obsessed with eugenics.

Although NCW firmly proposed evolution not revolution, many observers were shocked by its discussions, especially those concerning the economic independence of married women, sexual topics, and the South African war (1898–1902). But perhaps the most damning criticisms came from leading feminists. The NCW was weakened and lost its most direct means of access to powerful government circles when Anna Stout left the organisation in 1897. She contended that the council was not truly representative. Indeed, apart from the affiliation of the Dunedin Tailoresses' Union in 1897, NCW lacked working class membership, and attempts to organise local branches outside the main centres failed. Ethel Benjamin, New Zealand's first woman lawyer, also attacked the council for its unanimous passing of resolutions after only superficial discussion.

Meeting of NCW

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, C11447.

Meeting of National Council of Women, addressed by Ada Wells, July 1901. Margaret Sievwright and Lily Atkinson are seated next to the speaker, on her left; Kate Sheppard occupies the chair at the end of the room.

Eventually, the early NCW was overwhelmed by the despair, illness or death of several of its leading activists. Once enfranchised, most women appeared to have become apathetic and indifferent to political questions. The 1902 convention in Napier was the last; the council went into recess four years later.

Over the next decade there was little sign of a women's movement in New Zealand. The leading organisation of the 1890s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which almost alone maintained its distinctive blend of temperance and feminism, now focused on prohibition. Newer organisations, such as the Society for the Protection of Women and Children and the Plunket movement, reinforced a domestic and maternal concept of womanhood. It was argued that the New Zealand women's vote was already bearing fruit in New Zealand in legislation favourable to women; the inference taken was that there was no need of feminist action. Some links with ICW were maintained: Christina Henderson, NCW secretary 1900–1905, continued to report on New Zealand affairs, and Sheppard was elected an honorary vice-president in 1909, but such ties were tenuous.

The catalyst of World War I precipitated a revival of the women's movement in New Zealand. In 1916 Henderson, Sheppard and writer Jessie Mackay set in motion plans to reactivate the council, and in 1919, in a mood of post-war optimism, the ten delegates of a reconstituted NCW listened as Auckland lawyer Ellen Melville read a keynote address by Sheppard.

Printed and widely distributed, the address provided a link with the past and a programme for the future. Sheppard made a fervent plea for equality, urging that neither the accident of birth nor the incidence of sex should 'bar the right of each human being to self-development', and welcoming the recent extension of the franchise and eligibility for Parliament to women in many countries. [6] Her address then ranged over topics that were to engage the attention of NCW, with different emphases at different times, for decades to come: in education, equality for women teachers and better facilities for pupils; in the family, equality for women through motherhood endowment and equal guardianship rights; economic equality through equal pay for equal work; fuller participation of women in the administration of the law; and the addressing of social hygiene issues, for example through voluntary notification of venereal disease and free clinics for its treatment. Even reform of the electoral system through proportional representation found its place.

In considering the structure of NCW itself, Sheppard was equally far-sighted. Multiply the societies, she said, link them through a newsletter, enlist younger members, and through ICW co-ordinate with women in other lands.

From the start, the revived council, though appreciably less radical than its predecessor, was equally political in its aims. The 1919 conference set up an Advisory or Intelligence Committee of Wellington members to advise on 'Parliamentary business requiring immediate attention' – the forerunner of the Parliamentary Watch Committee. [7] In the inter-war period the council, though disappointed at the delay before women gained seats in Parliament, steadily advocated the appointment of women as justices of the peace, jurors and police. Later the aim was to increase the number of women on statutory bodies and in local and central government.

The rights of the wife were an ongoing concern of NCW from the first call for economic independence in 1896 to the suffrage anniversary in 1993. Equal rights in the guardianship of children was one issue, equality in divorce law and adequate sustenance for the divorced wife another. By the early 1990s, concerns focused on the security of de facto wives when a relationship ended.

Closely linked was concern for mothers and children. From the turn of the century, NCW constantly scrutinised the provision of maternity services, whether in hospital or by midwives at home, and supported the work of the Plunket Society. Given the wide range of organisations in NCW, issues of reproductive rights were inevitably sensitive. While the council approved family planning within marriage in 1956, debate continued for 30 years on the availability of contraceptives to young people outside marriage. Women's health was a topic of concern in the early 1990s, and NCW was active in promoting well women clinics and screening for breast and cervical cancer.

NCW's initial interest in education continued unabated, though specific causes varied over the years. In the case of women teachers, the main issues were equal pay, opposition to the bar against married women in the 1920s, access to principalships and positions of responsibility in co-educational schools, and the impact of devolution on women teachers. In the case of pupils there were repeated calls for smaller classes and better facilities. For decades the council demanded more emphasis on domestic training for girls; by the 1990s the call was for their improved access to traditionally male subjects, such as science and maths, and the teaching of home management to boys as well as girls.

In the paid workforce, women's equality was a steady aim. In the Depression, NCW repeatedly urged the government to assist unemployed women. During World War II the focus was on voluntary patriotic work, but after the war it turned to equal pay and equal access to top positions. NCW participated fully in the campaigns leading to the Government Service Equal Pay Act 1960 and the Equal Pay Act 1972, and supported initiatives for pay equity and equal employment opportunity.

NCW never hesitated to take a strong stance on moral issues affecting the community as a whole. There was a long-running debate on the treatment of 'degenerates' and the 'feeble-minded'. Other issues included support of moderate censorship, and opposition to pornography and to the abuse of alcohol and other substances. From a broader perspective, peace was always a priority, and after  World War II NCW steadily opposed nuclear weapons. In the 1970s and 1980s, environmental issues became increasingly important; in the early 1990s the level of violence in society was a prime concern.

As its volume of work increased, NCW developed a more elaborate structure: a permanent office in Wellington to provide administrative assistance for the Board of Management; a Parliamentary Watch Committee to keep an eye on legislation before the House; standing committees in special areas such as health, education, social welfare, mass media, child and family, to reinforce the work of the branches; and the inclusion of nationally organised societies as full members of the council. It experimented with various means of liaison – a page in a women's magazine, a separate bulletin – until in 1958 a solution was found in the informal, cyclostyled 'Circular', crammed full of information, sent monthly to each member of each branch.

The means of political activity also changed over the years. Petitions, deputations and telegram campaigns gave way to carefully prepared submissions to relevant authorities; from 1968 on, these came from NCW as a whole rather than individual branches. On issues of special concern, such as equal pay or the changing role of women in New Zealand society, NCW published the results of its research. The council found new allies: the Human Rights Commission from 1977 and the Ministry of Women's Affairs from 1985. International links were maintained through ICW.

While it has tended to be disparaged by both the very conservative and the very radical, the National Council of Women could still claim to be the voice of thousands of women in New Zealand as it approached its centenary in 1996.

Roberta Nicholls and Dorothy Page

1994 – 2018

At the conclusion of the 1994 NCWNZ Conference, National President Alison Roxburgh summed up: ‘An ongoing and vexed question is how to achieve our goals and to participate in the increasing and necessary work within our communities while also seeking to be financially viable.’ [8]

The celebration of NCWNZ’s centenary in 1996 provided some resolutions to this ‘vexed question’.  The publication of Dr Dorothy Page’s centennial history [9] was widely acclaimed, and the establishment of a Centennial Fund was a bold and farsighted endeavour. Nationwide fundraising was complemented by a generous government grant, resulting in a substantial investment to provide ongoing funds and sustainability for the administration of the organisation.   

The Annual Reports early in the new century tell a story of indefatigable work monitoring debates, canvassing informed opinions and making carefully prepared submissions to relevant authorities on the core issues of health, social justice and equality. However, it was clear that the previous unique strength of NCWNZ as a delegate-based organisation was slowly diminishing as societal changes were mirrored in reduced commitment to organised community groups, including a shift in women’s organisations away from formally aligning with an umbrella body. Some member organisations and branches went into recess, and many traditional functions fell to fewer women.

NCWNZ was nimble in meeting these trends, with frequent tweaking of the Constitution to accommodate individual as well as representative membership. Vital external collaborative relationships were maintained to accommodate the changing nature of engagement between government and the voluntary sector, and NCWNZ led strong alliances in overseas forums.  The most significant of these was the ongoing role of NCWNZ in the four-yearly cycle of monitoring the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), for which it produced an NGO Alternate Report.

As the 2002 Annual Report stated: 

NCWNZ has had a major input into the UN NGO CEDAW Report both as contributors of information and as facilitators of the process. NCWNZ has run a strong information campaign to ensure its members were well informed about CEDAW, its origin, purpose and articles. [10]

In 2010, the Annual Report highlighted the importance of this work within New Zealand:

The CEDAW process has been a huge vehicle in building relationships with non-members who have been involved in collecting data and sharing their expertise with us. [11]

The value of this international work was recognised by government funding assistance, but it was important to make it a process the membership could relate to as well:

The Board of Management is committed to growing the organisation to fulfil not only the expectations of our members, but also those of the wider community. NCWNZ strives to achieve that expectation of Women Influencing Policy. [12]

NCWNZ had long been aware of the risk of spreading itself too thinly when endeavouring to maintain a high standard of responses to myriad consultations. The Board established a firm strategy of two yearly rotations of targeted foci, which addressed themes such as social cohesion, sustainable development, freedom from violence, and pay equity.

During this period the internal management of the organisation grew increasingly complex. The rapid adoption of digital technology required multi-platform engagement, and this in turn required appropriately qualified staff, on salaries commensurate with their expertise.

However, it was the 2008 global financial crisis which had the severest impact on NCWNZ’s financial sustainability.  The reduced income from the Centennial Fund investments compromised funding for administration costs; at the same time, the Ministry of Social Development contracts and other annual grants became highly contestable. These changes, coinciding with what was identified as the ‘marketisation of the charitable sector’, [13] had far-reaching effects.

To increase credibility and success in funding applications, in 2009 NCWNZ successfully completed registration to gain charitable status under the Charities Act 2005.  However, in August 2010 NCWNZ was deregistered, on the grounds that the Council’s work was political and therefore not charitable. The negative impact of this decision on funding applications and on income tax liability seriously threatened the financial viability of the organisation.

After an expensive and time-consuming fight for justice, in 2016 NCWNZ’s lawyer Sue Barker successfully won a High Court case against Inland Revenue and the Department of Internal Affairs Charities Services Registration Board, by proving to the judge that the deregistration was totally unjustified and that the not-for-profit altruistic work of NCWNZ contributed to the civil good. This decision was also an important precedent for other charities. 

Although this six year interregnum of funding uncertainty took a toll on the momentum of the organisation, the board stoically continued to work for the empowerment of women and to keep the vision of NCWNZ and the ideals of its members paramount.  The most significant achievement was the publication in 2015 of the white paper, Enabling Women’s Potential. [14] This comprehensive discussion paper made 12 recommendations for action to achieve substantive equality.

The decision was made that over 2016–17, NCWNZ would refocus resources to address the culture of gender inequality in New Zealand, and to research and monitor institutional and unconscious bias in four key areas: safety and health, economic independence, education, and influence and decision-making.  Gender Equal NZ was launched in September 2017 with three strategic work programmes: the Gender Attitudes Survey, the Gender Dashboard and the Gender Culture Taskforce.

Vanisa Dhiru

Vanisa Dhiru.

Vanisa Dhiru, who was appointed president of the National Council of Women of New Zealand Te Kaunihera Wahine O Aotearoa in 2017

NCWNZ had always constantly examined its strategic directions and capabilities.  In the 2010s, an orientation towards ‘hybridity’ emerged. This has been identified [15] as being where the external pressures of contracting and grants drive governance and organisational changes, including the role of paid staff. In 2016, after nearly two years of debate around the concept, NCWNZ members accepted a constitutional change mandating that the six members of the board were to be elected from a shortlist of applicants selected on skills-based criteria, rather than the traditional process of electing board members from candidates who had leadership experience within the organisation. Further constitutional changes created a national individual membership category, enabling direct personal electronic engagement as an option to physical branch membership.

These substantial changes were potentially challenging to the collectivism and collaboration characteristic of NCWNZ. However, strategies of positive and targeted engagements and social media activity built diverse and inclusive relationships with a much broader community spectrum. Concurrently, NCWNZ continued to be an effective NGO voice in the CEDAW process and in delegations to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the International Council of Women (ICW), and the Asia Pacific Regional Council meetings (ARPC-ICW). 

The 2018 celebration of the 125th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage also focused on the contemporary work of this organisation founded by Kate Sheppard. As NCWNZ National President Vanisa Dhiru said:

We are fighting for gender equality because we want all New Zealanders to have the freedom and opportunity to determine their own future. Discrimination can be more subtle than it once was. We see it in our everyday interactions, with gender inequality being revealed in attitudes and assumptions. For some, gender inequality is more obvious.  For all of us, the job is not done. [16]


[1] Hilda Lovell-Smith, Minutes of Conference, 1929, p. 4. 

[2] Constitution of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and Minutes of the First Meeting, 1896, p. 1.

[3] The National Council of the Women of New Zealand, 1901, p. 28; 1902, p. 26.

[4] Constitution of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and Minutes of the First Meeting, 1896, p. 6.

[5] The National Council of the Women of New Zealand, 1899, p. 10. By 'the Unfit' was meant the mentally, physically and morally weak, including the idle wealthy.

[6] Minutes of Conference, 1919.

[7] Minutes of Conference, 1919.

[8] NCWNZ Annual Report, 1994.

[9] Page, Dorothy, 1996.

[10] NCWNZ  Annual Report, 2002.

[11] NCWNZ Annual Report, 2010.

[12] NCWNZ Annual Report, 2006.

[13] See Webster, P., ‘The marketisation of charitable organisations in social development’, Unpublished PhD thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand, 2015.

[14] NCWNZ, ‘Enabling Women’s Potential – The Social, Economic and Ethical Imperative’, White Paper, NCWNZ, 2015.

[15] Webster, P., 2015, p. 54.

[16] NCWNZ, ‘Gender Equal NZ 2018’, NCWNZ, 2018. Available from:

Unpublished sources

H.K. Lovell-Smith collection, ATL

Knox, Patricia, 'The National Council of Women of New Zealand: The Second Phase, 1929–1940', BA (Hons) research essay, University of Otago, 1982

National Council of Women of New Zealand collection, 1896–1973, ATL

NCWNZ, Circular, 1958–1992; Register of Resolutions, 1896–1991; Submissions, 1968–1992; other records, 1974–1992, NCWNZ National Office, Wellington

NCWNZ records, 1993–2018, NCWNZ National Office, Wellington

Published sources

Bell, C. and V. Adair, Women and Change: A Study of New Zealand Women, NCWNZ, Wellington, 1985

Bulletin of the National Council of Women, 1928–1929

Holt, Betty, with Joyce Herd and Dorothea Horsman, Women in Council: A History of the National Council of Women of New Zealand. 1896–1979, NCWNZ, Wellington, 1980

National Council of Women News, 1924–1926

National Council of Women Quarterly, 1967–1975

New Zealand Women in Council, 1952–1960

Page, Dorothy, The National Council of Women: A Centennial History, Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books, Auckland, 1996

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