National Organisation for Women (NOW)

1972 –

National Organisation for Women (NOW)

1972 –

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. It was updated by Raewyn Dalziel in 2018.

1972 – 1993

The first New Zealand groups of the National Organisation for Women (NOW) were formed in 1972. They were modelled on NOW in the USA, an organisation established in 1966 by Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique. [1] NOW groups were autonomous, although all shared the goals of achieving full equality for women in the law, the workplace, education and family life. Members were committed to working actively to eliminate discrimination. In the 1980s most of the NOW groups disbanded, and by 1992 only Christchurch and Marlborough survived.

Although part of the feminist movement, NOW was different from the women's liberation groups of the early 1970s. It was more structured and men were able to become members (few did so). NOW grew very quickly. Its arrival in New Zealand was announced from upturned beer crates in Auckland's Vulcan Lane in November 1971 by spokesperson Sharyn Cederman and two visiting American cabaret artists. The Auckland group had 250 members within a month of its first meeting in February 1972, and 400 by the end of the year. The Christchurch group first met in June 1972 and had 150 members within a year.

The organisation held a liberal feminist ideology which appealed to educated women in their late twenties and thirties, whose careers were often fairly well established and who wished to bring about change in an orderly, constitutional way. They were already well versed in feminism and strategically placed to influence the media, politicians and professional groups. Providing speakers to address other women's groups, schools and even prison inmates on the status of women and discrimination was a major activity for NOW. It was able to convene large public meetings on issues such as education, women's health, violence against women and women's legal position, thus raising awareness far beyond its membership.

In 1973–74 NOW Wellington surveyed all MPs on their attitudes to women's issues, concluding that 'few MPs had considered women's issues seriously'. [2] Members of NOW became practised and skilled lobbyists for women.

TVNZ.

Connie Purdue talks about the setting up of NOW.

Contraception and abortion were major issues in the early days of NOW. In Auckland the inaugural meeting of NOW was chaired by Connie Purdue, a long time trade unionist and campaigner for women's rights, but an opponent of abortion. Purdue became the first president of the Auckland group. In July 1972 the executive of Auckland NOW agreed to have no policy on abortion and advised members interested in the issue to join other organisations. This policy was reaffirmed in 1973. However, in 1974, with Cherry Raymond as president, Auckland NOW decided to support the free availability of contraceptives to under-sixteens. A number of women resigned in protest. Other NOW groups, notably Wellington and Christchurch, supported women's right to abortion; in July 1975 NOW adopted a policy statement advocating the 'fundamental right of a woman to follow the dictates of her own conscience regarding the termination of her pregnancy'. [3]

NOW groups co-operated with other women's organisations, in particular the Society for Research on Women, the Women's Electoral Lobby, rape crisis centres and women's refuges. NOW also sponsored the formation of groups such as Maternity Action Alliance in Christchurch. Nevertheless, NOW sat rather nervously in the centre of the women's movement, viewing feminists to the right and left warily. The NOW Christchurch Newsletter of June 1977, reporting on the recent United Women's Convention, commented that 'radicals, lesbians and conservatives should have restrained themselves and shown more tolerance for the feelings of the vast majority'. [4]

Some NOW groups belonged to the National Council of Women (NCW), but this was not an easy affiliation. In April 1979 Auckland NOW left the NCW, frustrated by its slow response to issues and its stance on abortion. NOW tried to take on a co-ordinating role among newer, liberal women's groups, but was not very successful. NOW groups kept in touch nationally through the exchange of local newsletters and attendance at the United Women's Conventions of the 1970s, but it was essentially a national organisation without a national body.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s NOW was in some trouble. Women who had founded the organisation in the early, enthusiastic days of second-wave feminism discovered they were an elite without a following. Meetings grew smaller as women moved off to form other organisations or to pursue careers, and were not replaced. Some groups experimented with collectives instead of committees, but could not stem the decline. The Auckland group folded in 1983.

However, during the 1984 election campaign and the term of the Labour government which followed, NOW groups still in existence had a regeneration. Christchurch NOW, co-ordinated by Betty Roberts, was very active in writing to MPs, making submissions to parliamentary committees and issuing statements to the press on Labour's women's policy and government initiatives on women's issues. The group also waged a newsworthy campaign against beauty contests. Marlborough NOW, established in 1975, had 35 members in 1993, and operated as a collective, actively addressing political issues and working for change in women's lives.

Raewyn Dalziel

1994 – 1999

The National Organisation for Women had become almost defunct when New Zealand celebrated the centennial of women’s suffrage in 1993.  Over the next six years the last two local groups, in Christchurch and Marlborough, were disestablished.  NOW in New Zealand had never had the same grassroots appeal to feminist activists that the organisation had in the United States, where it still had a lively membership in 2018.  The leaders of NOW turned to other causes, some, such as Sharyn Cederman, taking their feminism into the corporate world, and others, such as Betty Roberts, taking up local community projects.    

Raewyn Dalziel

Notes

[1] Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique, W. W. Norton, 1963.

[2] MP's Attitudes to Women's Issues, NOW, Wellington, 1975, p. i.

[3] NOW pamphlet, 'For Equality Against Discrimination', Auckland, 1975.

[4] NOW Christchurch Newsletter, No. 47, June 1977.

Unpublished sources

NOW Auckland records, 1972–1983, ATL

NOW Christchurch records, 1972–1992, formerly in possession of Susan Dunbier, Christchurch

NOW Wellington records, 1972–1975, ATL

Published sources

NOW Christchurch Newsletter, 1976–1989

NOW Auckland Newsletter, 1975–1983

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