National Party Women's Sections

1936 –

National Party Women's Sections

1936 –

Theme: Political

This essay written by Sue Wood and Cheryl A. Parsons was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Cheryl A. Parsons in 2018.

1936 – 1993

Until the 1960s, most women joining the National Party did so through its women's sections, where their tasks were to canvass for new members, raise funds, organise social functions, raise awareness of wider political issues through discussions at monthly meetings, and contribute to Party policy by putting forward remits on issues of concern to women. After that, however, women increasingly became involved in the mainstream of the Party, and by 1992 only about one third of all electorates had a women's section.

Each women's section operated as part of the electorate organisation. From 1985 each of the Party's five regional divisions also had a Divisional Women's Committee, consisting of two representatives from each electorate, whose role it was to discuss and formulate policy; its chairwoman sat on the Divisional Council.

When the National Party was formed in 1936 from a coalition of the Liberal and Reform Parties, its women's sections grew out of the remnants of the Reform Party's women's auxiliaries. Membership grew rapidly; in 1938, for example, there were eight women's sections in Invercargill, and Auckland had a women's section in every electorate, with a total membership of 5000.

Leaders of the women's sections tended to have responsibilities in the wider community. [1] Speaking in August 1937, Keith Holyoake claimed it was the Party's emphasis on individualism which attracted women members: 'it had often been said that farmers were the last stronghold of individualism, but he considered that in this country women would be the last to lend themselves to socialism'. [2] Although Party leaders acknowledged the role of women, both in fending off the threat of socialism and in raising funds and maintaining the grass-roots organisation, women did not gain representation in their own right on the Party's governing body until the 1960s.

From the outset the Party's rules made provision for a women's vice-president, who represented the women's sections at the biannual meeting of the Dominion Council; the position alternated between the North and South Islands. Although the rules also stated 'the desirability' of one divisional representative to the council being a woman, this slot was, until the 1960s, filled by the women's vice-president. The implied 'women's quota' of one meant that women attended Party conferences almost exclusively as representatives of the women's sections.

In the National Party's first 40 years, few women seeking selection as parliamentary candidates were successful. In 1942 Mary Grigg became the first National woman MP when she filled the seat vacated by the death of her husband; Hilda Ross, until 1990 the only woman to become a minister in a National Cabinet, followed in 1945.

Debutante ball organised by the Otahuhu National Party Women's Division, 1950s

Barry Gustafson

Some participants in an annual debutante ball organised by the Otahuhu National Party Women's Division during the 1950s. Doreen Bray, Women's Division president and dominant figure in Auckland National Party politics, is seated second from left.

The first major breakthrough for Party women came when Dorothy McNab from Balclutha (1966) and Alice Wylie from Mt Albert (1967) were elected to represent their divisions on the Dominion Council. McNab was the first woman to join the executive from the Party's mainstream, rather than the women's sections; in 1976 she was the first woman to chair a division and thus become a vice-president in her own right.

Following National's 1972 election defeat, the Party embarked on a vigorous review. One important outcome, championed by McNab, was the establishment in 1974 of the new position of woman vice-president to represent all women in the Party, with the same status as the five divisional vice-presidents. Apart from the Party president, it was the only position elected by the full conference.

The first woman vice-president, Helen Carmichael (1974–76), worked with McNab and other Party leaders to set up policy discussion groups for the 1975 election manifesto, which included a comprehensive women's policy. With National back in government, Party women continued to encourage progressive legislation affecting women, such as the Matrimonial Property Act, human rights legislation and equal pay.

Politically active women joining the Party in the 1970s largely rejected the traditional women's section role of fundraising and catering. They wanted full and equal participation in the Party – in candidate selection, at conferences, and in policy formulation. They achieved much – by 1992 women had chaired three of the Party's divisions, and had held most other leadership positions. But Carmichael and her successors, Julie Cameron (1976–77) and Sue Wood (1977– 82), had difficulty managing the tension that persisted between women working in the mainstream of the Party, and the older, extremely loyal workers in the women's sections, who in the decade that followed saw their influence gradually declining.

The next significant step came in 1979, when Wood was the first woman to be elected to the Party's powerful six-person policy committee, previously made up of the Party leader, two MPs, the president and two divisional chairmen. In 1982 Wood was elected Party president, a position she held for four years. In the 1980s, woman vice-president Maureen Eardley-Wilmot founded the Dame Hilda Ross Memorial Fund to support and inspire women to be involved at all levels of the Party.

During the 1980s, as women's representation within the Party increased, so too did the number of National women parliamentary candidates. In 1990 the incoming National government appointed three of its eight women MPs to Cabinet, including Ruth Richardson as New Zealand's first woman Minister of Finance.

Although the Divisional Women's Committees came to partially replace the women's sections at regional level, at local level the sections continued to support their electorate organisations by canvassing for members, fundraising, and raising political awareness among women. The women's sections played an important role in the history of the National Party, especially in its early decades, and their members acquired valuable skills, experience and lifelong friendships from their involvement.

Sue Wood and Cheryl A. Parsons

1994 – 2018

The 1990s introduced MMP governments to New Zealand, and the role of women in the National Party organisation also changed significantly. Following the Party’s election losses in 1999 and 2002, structural reviews disestablished the role of woman vice-president and the Divisional Women’s Committees.

The Party became governed by a Board of nine members (seven Party members, elected at National Conferences, the Party Leader, and a Caucus representative). Provision was made for special interest groups of members and supporters with common backgrounds, philosophical identity, ethnicity etc. Policy advisory groups were also put in place.

About twenty of these groups were formed, including a women’s advisory group in Auckland; however, by 2018 this was inactive. Women’s sections remained in one or two provincial electorates; these operated under the auspices of their electorate organisation and were mainly involved in fundraising and social activities.

The main focus in Party activity was campaign organisation, with the specific purpose of increasing the Party vote in every electorate at the general election. By 2018, essentially the National Party had changed from a grass-roots organisation with two pillars of influence – the Parliamentary Wing and the Organisational Wing – into a top-down structure, which looked to its Caucus members to provide leadership in electorate activities, fundraising, and running election campaigns.

The Dame Hilda Ross Memorial Fund had become a Foundation, chaired in 2018 by Hon. Paula Bennett. Its Executive was made up of the four members of the Board and a number of women Caucus members. The Foundation proactively raised funds to support women candidate aspirants and provide them with additional support and training. In 2018 the Foundation was planning a 2019 conference for women who might wish to be involved in centre right politics.

In 1997 the National Party caucus selected Jenny Shipley (later Dame Jenny Shipley) to be New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister. By 2018 there were nineteen National women MPs, including eight with executive experience, and the National Party Board had four female members. Women members and supporters were involved in most special interest groups (such as BlueGreens, SuperBlues, and Policy Advisory), or in their local electorate committees.

Cheryl A. Parsons


[1] Audrey Gale, for example, a founding chairwoman of the New Plymouth women's section (1951), a member of the Party's Dominion Council (1951–54) and of its Dominion Policy Advisory Committee (1956), was also a member of the New Plymouth City Council and the Historic Places Trust, the first woman member of the Victoria University Council, chairman of the Taranaki Museum Board, president of the Taranaki branch of the Federation of University Women, and a founder of New Plymouth's first free kindergarten.

[2] Evening Post, 8 August 1938.

Unpublished sources

New Zealand National Party records, 1935–1945, ATL

Published sources

Gustafson, Barry, The First 5O Years: A History of the New Zealand National Party, Reed Methuen, Auckland, 1986

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