New Plymouth Women’s Centre

1975 –

New Plymouth Women’s Centre

1975 –

Theme: Welfare

This essay written by Ngaropi Cameron, Beryl Allison and Jan Marie was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Lesley Olley, Carolyn Walsh, Gallia Therin and Mary Allen in 2018.

1975 – 1993

The New Plymouth Women's Centre was the first of about twenty women's centres established throughout New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s as part of the second wave of feminism. Run by collectives of volunteers, sometimes with paid co-ordinators, these centres provided a safe and supportive environment for all women, and offered a wide range of services and resources, from drop-in facilities to self-help courses, workshops, and support groups. Centres also often acted as an umbrella for other women's groups. Finding permanent premises and funding could be a major challenge for women's centres, whose feminist programme sometimes counted against them.

The New Plymouth Women's Centre was initiated by the Women's Action Group, which saw the need for a women-only space in the city. In May 1975 the centre was established in an old house belonging to the New Plymouth City Council, which was still its landlord in 1993. In January 1976 the centre received a grant from the International Women's Year Co-ordinating Committee.

Soon the centre had to move to another council property, where a large rates bill meant two years of continuous fundraising. From 1977 to 1986 the centre was based rent-free in the city's first community house, moving to permanent space in the new community house in 1987.

During the early years a recurring worry of members was the perceived under-use of the centre. Many of the activities organised to remedy this became part of the centre's regular programme, which included courses such as Self-esteem and Assertiveness for Women, Creative Visualisation, and Communication with Children; discussion groups and guest speakers; pro-woman counselling; exhibitions of women's creative work; and social activities. The centre also provided an information and referral service to other agencies, a reference library, childcare for women attending centre activities, a monthly newsletter, and meeting rooms and support for other New Plymouth women's groups. In this way it helped to establish, for example, Women's Refuge, Rape Crisis, and the Women's Health Group. In 1993 the centre had 50 subscribing members, and an estimated 2000 women were using it each year.

In the 1980s, Department of Labour funding enabled the centre to employ women for several projects, including a Sexual Abuse lecture series, and organising the 1986 Women's Studies Association  Conference. The desire to attract more Māori women led to language classes, a bicultural hui, and organisation of the 1987 Māori Women's Welfare League Conference.

Over the years the centre faced recurring tensions among members. Initially debate focused on whether to adopt a radical or a conservative stance; the temptation to compromise the centre's aims in order to attract funding was, however, firmly rejected. While individual lesbians became members and, at times, employees, many lesbians felt more comfortable socialising outside the centre. In 1988 a challenge from Māori members and workers concerned their need to function according to their own cultural values. This controversy led to the withdrawal of Department of Social Welfare funding—a major source of income. Following an independent enquiry by respected Māori feminist Ephra Garrett, the funding was eventually reinstated. The outcome of this difficult period was an amendment to the constitution in 1989 to include a policy of parallel development. A Māori women's group, Te Rōpū o Ngā Wāhine o Taranaki, committed to a whanau-based approach to meeting women's needs, shared the centre's resources with the non-Māori or Tauiwi group, which was committed to a feminist perspective. Both were autonomous in their decision making and goal setting, and ran separate programmes.

In the 1990s the centre was administered by a management group consisting of four members elected by the Māori group and four by the non-Māori. There was no full-time paid co-ordinator, although some women received a small payment for specific tasks. A team of rostered volunteers ran the centre on a day-to-day basis. Training programmes for volunteers confronted homophobia, racism and sexism; while this caused some to drop out, it safeguarded the centre's philosophy.

Ngaropi Cameron, Beryl Allison, Jan Marie

1994 – 2018

In 2018, much of the Centre’s work involved providing support and advocacy for women and their families, who, for a variety of reasons, found themselves in need of somewhere safe to go, someone to talk with, and a network of other agencies and professionals if required.

The effects of increasing poverty since 1993 resulted in many more people feeling disenfranchised and marginalised. Changes in mental health legislation also contributed to the need for support in areas of socialisation, isolation, protection and advocacy.

The Centre was fully reliant on community grants, donations and philanthropic funding to remain open and staffed. It was typical of other community organisations in that there was very little security, given that any drop in funding could see the doors close. This situation inevitably had an effect on the ability to plan ahead, and also on job security; but even with these limitations, the Centre flourished and remained relevant to the changing needs of the community.

Support from the New Plymouth Council in the form of affordable rental played a crucial part in keeping the Centre open. If the Women’s Centre had had to pay commercial rent, it would not exist. 

Key contributors to the evolution of the Centre from 2000 included Janice Taylor, Dianne Parkinson, Glen Hay, Annette Cameron, Mary Allen, Carolyn Walsh, and Gallia Therin, plus volunteers Angela Hufton and Lesley Olley, who had first received help from and worked for the Centre in the 1980s: ‘Within the shelter of WC, I was able to consolidate my damaged ‘self’ enough to begin to work with other victims under the auspices of the Rape Crisis movement, eventually being employed as a Coordinator and volunteer counsellor.’ She felt that in 2018, the Centre operated with a less ideological, ‘warmer, more inclusive, non-judgemental philosophy’ than had sometimes been the case in the past. [1]

By 2018 the two paid staff, Mary Allen and Carolyn Walsh, with regular volunteer Gallia Therin, had been working together for more than 10 years. They all agreed that they had stayed because they believed in the individual and collective power of women and their ability to change and create change within themselves and their communities.

Women's advocate Mary Allen, 2015

Stuff Limited

Women's advocate Mary Allen, at the time of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the New Plymouth Women's Centre in 2015.

Mary Allen, at the Centre since 2004, was the empathetic, listening face who helped all-comers, and had a vital role in emergency housing management. She also represented the Centre in other spheres around New Plymouth/Taranaki. Gallia Therin had been a volunteer for almost fifteen years, working with clients in providing support, thinking outside the square and being challenged by the need to be non-judgemental, and willing to do whatever she could to support the ongoing work of the Centre and the women and families in need of practical advice and support. She was often in the background, cranking up a delicious meal of soup or vegetable rice for all comers.

Carolyn Walsh, employed as the Administration/Financial Manager from 2007, carried WC out of debt and from a place of ‘financial struggle’. She and the other volunteers furnished the Centre and created the raised planters for a flourishing garden. She put processes in place to ensure funding requirements were met, and her background in print and design enabled the Centre to have a more professional profile. She saw the Centre as a safe place for fostering social connections, helping women in crisis and providing a sense of community.

Yoga classes had been run for more than a decade, leading to a set of women with a degree of personal knowledge and expertise on the benefits and pleasure of yoga, alongside the camaraderie enjoyed by all the participants. The knitting group provided a similar setting: it could be difficult to find a seat amongst all those who came along to learn, share and laugh. Displaying the finished garments was often a momentous occasion, especially for those who had arrived as beginners.

Women’s suffrage projects for the 125th anniversary created a flurry of activity, with a celebratory women’s breakfast on 19 September. The Centre also linked with other women’s groups and local suffrage celebrations to honour the work of those who had gone before to attain the vote. The fact that little resourcing was available to cover costs, with no Suffrage 125 grants coming to Taranaki, stymied a more varied celebration of this important event.

In 2018 the future for the Centre depended on women from all backgrounds acknowledging the importance of supporting women and their families, and would clearly bring its own new challenges.

Lesley Olley, Carolyn Walsh, Gallia Therin, Mary Allen

Notes

[1] Lesley Olley, personal communication, October 2018.

Published sources

Garrett, Ephra M., Report on the New Plymouth Women's Centre Re Funding Under the Department of Social Welfare’s Family Services Funding Programme, New Plymouth Women’s Centre, New Plymouth, 1989

Gill, Elaine, Robbie Greenwood, and Karen Johns, Our Herstory: New Plymouth Women's Centre, New Plymouth Women's Centre, New Plymouth, 1985

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