New Zealand Co-operative Women’s Guild

1928 – 1965

New Zealand Co-operative Women’s Guild

1928 – 1965

Theme: Service

This essay written by Fiona McKergow was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

The New Zealand Co-operative Women's Guild (NZCWG) was the female wing of the expanding co-operative trading movement of the 1930s. Through small, community-based guilds, women were encouraged to benefit from co-operative stores where available, and were educated in the aims and ideals of the movement. Guilds were an important link between housewives and the male dominated trading societies, and helped foster a sense of community among working class women.

Co-operative trading developed as a system of mutual aid in response to economic hardship. Trading societies purchased in bulk from primary producers and supplied their members through co-operative stores at a price which eliminated retailers' profits. All members were part-owners in the enterprise, and any clear profits reverted to them as dividends or amenities.

Working class immigrants from Britain introduced the concept of co-operative trading to New Zealand in the late nineteenth century, when they established co-operative stores selling food and other groceries. Most of these early ventures were short-lived, however, and co-operative women's guilds were not formed, as they had been in Britain.

From 1935 to 1950 there was a dramatic increase in the number of co-operative stores, predominantly in working class communities. The Depression and a sympathetic political climate under the first Labour government (1935–49) were important catalysts for this expansion. In 1933 the New Zealand Co-operative Alliance (NZCA) was formed, to promote the establishment of new consumer co-operatives and to unite existing ones.

Although men dominated the leadership of trading societies, a substantial proportion of members were women. Co-operative women's guilds resulted from a growing awareness of the importance of women, as responsible buyers, to the success of the movement. The first guild was established in Runanga, Westland, in 1928. From 1933 the formation of women's guilds was promoted by Elizabeth Huntington, an NZCA secretary, with support from established guilds in Runanga and Nelson. The International Co-operative Women's Guild, formed in 1921, also provided guidance and support. By mid 1936 there were guilds in Palmerston North, Whanganui, Dannevirke, Lower Hutt and Wellington. Provisional women's committees had begun to operate alongside trading societies in Levin, Carterton and Woodville. Guilds were often established by women with previous involvement in the co-operative trading movement in Britain. Among them was Catherine Stewart, a future Labour MP, who helped found the Wellington-based Women's Central Co-operative Committee in 1934. Links with the Labour Party were common and guilds tended to be politically progressive, although their membership was open to all women.

The guilds had a strong educational role. Monthly meetings featured speakers not only on topics relating to co-operation and consumer issues, but also on subjects such as the district nursing scheme, family planning and world peace. Members were encouraged to become more active in public life. Leaders of the Westport guild, seeing that 'educative interests for women were lacking' there, encouraged members 'to think, to read deeply, to form individual opinions' and to become 'builders and leaders' within their community. [1]

Guilds were valued as a social outlet; women with heavy domestic workloads benefited from friendly, entertaining meetings. Cooking and needlework competitions were held, for the 'best butter sponge' or the 'best item from a sugar bag'. [2] Craft demonstrations included activities such as quilting, smocking, brass work, and making wool rugs, shoulder sprays and rubber mats. Songs and games were popular. Members also undertook community welfare work, including visiting the sick or elderly.

In August 1936 the NZCWG was formed, with Edith Neiderer as president and Elizabeth Huntington as secretary. Its role was to promote the formation of new guilds, and to link existing ones, primarily through yearly conferences and a newsletter. Conferences focused on the development of the co-operative movement, consumer issues and other topics relating to the status and well-being of women and children. The 1941 conference, for instance, urged the government to implement 'equal pay for equal work'.

Although co-operative women's guilds were now organised on a national basis, the movement was small, comprising no more than about eighteen guilds at its peak. In 1940 Edith How Martyn, a visiting English feminist, commented that New Zealanders were too prosperous for the movement to become as entrenched as it was in Britain, where guildswomen numbered 87,000 in 1939. New Zealand guilds were often short-lived; the Dannevirke guild, formed in 1936, was forced into recess when the trading society closed in 1939. The Manawatu guild (1936–57), one of the longest-lived, was linked to the successful Manawatu Consumers' Co-operative Society, which operated 1935–87.

After World War II, the Labour government supported the formation of consumer co-operatives in new state housing areas, including Taita and Naenae in the Hutt Valley. Guilds were particularly important in these areas, where amenities such as public transport, schools and shops were initially lacking or inadequate. The Taita guild, formed in 1946, supported any initiative which improved local conditions; the social contact it provided helped young mothers overcome isolation and hardship, and fostered a strong sense of community.

In the prosperous 1950s, the financial motivation for the co-operative movement weakened. Women's guilds began to suffer reduced membership, and declining support for co-operative stores resulted in the closure of many trading societies. By 1956 only four guilds remained, in Auckland, Taita, Brunner and Manawatu. The political climate had also changed under the National government (1949–57), and co-operative stores became less viable with the introduction of new taxation measures.

Many prominent guildswomen retained their commitment to the socialist and pacifist ideals of the movement, however, continuing to see co-operation as a solution to many of the world's problems. Auckland guildswomen believed that the main hindrance to co-operative trading in New Zealand was the lack of long traditions, training and experience. In 1953 they made a renewed effort to encourage members to attend trading society meetings and to become 'Owner-Member-Controllers of their own businesses'. [3] The guild survived until 1960, despite the difficulties of a small and scattered membership.

Competition from larger women's organisations, such as the Country Women's Institutes and the League of Mothers, was another factor which led to the demise of the guilds. In 1960 the NZCWG was disbanded and its assets were diverted to the Taita guild, which continued to operate until 1965, when the trading society was eventually sold.

Fiona McKergow


[1] Woman To-Day, Vol. 2 No. 9, December 1938, p. 7. Newsletter, March/April 1953, p. 2.

[2] Dannevirke Co-operative Women's Guild minutes, 1916–39, ATL.

[3] New Zealand Co-operative Women's Guild Newsletter, March/April 1953, p. 2.

Unpublished sources

Edith How Martyn Papers, 1940-1941, ATL

Ellis, Vivienne, interviewed by Fiona McKergow, Taita, January 1992

New Zealand Co-operative Women's Guild records, 1936–1961, ATL

Published sources

Caffin, Jean and David Thoms, Caring and Sharing: The Centenary History of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, 1883–1983, Co-operative Union Ltd, Manchester, 1983

New Zealand Co-operator, 1933–1938

Sharp, Evelyn, Buyers and Builders: A Jubilee Sketch of The Women's Co-operative Guild, 1883 to 1933, Women's Co-operative Guild, London, 1933

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