New Zealand Medical Women’s Association

1921 – 2003

New Zealand Medical Women’s Association

1921 – 2003

Theme: Employment

This essay written by Kathleen Anderson was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Anne Else in 2018.


The New Zealand Medical Women's Association (NZMWA) was formed to 'further the interests of Medical Women in New Zealand, and to promote professional association between members by holding meetings at which papers may be given and other matters of interest discussed'. [1] Open to all women doctors, by 1993 the association had branches in Auckland, Taranaki, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin; the national executive was regularly rotated among them. In 1992 there were approximately 280 members.

In October 1921, on the initiative of Dr Emily Siedeberg, seven women doctors met in Dunedin to discuss the establishment of a women doctors' association. A letter of introduction was then sent to women doctors across the country, inviting them to join. The new association published a formal set of aims in the New Zealand Medical Journal in April 1923, and adopted the constitution of the Federation of British Medical Women.

Portrait photo of Emily Siedeberg in graduation gown and wearing mortarboard cap

Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, PC 00 1382

Emily Hancock Siedeberg, founder and first president of the New Zealand Medical Women's Association.

A women's medical society had apparently existed in Dunedin prior to 1921, but little is known about it. [2] Since 1892, when specific new rules were adopted, women doctors had also been eligible to join the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association (NZBMA), and many regularly attended its meetings.

One possible reason for forming their own association was the difficulties women doctors faced in setting up in general practice, and the NZMWA aimed to keep lists of possible practices for sale. A more fundamental reason was that similar associations were already well established overseas.

The Dunedin-based association began as a parallel institution to the NZBMA, and meetings were designed to coincide with NZBMA conferences. The association sought to form branches in other centres; although it received a letter from Dr Hilda Northcroft in 1926 explaining that 'medical women in Auckland have no time for meetings', [3] branches were formed in both Auckland and Wellington in 1928. A Christchurch branch was not formed until 1954. By 1939, Wellington's membership had declined and the branch went into recess until 1971. Dunedin remained the national headquarters until 1965, when the Auckland branch took over that role.

In 1923 the association joined the Medical Women's International Association (MWIA, founded in 1919), and regularly sent delegates to MWIA conferences; in 1929 it joined the Pan-Pacific Women's Association and affiliated to the National Council of Women (NCW). In the 1920s and 1930s many women doctors, particularly those who were single, played leading roles in NCW and the New Zealand Federation of University Women, and were outspoken in their views on the advancement of women.

Membership in the early years consisted of two distinct groups: practising single women, and non-practising married women, whose NZMWA membership enabled them to keep in touch with medicine. Married women doctors did not find it easy to combine family responsibilities with a career.

NZMWA members were drawn to issues that were important to them as women, and talks at branch meetings reflected world-wide concerns about child and maternal health, birth control, mental health, research advances and abortion. The dominant ideology of the inter-war years was that if women were to have a public and professional role, then it should somehow mirror their traditional responsibilities as mothers and moral educators. This ideology also gave women doctors a distinct and acceptable role within the medical profession.

Although women doctors acquiesced in (and sometimes enthusiastically took up) this role, they were quick to defend their equal rights to career opportunities. During the 1930s and 1940s the Auckland branch repeatedly asked the Auckland Hospital Board to provide accommodation for women residents, so that women doctors could be appointed to hospital residencies.

NZMWA activities stopped during World War II because women doctors were too busy, and many married members had returned temporarily to work in under-staffed hospitals or the Department of Health. When branch meetings resumed in Auckland in 1943 and in Dunedin in 1945, the number of women doctors attending had more than doubled.

During the 1950s the NZMWA supported the fledgling New Zealand Family Planning Association (NZFPA); a number of women doctors worked in its clinics, or served on its executive. In 1960, however, the ethical committee of the NZBMA stated that it was inadvisable for members of the medical profession to accept employment within the NZFPA. Dr Alice Bush, an active member of the NZMWA's Auckland branch and president of the NZFPA, opposed the ruling. She and other NZFPA doctors wrote to the New Zealand Medical Journal, stressing the advantages of giving women detailed instruction in contraceptive use, and arguing that, as the clinics would continue to function anyway, it was better for them to do so 'under the supervision and with the co-operation of the medical profession'. [4] In 1961 Dr Bush led an NZFPA delegation to meet with a special NZBMA sub-committee, which later recommended that the ruling be overturned.

The NZMWA's membership fell during the 1950s, although attempts were made to rekindle interest among lapsed members and to recruit new ones. But the association failed to attract younger members of the profession, and many women doctors preferred to join organisations in their own specialist field. By 1969 only 131 out of 531 registered women doctors were members, and less than half of these regularly attended meetings.

During the 1970s interest in the association increased, coinciding with the resurgence of the women's movement. There was a proliferation of questionnaires and published research material on medical women's problems and achievements. Meetings focused on career prospects, childcare, part-time work and returning-to-work schemes, and post-graduate training problems, reflecting both the influx of women into medicine, and new feminist concerns. The association also made submissions, for example, to the Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion (1975–76), and later to the Select Committee on the Health and Disabilities Services Bill. The Auckland Branch also established

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, membership again declined and the Dunedin and Christchurch branches went temporarily into recess. [5] Increased specialisation and individual workloads, together with renewed conservatism, were possible factors.

Nevertheless, in the 1980s and early 1990s NZMWA representatives played a major role in conferences, commissions and special working parties on health issues, particularly those affecting women, and women's place in medicine. An association magazine, The New Zealand Woman Doctor (1990–92), and later a regular newsletter, kept women doctors in touch with NZMWA activities, covering women's health issues, legislative changes and reforms associated with health care, and problems facing women doctors in their practices. Regular liaison was maintained with women medical students, to provide support and advice on career opportunities and training pathways. In addition to its political and professional focus, the association's social activities at branch level continued to be important to members.

Kathleen Anderson


The NZMWA continued for another ten years, then went into recess in 2003. There were sufficient funds to establish the New Zealand Medical Women's Association Elective Award at the Auckland medical school in 2005 (replacing the Auckland Branch award), to assist a final year woman medical student to undertake an elective focusing on the health of women and children. In 2008, a similar award was established at the Otago medical school. By 2018 an oral history archive, begun in the 1990s, was also nearing completion.

Dr Aine McCoy, who had joined NZMWA in 1983, recalled that it had given its members ‘the courage to go out and participate, be on [wider professional] committees and play our part.’ The main reasons for going into recess were ‘lack of interest and a belief that it was not needed’. [6] Younger women doctors were also less interested in joining a formally structured organisation. By then they were also beginning to be less subject to career barriers than in the past, but having more access to senior positions left them even more short of spare time for organising.

By 2012, although the medical workforce was still 59 per cent male, women made up 52 percent of all medical trainees, and between 45 and 47 per cent of those working in pediatrics, public health medicine, primary care and general practice. They were also more likely to be under the age of 40 (45 per cent) than were male doctors (28 per cent). In 1990 only 9 per cent of specialists had been women; by 2012, this had risen to 30 per cent. However, only 9 per cent of those working in surgical specialities were female. [7]

The core issues which had prompted women doctors to set up the NZMWA, including combining medical work with family responsibilities, remained relevant. A 2016 survey for the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) found that while the prevalence of burnout among senior doctors and dentists working at New Zealand’s 20 District Health Boards was 50 per cent, among women specialists aged 30–39 it was 70 per cent. As well as workload pressures and the difficulty of achieving work-life balance, issues included how women balanced the expected norms of professional behaviour with commitments to family life and self, and the way in which assumptions about what constitutes ‘“ideal” medical practice [were] interwoven with  subtly gendered expectations such as being available for “all hours work”’. [8]

NZ Women in Medicine

At the ASMS Annual Conference in November 2016, women delegates meeting on their own ‘expressed a desire for a network of women doctors to provide support, advice, mentoring and collegial discussion’. [9] At the end of January 2017, the ASMS set up NZ Women in Medicine as a closed Facebook group, with reading/posting confined to members only, and all membership requests checked and approved by a small group of administrators. Within a fortnight, more than 3000 members from around New Zealand had joined, including senior doctors, medical students and GPs, as well as New Zealand doctors overseas wanting to stay in touch with former colleagues.

The group’s online discussions quickly provided ‘important validation of just how many women doctors are finding it difficult to balance family responsibilities and their work’; other issues raised included work arrangements and women experiencing sexism and bullying at work. One important positive benefit was the way in which the page showed ‘women at the highest levels of medicine all over the country – chief executives, clinical directors, chief medical officers are all on this forum – and that can only be a good thing.’ [10]

Dr McCoy welcomed the advent of this new way for women doctors to get together. In 2018 she was continuing to host an annual lunch for both former members of NZWSA and younger women: ‘It provides the opportunity for the younger doctors to discuss matters of mutual interest and perhaps learn from those of us who have tackled these same matters before!’ [11]


[1] Auckland branch annual report, 1974.

[2] A representative of the 'Women Doctors Association' attended the 1919 NOP conference.

[3] Dr Hilda Northcroft to NZMWA Dunedin, 22 October 1926, Auckland branch records.

[4] Cited in Penny Fenwick, 'Fertility, Sexuality and Social Control in New Zealand', in Bunkle and Hughes (eds), 1980, p. 87.

[5] Christchurch branch was re-established in 1981, and Dunedin in 1984.

[6] Dr Aine McCoy, quoted in McMillan, 2017.

[7] Medical Council of NZ, ‘The New Zealand Medical Workforce in 2012’, available from

[8] Chambers, 2016, p. 37.

[9] ASMS, ‘Women in medicine network takes off’, media release, 13 April 2017.

[10] Dr Oma McGinn, clinical director of East Health Trust PHO and GP at the Manukau Institute of Technology health centre, quoted in McMillan, 2017.

[11] Dr Aine McCoy, correspondence with Anne Else, October 2018.

Unpublished sources

Anderson, Kathleen, 'Beyond the Pioneer Woman Doctor: A Study of Women Doctors in Auckland 1900–1960', MA thesis,University of Auckland, 1992

New Zealand Medical Women's Association Auckland branch records, 1936–1986, (includes some national records), AIM

New Zealand Medical Women's Association national executive records, 1987–1993, ATL

Published sources

Anon., ‘Women In Medicine Network Established’, The Specialist – Magazine of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, No. 110, March 2017, p. 7. Available from:

Bunkle, Phillida and Beryl Hughes (eds), Women in New Zealand Society, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1980

Chambers, Charlotte, with Frampton, Chris, ‘“Tired, worn-out and uncertain”: Burnout in the New Zealand public hospital senior medical workforce’, Health Dialogue No. 12, August 2016. Available from:

Heslop, B. F. et al., 'Women in Medicine in New Zealand', New Zealand Medical Journal, Vol. 77, 1975, pp. 45–46

Maxwell, Margaret (ed.), Women Doctors in New Zealand: An Historical Perspective 1921–1986, IMS (NZ),Auckland, 1990

McMillan, Virginia, ‘Facebook Private Page Gets Medical Sisterhood Caring for their Own’, New Zealand Doctor, 8 May 2017

New Zealand Woman Doctor, 1990–1992

van Rooyen, J. C., Women in Medicine, Occasional Papers No. 9, Department of Health, Wellington, 1977

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about New Zealand Medical Women’s Association

What do you know?

Can you tell us more about the information on this page? Perhaps you have a related experience you would like to share?

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments will be reviewed prior to posting. Not all comments posted. Tell me more...

Dr Robyn Hewland Q.S.M.

Posted: 11 Feb 2020

I was thrilled to be elected an.Honorary Member. I joined NZMWA in 1974 & delegate to NCW NZ from then to 1994, then I worked in Queensland till 2014, & attended many MWIA conferences, now retired in ChCh. I am writing my memoirs, "Going Upstream". My 200 A4 Box files of records from 1974 are wanted by ChCh Library, so will be available for PhD students, etc re when I was a Consultant Psychiatrist & Psychotherapist with Health, Welfare, Justice, ACC (clinical, policy) 1977-92. I initiated Kia Marama, etc.
We all need each others supports, as individuals, and as advocates for Human Rights and Wellbeing for all, especially for in best interests of all children. MWIA motto is to "Heal with the Spirit of a Mother". Robyn H