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New Zealand Women Writers' Society

1932 – 1991

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

For nearly 60 years, the New Zealand Women Writers' Society (NZWWS) encouraged and backed women throughout the country engaged in every kind of writing. Originally the New Zealand Women Writers' and Artists' Society, it was formed on 11 July 1932 at a meeting in the Wellington YWCA rooms organised by Nellie Donovan (later Donovan-Hair), who was then aged eighteen. 'I had always wanted to write, but found few outlets, and I wanted to meet other young women who had the same ambitions.' [1] Support came from the 'lady editors' of women's and children's pages, and also from journalist Pat Lawlor—he was asked to take the chair. The new group aimed 'to stimulate and encourage creative work in literature and art amongst the members and to foster comradeship'. [2]

Of the 48 foundation members (joining at or within a month of the first meeting), the majority were single and under 30; some were still actively involved in 1991. Later members were aged mainly between 30 and 50, joining when they found the time, and confidence, to identify as writers. (Writers quickly predominated; 'and Artists' was dropped in 1954.) Few could be classed as housewives, though press reports tended to assume all were. They worked mainly in journalism (particularly in the 1930s and 1940s), teaching, office work, small businesses or farming. Before the 1980s, a university education was the exception, though some returned to study for a degree in their sixties or older.

Foundation members excepted, full membership required work, some of it published, of a standard and extent approved by an anonymous reading committee. Only full members could vote and hold office. Associate members need not have been published, but two full members had to nominate them; later rule changes stipulated attaining full membership within two years. However, there was no requirement that full members continue to write or publish.

Black and white photo of Kate Anderson looking directly at the camera. She is wearing a long black dress and holds an open book above a side table with some flowers.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, PAColl-6303-28.

This photograph of Kate Andersen was taken in 1938 when she was heavily involved in the New Zealand Women Writers' and Artists' Society, having become a foundation committee member in 1932.

Numbers climbed from 102 in 1941 to 239 in 1961, then more slowly to 295 in 1979. The society was run from Wellington, but in 1950 a constitutional amendment provided for fifteen or more full members to form a branch. Auckland did so immediately, and grew rapidly, but most groups outside Wellington remained informal, though Hawke's Bay had a strong branch. Some areas—for example Tauranga and South Canterbury—did not form branches partly because they preferred not to exclude men. Admitting men as members was proposed at intervals from 1934, but the vote always went strongly against it, though from 1944 men could on occasion attend as visitors.

'In the beginning . . .', wrote foundation member Isobel Andrews in 1982, 'we sat at the feet of important people (some helpful, some not) who told us how to write . . .' [3] Prominent male writers, editors, producers and academics were frequent speakers, and until the 1980s they also predominated as lecturers at the writing courses which the society ran jointly with adult education bodies from 1957. Much of their advice seems to have remained at a surprisingly basic level, considering the growing expertise of many members, particularly in popular fiction and non-fiction, radio scripts, and writing for children.

The NZWWS consistently acclaimed every success by women writers, members or not, making no distinction between the various genres, markets and audiences. Its honorary vice-presidents (all but three of them women) included writers in every field, from Nelle Scanlan (1932) to Keri Hulme (1987). From 1957 it fostered recognition of Katherine Mansfield's name in a variety of ways, notably through working with the Bank of New Zealand to set up awards for established and beginning writers in 1959, and contributing long hours to organising these each year.

Thanks partly to its Wellington base, the NZWWS soon came to be viewed as officially representing the country's women writers. This enabled it to support and promote contemporary women authors through events such as the 1940 Centennial and the New Zealand Book Weeks, and through involvement in legislation—notably its 1962 submission on a copyright bill which threatened to disadvantage the many women who published under pseudonyms or maiden names. The society's newsletter, entitled the Bulletin from 1951, supplied information on markets, awards, agents, fees and taxation, and noted members' acceptances.

In its first two decades the NZWWS occasionally published members' work; five issues of The Quill appeared, in 1934–37 and 1948, and a verse anthology to mark the twenty-first anniversary came out in 1954. From the outset there were writing competitions for full members, later with outside judges whose comments were summed up in the Bulletin. However, low numbers of entries and low standards were a recurring problem. In the early 1970s, an influx of new members and rapidly shrinking markets for shorter work revived interest, but by the mid-1980s it had waned again. Publication was the real goal.

From the 1950s to the 1970s it was perhaps those isolated women outside the main centres, estimated in 1960 to be 68 percent of the membership, who as writers gained most benefit from belonging. The contact with and encouragement of other women gave them the incentive to continue working. A member joining from Invercargill in the 1950s recalled, 'Without the Bulletin I would have had no contact with other writers whatsoever'. [4] Playwright Renee (then Renee Taylor) was a member for 22 years; she joined the Hawke's Bay group in 1957. 'They were hard workers, they wanted to be published, they made time for writing—they were serious.' [5]

The 1970s saw little change in activities, though meetings featured a fresh focus on New Zealand writing, past and present. In 1973, at Auckland's instigation, Wellington itself became a branch, though it continued to provide the national executive. The growth of state support for writing was welcomed; members benefited most from the passing of the Public Lending Right Act in 1973, whereby New Zealand became the first English-speaking country to recompense authors for library holdings.

Meanwhile the NZWWS was finding it hard to cope with inflating costs, despite subscription increases. The Bulletin, typeset and printed from 1970, was cut back from twelve to six issues a year in 1976, and survived only with grants from the Todd Foundation and later from the Department of Internal Affairs.

Two publications—a scrapbook-style history and an anthology of members' work, with a short history—accompanied the fiftieth jubilee celebrations in 1982. The NZWWS seemed to be flourishing: sixteen new members joined, and a Christchurch branch formed. But in fact energy was flagging. By 1983 no member would take on the jobs of secretary or treasurer, and by 1987 nine members were said to be shouldering total responsibility for running the society, administering the various Mansfield awards and launching a new anthology of members' work (funded by Joy Cowley). This crisis was weathered, but in 1989 the Auckland branch had to go into recess, followed by Hawke's Bay. Their ageing membership and transport difficulties were Wellington problems too, and despite 252 subscribing members, including several new writers beginning to make their mark, finances were badly depleted. Creating 'Friends' of the society, relaxing full membership criteria, and altering the constitution to allow men to join all failed to bring about the necessary revitalisation, and after a final celebration luncheon, the NZWWS was wound up in July 1991.

Anne Else


[1] Nellie Donovan-Hair, personal communication, 19 December 1991.

[2] Initial invitation to inaugural meeting, France et al., 1982, p. 3.

[3] France et al, 1982, p. 298.

[4] Patricia Johnson, Bulletin, March/April 1989.

[5] Renee, interviewed by Anne Else, 1992.

Unpublished sources

Donovan-Hair, Nellie, interviewed by Anne Else, Auckland, 1991

Marshall, Heather, interviewed by Anne Else, Wellington, 1992

Renée, interviewed by Anne Else,Wellington, 1992

New Zealand Women Writers' Society records, 1932–91, ATL.

New Zealand Women Writers' Society Auckland Branch collection 1961-78, AIM

Published sources

New Zealand Women Writers' Society Bulletin, 1951–1991, ATL

France, Thelma, Hestia Quinn, Roma Henden, Isobelle Ashforth (eds), History of the New Zealand Women Writers' Society, 1932–1982, NZWWS, Wellington, 1984

Hayward, Margaret and Joy Cowley (eds), Women Writers of NZ 1932–1982, Jubilee History and Writings of the New Zealand Women Writers' Society, Colonial Associates, Wellington, 1982