Skip to main content

Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association

1931 –

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

1931 – 1993

The Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association (PPSEAWA) was formed to bring women of the region together to further understanding and friendship and to study social and political conditions. New Zealand women were founder members of the association, and the New Zealand branch is one of the oldest national branches.

PPSEAWA began as a forum to discuss the problems of women in Pacific countries. The first conference, in Honolulu in 1928, was sponsored by the Pan-Pacific Union, an international organisation for promoting co-operation in the Pacific. The conference followed a suggestion by New Zealand politician Mark Cohen to the American director of the union, Alexander Ford. It was attended by women from New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, the Philippines, Samoa and Hawaii, and was chaired by the famous American social reformer, Jane Addams. The New Zealand delegation was led by Annie Fraer, then Dominion president of the National Council of Women (NCW).

The conference split into four sections — government, industry, education and social service — and discussed infant and child health and welfare, the conditions of women's industrial labour, the exclusion of women from political and legal rights, the standard of living, the influence of the film industry, and traffic in women and children. At the conclusion of the conference, an executive committee was empowered to consult with existing national and international groups on the establishment of a permanent women's organisation in the Pacific. The Pan-Pacific Women's Association was set up at a second conference in Honolulu in 1930. Delegates became responsible for forming branches in their home countries.

The decision to form a New Zealand branch of the association was taken in April 1931 at a meeting in Wellington called by Jean Begg, who had led the 1930 delegation to Honolulu. Begg was an experienced social worker, secretary of the Auckland YWCA and vice-president of the Auckland branch of the NCW. Elizabeth Taylor, a prominent women's leader from Christchurch, was elected to chair the branch and Elsie Andrews, who had also attended the 1930 conference and was president of the New Zealand Women Teachers' Association, became the first secretary-treasurer.

Group shot of delegates to 1934 conference
New Zealand delegation at the 3rd Pan Pacific Women's Conference, Honolulu (1934), with Elsie Andrews in black.

The association's major activity was its regular conferences, attended by delegates from a growing number of countries (the women of South-East Asia were formally incorporated into the association in 1955). Delegates presented papers and conducted round-table discussions with the purpose of informing and educating women leaders, raising awareness of the issues confronting women and gaining political support for their causes. The association was, however, not so much a political lobby group as one which wished to bring about change by identifying problems and promoting understanding. National branches were encouraged to undertake further study of the social, economic and political problems identified by the conferences.

Although World War II dashed the hopes of women in the Pacific for peace and temporarily put an end to the conferences, the New Zealand branch, chaired by the energetic and able Andrews, remained active. The cancellation of the fifth conference, planned for New Zealand in 1940, was a disappointment, but groups throughout the country continued their study of Pacific and international problems. With the establishment of the United Nations, the association had a new focus; the theme of the first post-war conference, in 1949, was 'Pacific Women Unite for a United Nations'. The association built up a close relationship with the UN and achieved the status of a UN non-governmental organisation (NGO).

By the early 1990s, PPSEAWA in New Zealand consisted of affiliated women's associations, individual members and, from 1954, area groups. Its affairs were administered by an elected executive, chaired by a national president. Members were generally well-educated, socially and politically active, and predominantly Pākehā. Its leaders were often professional women, such as Andrews and Ellen Lea, both teachers; Moana Gow, a Dunedin doctor; Mary McLean, a physiotherapist; Eunice Nieukerke, a teacher and training college lecturer; and Letitia Coleman, a teacher, secondary school inspector and civil servant. Between 1960 and 1979 the branch published a monthly Journal, and from 1979 a six-monthly Newsletter.

The association was at its strongest in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, when, following the interest generated by the 1952 conference held in Christchurch, most of the area groups were formed. These were prosperous decades when many New Zealanders travelled overseas, motivated by an interest in other countries and by the belief that individuals of goodwill, acting independently of governments, could aid international co-operation. Area groups became well informed on conditions in other countries and on international problems. Increasingly they became involved with aid schemes and providing hospitality for overseas visitors, particularly Colombo Plan students. This shift in emphasis was reflected at conferences, where organised visits to schools and cultural centres and social events became important. Fundraising, for example for overseas aid projects, also became a significant activity. In 1968 Nieukerke, the New Zealand president, was elected president of the international council of PPSEAWA.

In 1990, PPSEAWA's eighteenth conference, held in Bangkok, was attended by 350 delegates from 23 countries. Valerie Hogan, the New Zealand president, was elected international vice-president.

The New Zealand branch maintained area groups in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Nelson and Whanganui. Its members actively pursued the organisation's international goals, although increasingly the leadership was shifting toward the indigenous women of the Pacific and South-East Asian branches.

Raewyn Dalziel

1994 – 2018

In 2018 the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women’s Association (PPSEAWA) marked ninety years since its first conference in 1928. Celebrations were held in New York, during the sixty-second session of the Commission on the Status of Women, and in Hawai’i.  The Association’s purpose remained the promotion of the interests of families, women and children, peace and understanding in the Pacific.

In New Zealand, with 23 national member associations, PPSEAWA continued to work mainly through its membership of and contributions to international bodies.  It had Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, enabling it to contribute to the work programme and goals of the UN by providing technical experts, advisers and consultants to Governments and the UN Secretariat. It was represented at the United Nations in New York and Geneva, in UNICEF, UNESCO and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. In 2007 the national body hosted the twenty-third conference of the Association in South Auckland. 

By 2018, local chapters remained only in Wellington and Auckland.  The local leadership was dominated by women who had come to New Zealand from the Pacific and Asia, and who participated in a range of multicultural community organisations. Their activism reflected the growing diversity of the New Zealand population and the need to promote the interests of Pacific and Asian women at home as much as abroad.  Individual members held some significant roles in the international organisation: in the 2016–19 triennium, Beryl Vincent was a Vice-President and Melanie Swami was Publicity and Information Convenor

Raewyn Dalziel

Unpublished sources

PPSEAWA Conference collection, 1955–1979, ATL

PPSEAWA, records of Dunedin Area Group, 1952–1975, Hocken

PPSEAWA, records of Southland Area Group, 1955–1976, Hocken

Published sources

[Coleman, Letitia|, History of the New Zealand Branch of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association 1928–1978, [n.p.], 1978

[Coleman, Letitia], History of the New Zealand Branch of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association 1928–1990, [n.p.], 1990

Journal of the New Zealand Branch, Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association, 1960–1979

PPSEAWA International Bulletin [n.d.]

PPSEAWA (New Zealand) Newsletter, 1979–

PPSEAWA (New Zealand), 1990 Pan Pacific and Southeast Asia Women's Association: ‘The changing world: our heritage and our future’,  PPSEAWA (NZ), [Wellington], 1990

Women of the Pacific: Being a Record of the Proceedings of the First Pan-Pacific Women's Conference which was held in Honolulu from the 9th to the 19th of August 1928, under the auspices of the Pan-Pacific Union, Pan-Pacific Union, Honolulu, 1928

PPSEAWA, PPSEAWA Heritage Book II: History of the Pan Pacific and South East Asia Women's Association, 1994–2007, [n.p; n.d.], ATL

Further sources

PPSEAWA website