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Presbyterian Women Aotearoa New Zealand

1896 –

This essay written by Yvonne Robertson (Wilkie) was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1896 – 1993

To the Presbyterians who settled in New Zealand, Christ's commission to go into the world and spread the Christian message meant 'venture overseas'. The first New Zealand parish missionary societies were formed in 1862 to support the New Hebridean Mission. Over the next three decades, Presbyterian women, motivated by the plea to join the world-wide missionary sisterhood doing 'women's work for women', set forth as nurses, teachers, evangelists, translators and administrators to convert their 'heathen' sisters in Africa, India, China and South America.

Under the leadership of Jane Bannerman and Margaret Hewitson, both ministers' wives, the foundations were laid in the early 1890s for a women's mission organisation within the Presbyterian Church. It would incorporate two existing organisations, both founded in 1892: the Ladies' Mission Aid Society, which raised funds for the education in New Zealand of the New Hebridean missionaries' children; and the interdenominational Women's Missionary Society, which supported women going to the Zenana Missions in India. Established throughout New Zealand, in Otago it was dominated by Presbyterians, supporting Helen Macgregor and Alice Henderson, sister of Christina, Stella and Elizabeth (later McCombs).

At the 1896 Otago and Southland Synod, the 'fathers and brethren' approved the formation of the Otago and Southland Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union by one vote. With the union of the Otago and Southland Synod and the Northern Presbyterian Church in 1902, three further regional unions formed in Auckland, Christchurch/Westland and Wellington. At a missionary conference in November 1905, the four unions agreed to unite as the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union of New Zealand (PWMU), providing the first official channel for Presbyterian women in New Zealand to be heard within their Church.

The PWMU offered women the challenge and excitement of new ways to share their Christian piety and use their particular gifts in administration and public speaking, as well as sewing and fundraising. The annual national conferences were central to the PWMU network; they confirmed members in their mission undertakings and provided the spiritual renewal essential to the ongoing work, as the Church grew to depend on the PWMU. A triennially appointed national executive co-ordinated essential policy and support, maintained regular communication through a monthly paper, Harvest Field (1906), and commissioned missionary and prayer studies for regional and local use.

Group of women
Members of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union, Dunedin, 1906. Margaret Hewitson and Jane Bannerman are in front, second and third from left.

Within the PWMU network, regional Presbyterial Associations encouraged parish members to implement the national policies and schemes, including various fundraising projects, mission education programmes and the formation of junior mission groups. The Busy Bees (1909) was for children; it was structured around the concept of a hive and led by a Queen Bee; [1] a very small number of these groups still existed in 1993. The Girls' Auxiliary (1915), which catered for 'girls' up to the age of 30, survived until the 1950s.

The PWMU introduced a variety of special schemes. As well as raising the salaries for its allocated 'own' missionaries in India, and for the Canton Villages Mission, Māori Mission and Home Mission, members funded the Māori Mission through the Māori Mission Birthday League, to which every member gave 1s on her birthday. They also supported the Presbyterian Women's Training Institute, founded in 1903 to prepare deaconesses, through the regional '£ day'. [2]

Besides the usual sales of work, missionary exhibitions, and goods and clothes for mission boxes, the PWMU encouraged the local churches overseas to raise funds themselves through an early form of trade aid: New Zealand parishes packed and sold arrowroot from the New Hebrides, and from 1915 held regular 'oriental' sales of goods from China and India. In 1926 the PWMU celebrated its first 21 years with 7155 members in 310 branches; confident of their role in the Lord's work, they raised £9141 that year.

Not all Presbyterian women were attracted to the PWMU. After World War I, a new generation of women perceived their Church's 'mission' in broader terms, and wished to see Presbyterian women have a voice in its interpretation of social issues. In 1936, after four years of debate, the PWMU voted that Home Missions should be extended to cover 'all social and moral questions which affect the work in the Home and Māori fields of our church'. [3] The spirit of this motion did not filter through into its policies, however. In 1939 the annual conference was again urged to act on the motion; but a programme based on a broader understanding of mission, put forward that year and accepted in 1940, was not introduced. [4]

In 1941, the Campaign for Christian Order (CCO) project, planned by the newly founded National Council of Churches, gained the support of the Presbyterian Church. Its focus, 'to witness the relevance of the Christian faith to the themes of justice, freedom and an ordered government', [5] offered a wider scope for Christian mission than that of the PWMU. In 1943 the Presbyterian Women's Fellowship (PWF) was founded, with the aim of facilitating CCO projects and discussion of the Church's social policies among all Presbyterian women. It was only partially successful, and moved from being a co-ordinating body to an alternative women's group.

For the next twenty years, the PWF and the PWMU co-existed uncomfortably, debating the concepts of mission and service. In 1963, under pressure from the Church Courts, the two groups merged to form the Association of Presbyterian Women (APW), with Margaret Royds as first president. However, not all PWMU groups were willing to forgo their firmly held view of foreign mission, and continued to work separately at parish level.

For those willing to grapple with the new challenges and ideas of the 1970s, the APW incorporated issues raised by the second wave of the women's movement. Although women had been admitted to eldership in 1955, they had been slow to accept the challenge. In the 1970s, the APW executive encouraged members to take a more active part in leadership at the parish level, attend General Assembly, and participate in its committees, as well as becoming a Christian voice in the community. The United Nations Decade for Women (1975–85) added further impetus to study questions involving women's issues in a Christian context.

Overseas mission support altered considerably as the concept of foreign mission shifted toward the ideal of an ecumenical partnership with foreign churches. By the early 1990s the APW was assisting indigenous workers in hospitals and schools, and providing scholarships; it supported ministers in training, work among migrant women in Asia, and humanitarian relief. For the APW, as for the Church, a relevant definition of Christian mission continued to be a challenge.

In 1993 the APW had 9,900 members, down from 18,500 in 1965. A hundred years after the initial call of 'women's work for women', the APW was answering a similar call: 'Creating a Caring Community: Women Working for Women'. [6] By then, however, the issues were quite different: 'the way we care for our environment, nurture our gardens, dispose of our rubbish, spend our leisure time, harness our creativity, vote in elections, become involved in our neighbourhood, our community. Not changing the world, perhaps, but maybe making the world of difference.' [7]

Yvonne Robertson (Wilkie)

1994 – 2018

The 2012–2013 Annual Report began a transition for the APW. The National Co-ordinating Group of twelve noted that there were 1714 members and 123 groups nationally. Accurate statistics for the first time reflected that in the previous twelve years, from 2000/2001 to 2012/2013, membership fell by 72 percent and the number of groups fell by 61 percent.  

In 2012 the name was changed to Presbyterian Women Aotearoa New Zealand (PWANZ) to encourage younger women to be involved in the aims of the organisation, with a focus on supporting women throughout the church, but this name change was not widely accepted.  A new logo was adopted and the Terms of Reference updated.  A consultative workshop to seek the views of younger women was funded from a bequest.  The findings revealed a willingness to be involved, but without the meeting restrictions imposed by older women. The rest of the bequest was used to fund a secretary to digitise the records and improve communication with regional groups.

PWANZ also celebrated several milestones: fifty years of APW, sixty years of women in eldership, and fifty years of the ordination of women as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Links were forged with the National Council of Women, the Ministry for Women International Caucus, and Ecumenical Women at the United Nations during the sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. A new publication, Bush Fire, was initiated alongside the Gleanings newsletter to improve communication.

Meanwhile major changes in the structures and policies of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) were affecting Presbyterian women. The associated women’s regional meetings from APW groups were called Presbyterials, each of which had two female representatives with voting rights at Presbytery meetings. [8] This gave women a voice at Presbytery when most Presbytery members were male. With the move to a smaller number of larger Presbyteries from 2006, many Presbyterials closed and women’s voices in the wider church nationally were sidelined or lost. However, by 2018 Presbyterian women were involved in many levels of decision making, and PCANZ regulations required Church courts and committees to reflect gender balance.

Another pivotal moment occurred at the 2015 PWANZ annual meeting, when a small but vocal group moved to close the organisation. This would have resulted in the loss of the PWANZ role at the UN, held since 1998, and left existing and emerging groups unsupported. Because the National Coordinating Group had become smaller, the workload had increased for other members. 

The closure motion was lost. An Advisory Group was established to advertise new four-term roles and job descriptions for a Transition Team, and to provide support and consultancy to the new group. The Transition Team had a paid administration/finance administrator, a co-ordinator, the UN convenor, and a mission convenor, to carry out the functions outlined in the paper The Third Way? [9]

This group formed the new PWANZ Executive, to which a human rights convenor was later added. Administration and communication structures were revitalised and formalised. Bush Fire became the main means of communicating with members, and PWANZ regularly contributed nationally to the wider PCANZ publications, Bush Telegraph and SPANZ. Delegations to the sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women ensured that PWANZ participation was strengthened and extended. Mission projects in partnership with the Methodist Women’s Fellowship were very successful.

At the General Assembly held in Dunedin in November 2016, four PWANZ recommendations were agreed: that General Assembly support and actively encourage the PWANZ national and international projects and outreach within congregations and Presbyteries; that a PWANZ Special Collection be taken on the Sunday nearest to International Women’s Day each March to support the ongoing advocacy role of PWANZ locally, regionally, internationally, and at the United Nations; that General Assembly reaffirm the principle that membership of church courts, committees and other formal groups reflect the gender balance within the Church; and that the Council of the Assembly be asked to review all current policies, regulations and decisions through a gender equality lens to ensure that the needs, aspirations and welfare of women and girls were taken into account, and that the voices of women were encouraged and heard in all the courts of the church and other decision making bodies.

PWANZ reflected at length on how best to serve individual members and groups, plus the few remaining Presbyterials. From 2016, an ongoing grant from the Council for World Mission enabled the executive to focus on building capacity for women and girls in the PCANZ. The first PWANZ Women’s Assembly held in 2017, and regional gatherings during 2018, emphasised the roles of women to promote their voices and leadership within the church and community. The PWANZ also made submissions to the UN and to Parliamentary select committees on policies affecting women and girls.

Change is never easy, but with faith, courage, commitment, hard work and the active participation of younger women, PWANZ would continue to contribute to the mission of the Presbyterian Church.

Carol L. Grant


[1] The first Busy Bees group was started in Invercargill in 1909; in 1917 the PWMU adopted the same name for its existing junior groups.

[2] The institute, from 1948 known as the Deaconess College, closed in 1969. Thereafter deaconesses trained at Knox Theological Hall, doing the same course of study as ministers. From 1971 deaconesses were eligible for ordination as ministers, and in 1975 the Deaconess Order was closed.

[3] PWMU Conference minutes, 1936.

[4] The Outlook, Vol. 44, 17 May 1939, p. 3; Harvest Field, 8 December 1939, pp. ix-x, and September 1940, p. xvi.

[5] The Outlook, Vol. 46, 29 December 1941, p. 23.

[6] Harvest Field, July 1990, p. 27.

[7] Helen Thew, Editorial, Harvest Field, October 1990, p. 5.

[8] The Presbyterian Church is governed by a hierarchy of three courts or governing bodies which exercise their authority at a local, regional and national level. These are parishes or congregations, presbyteries, and the General Assembly. Presbyteries have two representatives from each parish, a minister and an elder.

[9]  PWANZ, A Third Way?, 2015.

Unpublished sources

APW executive minutes, 1963–1992, Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin

APW National Coordinating Group Minutes, 1993–2013, and associated documents, Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin

PCANZ General Assembly Minutes, 2014, 2016, 2018, PCANZ

Proceedings of the Presbyterian Synod of Otago and Southland, 1890–1896, Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin

Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, 1905, 1937, 1943, 1955, 1963, Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin

PWANZ records, 2012–2018, Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin

PWANZ, Reports to UN Commission on the Status of Women, 2011, 2014–2018, archived at:

PWMU records, 1906–1962, Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin

Published sources

APW, Gleanings Newsletter, 2006–2015

Elder, John R., The History of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand: 1840–1940, Presbyterian Bookroom, Christchurch, 1940

Henderson, Alice E., My Yesterdays in Sunshine and Sorrow, Weeks Ltd, Christchurch, 1947

Laughton, John G., From Forest Trail to City Street, Presbyterian Bookroom, Christchurch, 1961

McEldowney, Dennis (ed.), Presbyterians in Aotearoa 1840–1990, Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, Wellington, 1990

Murray, J. S., A Century of Growth, Presbyterian Bookroom, Christchurch, 1969

PWANZ, A Third Way? From a Presbyterian Women’s Organisation to A Women’s Ministry in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Transition Structure 2015–2016, PWANZ, 2015, Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin.

PWANZ, Bush Fire, NCG Newsletter, Issue 1, July/August 2015

PWANZ, Bush Fire Newsletter, 2016–2018

PWANZ Executive members, monthly comments, PCANZ Bush Telegraph

The Christian Outlook, 1897–1906

The Harvest Field, 1906–2005