Political organisations

This essay written by Raewyn Dalziel was first published in Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Raewyn Dalziel in 2018.


Women's political organisations are among the oldest women's organisations and among the oldest political organisations in New Zealand, predating women's suffrage and the formation of political parties. Disadvantaged and without formal political power, women sought to win the vote and then to teach themselves how to use that vote effectively. Politically active women of the later nineteenth century believed both that they were equal to men and that they had a different social role to play. They hoped that political power would enhance that role and enable women to work more effectively for the broader good of the community.

As the twentieth century progressed, alternative opportunities became available for some women. The door to Parliament opened in 1919, and from 1933 a few women managed to enter it. As many of the concerns that had previously been relegated to the domestic sphere, such as health and welfare, entered mainstream politics, women tried to influence the direction of policy through their organisations. Women's political action became more diverse, encompassing international affairs, economic issues and peace, as well as women's rights and equality.

However, it was not until the 1970s that women's politics became the politics of fundamental social change. During the phase of political organisation commonly known as the second wave, women laid claim not only to equality of status and treatment, but also to equality of opportunity and results. They challenged the way society ordered relations between men and women and separated private and public spheres.

Few women's organisations have not at some stage engaged in politics, and many organisations featured elsewhere in this book have a political dimension. Here the focus is on organisations which have overtly worked to change women's political and legal status, have self-consciously defined themselves as political, and have set out directly and indirectly to influence government policies.

The years before 1900

Some women took individual political action early in our recorded history. When Te Rangitopeora signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, when Mary Muller appealed for the vote in 1869 and when Mary Colclough claimed property rights for women in 1871, they acted publicly and politically. However, women first worked together to change their political status in the campaign for the vote. Identifying suffrage as the way to achieve its temperance goals, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) appointed a franchise and legislative superintendent at its first annual convention in 1886. When Kate Sheppard took over the position in 1887, the vote became a goal in its own right, the way to empower women politically and to set them on the path to equality.

Of the three traditions which franchise movements in Great Britain and North America drew on – political enlightenment, social reform and socialism – New Zealand suffragists were most influenced by the first two. They claimed the vote on the grounds of natural justice: Muller described women as 'alienated from natural rights', [1] and one of the most popular suffrage pamphlets, contrasting women's rights and responsibilities with those of men, asked 'IS IT RIGHT?’ [2] They also exploited the nineteenth-century evangelical view of women as moral guardians, arguing that their enfranchisement would result in social reform, purer politics and a better society.

Although the WCTU was a fairly small, predominantly middle-class organisation, it organised huge petitions, in 1893 gathering the signatures of nearly a quarter of all adult women in support of the vote. The suffrage campaign taught many women the skills of organisation, public speaking, petitioning, pamphleteering and lobbying. In 1892, under the guidance of Marion Hatton of Dunedin, the WCTU set up Women's Franchise Leagues which non-temperance women could join. These leagues are known to have existed in Auckland, Napier, Whanganui, Ashburton, Oamaru, Palmerston, Dunedin and Gore.

Suffrage petition cartoon

New Zealand Graphic, Auckland City Libraries - Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero, Sir George Grey Special Collections

The imagined scene when the final suffrage petition was presented in Parliament, New Zealand Graphic cartoon, 12 August 1893.

Women's suffrage had been discussed in Parliament before the WCTU campaign. Liberal electoral reformers, such as Robert Stout and John Ballance, supported the inclusion of women in the electorate as a step towards a just society. Other politicians, such as John Hall and Alfred Saunders, supported the cause because they believed that sex was an inadequate reason for disenfranchising women, and that women would vote for stability, morality and respectability. From the early 1880s a majority of politicians in Parliament supported the principle of the women's vote.

The practicalities of politics were another matter. Without the pressure of the WCTU and the Franchise Leagues, suffrage would have taken years longer to achieve. The organisational activity of women, allied to the powerful arguments they put forward, ensured that the vote became a major political issue for the Liberal government in the early 1890s. The Electoral Act of 19 September 1893 enfranchised women on the same terms as men of the same race. Although Māori women could vote for the four Māori members of Parliament, their plea to be able to vote for and become members of the separate, short-lived Parliament created by their own people at first received little support. [3]

Women voting 1893

Puke Ariki - Taranaki Museum & Library, PHO 2008-626

New Plymouth women going to the polls for the first time, on 28 November 1893.

In the immediate post-suffrage years, women's political leagues and associations set about enrolling eligible women voters and educating them on political, social and economic issues. The objects of the Wellington Women's Social and Political League were typical of such organisations: 'the promotion of knowledge amongst the women of the Colony with respect to social, political, municipal, and other questions affecting their well-being'. [4] These 'questions' included child neglect and abuse, female and youth wage rates and working conditions, and the economic dependence of married women, as well as changes to discriminatory laws on divorce, custody and inheritance, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which upheld the double sexual standard and underpinned prostitution, and equal participation for women in the political and judicial system.

Former suffragists believed they could unite women in non-party political organisations which would work for the good of home, family and nation. Though some post-suffrage organisations drew relatively large numbers – the Auckland Women's Liberal League claimed 220 members in August 1896 – all relied on a core of 20 to 30 active participants. Most members were liberal in outlook, but they occupied different positions on the liberal spectrum. Wellington's Social and Political League, patronised by Louisa Seddon, wife of the Premier, was rivalled by a Southern Cross Society formed by Anna Stout, wife of the Chief Justice, and a Women's Democratic Union, run by the more radical Marianne Tasker. Christchurch supported the Canterbury Women's Institute, a Social and Political League and a Political Association. Similar organisations formed in towns such as Whanganui and Gisborne, where Margaret Bullock and Margaret Sievwright respectively gave dedicated leadership.

By 1895 the existence of so many local organisations alongside the WCTU prompted Hatton to propose a federation, 'for purposes of mutual help and cooperation', and with the aim of achieving the 'consolidation of the political rights already won, the extension of the privileges opened up by our present political position, and the furtherance of all those claims by which we seek to place woman in her rightful position amongst men'. [5] The Canterbury Women's Institute had a similar idea. Meanwhile in Britain, Eva McLaren, corresponding secretary of the International Council of Women formed in Washington in 1888, approached both Kate Sheppard and Anna Stout with a proposal for a National Council of Women (NCW) in New Zealand. Formed in Christchurch in 1896, the NCW became the political voice of New Zealand women for the next decade. Its annual conventions, known as the Women's Parliament, brought together delegates from welfare and religious as well as political organisations. Most of the suffrage campaign leaders were there, along with younger women beginning to make their mark – Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain, Christina Henderson, Kate Evans (formerly Edger), Ada Wells, Sarah Page.

Members of the Women's Social and Political League

Christchurch City Libraries, CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0085

Members of the Women’s Social and Political League at a reception for the league’s patron, Louisa Seddon (centre front), and her daughter in Wellington, Weekly Press, 1912.

The Electoral Act specifically barred women from standing for the House of Representatives or being appointed to the Legislative Council. They could not become justices of the peace, [6] join the police force, or sit on juries. Few women sat on charitable aid or hospital boards; members had to be heads of ratepaying households, and were appointed by local councils. The removal of all these civil and political 'disabilities' became a major goal for women's organisations, the 1898 NCW convention unanimously resolving that 'with regard to all powers, rights, and duties of citizens, absolute equality should be the law of the land'. [7]

The NCW's calls for government action on child welfare, old-age pensions and equal divorce provisions were in tune with the political climate of the time, and had some success. However, its arguments for equal pay for equal work and the removal of women's remaining political disabilities were not heeded. Neither Parliament nor the country was ready for legislation which had the potential to change women's position more radically.

By the early 1900s, a number of women's political organisations had vanished or were on the verge of collapse, and the NCW was losing support. It is sometimes said that the changes sought by the women's movement had been brought about by the Liberal government, and the movement was no longer needed. As the leaders of the movement well knew, this was not true. Some local groups folded because of the illness or death of key members. Bullock died in 1903, Sievwright and Annie Schnackenberg in 1905, and Amey Daldy was disabled by a stroke. Yet others remained, and some local organisations continued. The major casualty was the NCW. Its collapse in 1906 reflected a narrow support base, contemporary conditions that made all national organisations difficult to sustain, discrimination, and the circumstances of women's lives. Its largest convention, in 1898, was attended by delegates from 16 organisations, but only half as many were represented in Dunedin in 1900. Conventions were rarely attended by more than 30 women, and a few stalwarts provided continuity. The difficulties of travel, of financing a national organisation, of maintaining grass-roots activity were enormous. Even the dominant Liberal Party, in government for 21 years, failed to achieve this. In 1911, when Sheppard was honorary vice-president of the International Council of Women, she wrote of New Zealand: 'Our women's societies are few. They are separated by distances which take considerable time to bridge, and with one or two exceptions, even societies having the same name and object, work in isolation.' [8]

The NCW also had to contend with the hostility and mockery of the press. The French visitor, André Siegfried, observed that delegates to the 1899 convention looked on men as opponents 'because men are so discouraging to feminist pretensions; the women know it, and know also that they will have to cut for themselves a place in the sun at the point of the sword'. [9] Continued sniping at women activists, and Parliament's refusal to make any further concessions, must have deterred many young women from joining political organisations. Sievwright lamented to Sheppard in 1905 that 'Veterans fill their own place, but plucky young recruits, self-reliant, enthusiastic, optimistic, are what we want.' [10] Financially dependent, home-bound women found it difficult to be politically active, and a growing concern over child welfare and infant mortality absorbed the energies of many. The notion that women's sphere was the home was enormously powerful. Women who challenged it by their actions nevertheless upheld it as the ideal and saw it as essential to national stability and progress.

The first wave of political activists identified themselves as part of a women's movement. At the 1902 NCW convention, Jessie Williamson spoke on the 'women's movement in New Zealand'; in 1904 Sievwright told Daldy she was trying to persuade women 'to form reading circles of "special" books for the spread of information re the so-called woman movement'. [11] Edith Searle Grossmann, an early graduate of Canterbury University College and a former member of the Canterbury Women's Institute, wrote in a 1908 article on 'The Woman Movement in New Zealand':

The objects of Feminism, some of which are already partially gained, have been to free women from artificial or barbaric restrictions …; to give them fair opportunities and equal legal and political rights; to develop their talents instead of suppressing them; to put an end to the theory that one half of the human race ought to be systematically exploited by the other half. [12]

To Grossmann, New Zealand feminism had been remarkably successful, aided by progressive tendencies in politics and relatively good gender relations. Together and individually, women had pursued a programme of feminist reform that had resulted in their being 'more advanced there than in any other country, with the possible exception of Finland'. [13]

However, Grossmann also recognised that women were still far from equal with men. Reform inched forward: in 1909, direct election to charitable aid and hospital boards came in, and in 1910 the Contagious Diseases Act was repealed. Such advances could lead to complacency, as expressed by Anna Stout in 1913:

The real power of the women's vote in New Zealand is not in opposition but in its harmony and co-operation with the men's vote. A house divided against itself cannot stand, but the united and loyal comradeship of men and women have secured for New Zealand reforms in legislation which are making the Dominion a paradise for men as well as women and children. [14]

Dissenting voices called for women to go further, often blaming them for their failure to overcome difficulties. In 1912, for example, Emily Gibson proclaimed that the lack of women in public office was 'entirely owing to women's own apathy, and will continue until they wake up and demand recognition as individuals'. [15]

1913 cartoon about women getting into politics

Alexander Turnbull Library,  H-712-009

William Blomfield, ‘Behold, she stands at the door and knocks’, New Zealand Observer, April 1913.

New activity from 1913

In fact a new phase of activity, aimed at bringing women into the political mainstream, was about to begin. In 1913 the Auckland Civic League was formed by Ellen Melville, one of the first women to qualify as a lawyer, Rosetta Baume, an American graduate married to a lawyer, and Emily Maguire, a doctor's wife. Its aim was to increase the number of women holding public office, and although it operated to some extent as a personal campaign machine for Melville, it encouraged a number of women to stand for local bodies. Melville was elected to the Auckland City Council in 1913 and remained there until 1946, Maguire joined her in 1918, and Baume became a member of the Education Board.

On the political left, the New Zealand Housewives' Union, formed in 1912, focused on living costs, child care and education. Elizabeth Taylor, whose husband, radical Liberal MP Tommy Taylor, had recently died, became its first president. She was a temperance worker and a remarkable organiser, writer and speaker; her occasional columns in the labour press urged women to unite and organise so that their voices could be heard in local and national politics. When the New Zealand Labour Party was formed in 1916, Housewives' Union members Elizabeth McCombs and Sarah Snow were elected to the executive. McCombs later wrote that she joined the Labour Party because her experience in women's organisations had taught her it was ineffectual to work alone. She believed that Labour stood 'for justice for women, equality between the sexes, and also for most, if not all of the humanitarian ideals of women'. [16] Gradually the Labour Party began to affiliate the housewives' unions and the more radical women's organisations, and it eventually incorporated these as women's branches. Labour's 1918 conference, attended by several women delegates, agreed to a policy statement calling for 'Perfect equality between the sexes in every department of public life', [17] and Labour held its first women's conference in 1927.

During the First World War women formed hundreds of associations to carry out vital auxiliary tasks for a nation at war. But from the 1890s a strand of the women's movement had protested against war and supported alternative ways of resolving conflict. Wilhelmina Bain moved a resolution at the 1897 NCW convention opposing war as 'a savage, costly and futile method of solving disputes', and in 1898 presented a paper on 'Peace and Arbitration'. [18] In the 1900s, Bain represented New Zealand on the International Council of Women's Standing Committee for Peace and Arbitration, and attended the Thirteenth Universal Peace and Arbitration Conference in Boston. When the government introduced compulsory military training in 1909, groups such as the Canterbury Women's Institute and the NCW were prominent among the protesters, and women belonging to the National Peace Council and the New Zealand Freedom League helped young men who were prosecuted for refusing to train. Forerunner branches of what was to become the major women's peace organisation, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, formed in New Zealand in 1916. When the government introduced conscription the same year, a Women's Anti-Conscription League was founded.

Whether opposed to war or working for the war effort, women increased their voluntary activity and expanded their networks. Melville commented in 1919:

The war had given them a stronger sense of the value of common effort, had drawn them together more closely, the practical results to be derived from organisation having been seen and remarked. Their experience had removed their sense of inferiority to men. [19]

In 1916 New Zealand women began to plan for an active role in post-war reconstruction. A provisional committee consisting of Sheppard, Jessie Mackay and Christina Henderson came together in Christchurch to revive the NCW as an organisation that could unite and speak for women's organisations. It wrote to key women around the country, asking them to establish local NCW branches. In April 1918, a small conference in Wellington reconstituted the NCW; Sheppard chaired the proceedings, symbolising the link with the earlier council.

The new NCW affiliated a diverse group of women's organisations, and the need to accommodate the views of all made it more cautious than its predecessor. Radical groups such as the Auckland Women's Political and International Leagues and the housewives' unions often found the council too conservative, yet they needed what it could provide: an umbrella body for all women's organisations, recognised by the government and the media as a significant source of opinion and able to make itself heard, if not always heeded.

In October 1919 the Women's Parliamentary Rights Act finally permitted women to stand for election to the House of Representatives, though still locking them out of the Legislative Council. Three women, Melville, Baume, and Aileen Cooke of Thames, contested the general election held a month later. None was successful. Melville, who contested every election to 1931, asserted in 1923 that 'women would get nothing done for them in legislation unless they had women in Parliament …' [20]

For some decades mainstream activity was extremely difficult for women. Melville's bitter experience with the Reform Party in the 1920s finally led her to stand as a 'women's candidate' for Auckland East in 1931, focusing on issues such as women police, women's unemployment, and the status of domestic servants. To her disappointment she found that women did not vote on gender issues, and her share of the poll was lower than at any other election, although higher than independent candidates usually achieved. Elizabeth McCombs, standing for the Labour Party in the Lyttelton by-election caused by the death of her husband in 1933, was the first woman to enter the House. Despite the efforts of groups such as the short-lived Women to Wellington movement, founded in 1944, by 1970 only 11 women had succeeded in entering Parliament, seven representing Labour and four National.

Yet there was little discussion of a women's political party. Instead existing parties created a 'women's sphere', responsible for organising social functions, canvassing voters, feeding party workers, and fundraising through bazaars, cake stalls and housie evenings. Often described as 'housekeeping', such tasks marginalised women as political actors. Calling her 1972 thesis on women's participation in political parties 'Ladies in the Backroom', Sue Kedgley claimed that 'in both political parties … women still opt for appropriate "womanly" domestic and receptive roles, and do not generally seek to climb much higher than the bottom few rungs'. [21] However, Margaret Wilson later pointed out that women's work was important in maintaining the organisational structure of political parties. [22]

The 1920s saw the formation of a number of special-interest women's groups, economic, educational and social. The decade, with its fast-changing fashions and apparently greater freedoms, seemed to challenge entrenched moral values. Much organised women's political activity, directed by older members who had aimed to raise male behaviour to the standard of sexual and social purity demanded of respectable women, centred on reasserting social control, particularly over the behaviour of young people. Virtually the only equal rights advance came in 1926, when women were appointed justices of the peace.

From their suffrage days, New Zealand women had been aware of the wider world of women's politics. Many of the major New Zealand organisations were imported, and retained their international affiliation. New Zealand women attended the conferences of organisations such as the International Women's Suffrage Alliance, and in the 1920s joined with women throughout the British Empire to win independent rights of nationality. In 1928 a New Zealand delegation attended the first meeting of what was to become the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association (PPSEAWA). Although not a mass organisation, it linked New Zealand women to women and to government and non-government agencies in the region.

At home, the slow slide into the Depression of the 1930s pushed issues of employment, welfare, health and education to the fore. In response, women set up new associations, such as the Dunedin Housewives' Union and the Working Women's Committees, organised nationally by the young Elsie Farrelly (later Freeman, then Locke), a member of the Communist Party, which paid her wages. NCW members were prominent on the Unemployed Relief Committees set up by local bodies and central government. In general, however, women struggled simply to retain their position.

As export prices recovered and the country began to work its way out of the Depression, a new women's magazine, 'non-sectarian, non-political and non-commercial', appeared. Woman To-day was concerned with 'Peace, Freedom and Progress, and all that pertains to woman's advancement in any sphere of thought, and that affects the welfare of women and children'. [23] The magazine had thoroughly eclectic editorial and advisory boards, including Labour supporters Emily Gibson and Sarah Saunders Page, National's Berta Burns, and the communist Elsie Freeman. Contributors took on the big issues for women – the rising incidence of abortion, birth control, illiberal divorce laws, a female basic wage, education, and women police. The NCW contributed a monthly column. Bringing together a group of politically active, interesting women and publicising their views, Woman To-day possibly had some influence on the Labour government – in 1938, the appointment of women to the police force was finally enabled. But like later radical journals it existed precariously, and ended with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

The war disrupted much activity: the 1940 PPSEAWA conference, planned for Auckland, was postponed, as was the 1942 NCW conference. Peace movements were less prominent than before, since this war was seen as more justifiable. War also provided opportunities with some rewards for women, especially in employment and the forces, though underlying negative attitudes to women's participation in public life remained more or less intact. From 1941 women could at last sit on the Legislative Council, but this had long been a moribund institution and was abolished in 1951. In 1942 women became eligible for jury service, defeating the view that they were too emotional and too refined to deal with the sordid details of cases before the courts. The shortage of men was one factor, but women's capacity to deal with cases involving women and children, catching up with other countries, and rewarding women for war service were also involved. However, while men were obliged to serve on juries if called, women were merely empowered to volunteer. It took another 21 years of agitation by women's organisations to obtain equal treatment.

At the war's end, women were able to reorganise. However, one of the first academic studies of women in New Zealand, by Dorothy Carter in 1947, claimed that women 'have been satisfied with the fulfilment of their responsibilities in this one sphere [the home], and have mostly been indifferent to the calls which have been made upon them in the civic and national spheres of politics'. [24] The achievements of the 1890s were contrasted with the lack of political progress since. Others assessing the 1940s and 1950s have been equally critical. Compared with countries such as Australia and England, New Zealand women's post-war political activity does seem muted. Yet there were some significant campaigns, particularly on equal pay, the cost of living, the reconstruction of family life and international relations, and among Māori women.

Māori women had not played a large role in the political organisations formed by European women; these were strongest in the towns and cities, and most Māori women then lived in rural areas. More importantly, political activity took place in their own tribal groups. In September 1951 women formed the Māori Women's Welfare League, a Māori organisation working to benefit Māori. Welfare concerns took members deep into politics, as they campaigned to improve housing, health, education and working conditions, and to preserve Māori language, land and culture.

After the war, Women's Charter Associations were formed in Auckland and Wellington, modelled on associations begun by Jessie Street, Australia's pre-eminent inter-war feminist. The Australian Charter mapped out women's role in the post-war nation, calling for the full participation of women in public life, equal rights, social reform, and the abolition of all discrimination. In New Zealand the Charter Associations were small, aligned with the left and focused on international relations and peace. They campaigned vigorously (but unsuccessfully) against compulsory military training when the government put this issue to a referendum in 1949.

Equal pay was the dominant political issue for women in the 1950s, and meetings could draw audiences in the hundreds. Established organisations repeatedly tried, usually in vain, to ensure that women were appointed to public bodies. Petitioning government remained important, especially in the early 1950s when the rapidly escalating cost of living was a major concern. Increasingly, women protested against the development of nuclear weapons. In the 1960 election, four women won seats in Parliament – still pathetically few in an 80-strong House of Representatives, but more than in any previous single election.

Changes starting in the 1960s

The prosperous 1960s brought major social changes. The contraceptive pill gave women some real control over their fertility for the first time. Many more women, in particular married women, entered paid employment, often part-time. As post-war, baby-boom children reached adolescence, there was an enormous expansion of education, especially tertiary. The number of young women attending university increased, though it remained low compared with men.

Deep social fissures were starting to crack open. Women joined men in protests against the Vietnam War, the arms race, racially selected sports teams, even against a government bent on raising lake levels to produce more electricity. The NCW remained influential, but other older organisations failed to respond to social and political shifts or to appeal to a younger generation, and lost members.

Young women, educated to think that New Zealand was a land of equality and opportunity, too often found they were denied both as they brought up children and ran their households. By the late 1960s women were openly questioning their entire situation. When women's liberation arrived in New Zealand from the United States in 1970, it had an explosive impact. It challenged the foundations of social organisation, claiming that women had never been truly emancipated and demanding a radical restructuring of gender relations.

The first women's liberation group was formed in 1970 by students at Victoria University, when Therese O'Connell successfully applied for a grant from the Students' Association to start a Women's Liberation Front Club. Its first newsletter stated that it had been founded 'from a combination of personal grievances against the consequences of women's set role in society, reinforced by literature on overseas women's liberation'. Its aims were to promote women's rights and re-evaluate women's role in society. [25] Almost simultaneously, similar groups emerged in Auckland. Women for Equality was a small, dynamic, mixed-sex group based in the old inner-city suburbs; its feminist, republican members were to experiment with communal living arrangements as well as feminist action. Two university groups also formed, but by the end of the year both had vanished. In 1971 the movement was revitalised at the university, and Auckland feminists received much media attention when they 'liberated' the Bistro Bar of the Great Northern Hotel and protested against the Miss New Zealand beauty contest. Craccum celebrated Emancipation Day, 78 years after the suffrage victory, by printing the manifesto of Women's Liberation. This declared:

The Women's Movement promises to affect radically the life of virtually everyone. The necessary revolution will overturn the basic premises upon which rest stereotype [sic] notions about family and the roles of men and women, fallacies concerning masculinity and femininity, and the economic division of labour into paid work and home making. [26]

It was clear that this movement meant to go much further than feminism had ever gone before.

New groups formed rapidly in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Palmerston North. Germaine Greer's speaking tour in March 1972 drew audiences in the thousands; by April 1972 the movement had enough support to hold the first National Women's Liberation Conference in Wellington, attended by 500 women and 30 men. On their agenda were equal pay and equal opportunity in work and education, the repeal of all abortion laws, free contraceptive advice, government support for childcare, women's studies programmes in universities, and self-determination for lesbian women.

After the 1972 conference there were few towns without at least one group of women exploring feminist ideas. Sometimes the groups were based on a specific interest, such as the New Zealand Homemakers' Union in Masterton; others collected together students, former students, young professional women, and women at home – but few working-class or Māori women. Women's liberationists avidly read books by overseas writers such as Greer, Betty Friedan, Robin Morgan and Kate Millett, and published their own newsletters. In July 1972 the hard-hitting magazine Broadsheet first appeared.

The new movement of the 1970s was one of protest: women clearly identified grievances and mobilised to bring about change. Many groups rejected highly structured, hierarchical forms of organisation which depended on rules to maintain order, seeing these as masculine. Instead they experimented with collectives, informal meetings, open discussions, consensus and shared or rotating positions of responsibility. The consciousness-raising group, in which all participants and experiences were equal, was a particularly important first step for women coming to new ideas.

As in other countries, feminism was never one movement or ideology. The women's liberation groups were the voice of radical feminism, identifying patriarchy as the oppressor and aiming at liberation through doing away with the existing system of gender relations. They were the catalyst for other organisations, formed under the banner of feminism, often with overlapping membership, but adopting different positions. The National Organisation for Women (NOW), another US import which formed in Auckland in 1972, appealed to slightly older, mainly professional women who were prepared to work within the established structures, while still wanting to change them fundamentally. Three years later Wellington women began the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), described as 'a non-partisan feminist lobby, formed by and for individual women, and committed to achieve social, legal, economic, educational and political equality for women'. [27] WEL was most effective in election years, when it surveyed political candidates' views and kept a careful watch on party policies. Other groups, such as the Auckland-based Campaign against Discrimination, had a more limited agenda and often a brief life.

Feminists of all kinds met at the United Women's Conventions, which reflected the belief that gender could be a unifying force, cutting across class, race, ethnicity and religious differences. An extraordinary range of organisations was represented at the first convention in 1973, sponsored by the Auckland Workers' Educational Association. More than 1400 women gathered to listen to addresses on women's history, Māori women, population policies and discrimination, and to discuss employment, politics, peace, the environment, the law and much else. A questionnaire revealed that the average participant was 34, married, had two or three children, worked part-time, belonged to two or three organisations, and hoped that the convention would increase her knowledge and understanding. A team of women headed by prominent NCW member Miriam Dell, with Judith Aitken as secretary, organised the 1975 convention in the Wellington Show Buildings. More than 2200 women came, and hundreds more had to be turned away. Perhaps because it was held in Wellington, this convention was acutely aware of the need to convey women's views to policy-makers, and a surge of political activity followed.

As basic feminist ideas took stronger hold in the community, the conventions attracted women of widely differing views who could not always agree. Radical feminists felt that some who came lacked a feminist perspective, and there were calls for the feminist movement 'to see itself as distinct and separate from the reforming zeal of the women who desire to better the lot of other women while maintaining them in the same basic role structure'. [28] Others felt that small radical groups were manipulating proceedings. The 1979 Hamilton convention became the site of conflict and factional fighting, much of it centred on the dissatisfaction of Māori and lesbian women with the convention's organisation. No one had the heart to organise another.

Tensions in the feminist movement were not new. Socialist feminists believed women were exploited by the capitalist system as much as by patriarchy. In 1974 their leading spokeswoman, Kay Goodger of the Socialist Action League, attacked 'living-room feminists', women who belonged to consciousness-raising groups and believed liberation would be achieved by changing minds rather than social and economic structures. [29] Yet the stated socialist programme for women was in most respects identical to that of other feminist groups – repeal of abortion laws, free and widely available contraception, government-financed childcare centres, equal pay and equal opportunities, and an end to discrimination.

Radical feminists began their own Radical Feminist Caucuses in 1975 and a Radical Feminist Network met from 1976 to 1978. The final meeting, called to discuss anti-women government policies and a perceived lack of direction in the women's liberation movement, revealed personal and political differences between socialist feminists, lesbian/cultural feminists (who were now often advocating that women live in separate communities), and those radical feminists who held that patriarchy was the root cause of women's subordination.

The 1970s saw the government take a number of initiatives on women's issues, partly in response to the politicisation of women through feminism. The Committee on Women, chaired by Miriam Dell, was set up in 1970 as part of a national development planning exercise, to advise the government on matters affecting women. It operated in different forms until the Ministry of Women's Affairs, pushed for by Labour women activists, was established in 1985. International Women's Year (IWY), 1975, ushered in the United Nations Decade for Women, with its triple aim of promoting equality, integrating women in development programmes, and recognising women's importance in developing friendly relations and co-operation among states. Within New Zealand, the stated aims were to make the whole community aware of changing options open to women and men, to help women appreciate their own capabilities and contributions inside and outside the home, to give women confidence in trying new activities, and to raise awareness about the problems of women in other countries. It funded projects that worked towards these goals; women's groups, encouraged and supported by IWY organiser Rosslyn Noonan, responded with lecture series, conferences, exhibitions, surveys, festivals and celebrations.

The 1973 Select Committee on Women's Rights was a Labour government initiative. Made up of five male and two female MPs, it was charged with investigating the extent of discrimination against women and, where this was shown to exist, recommending policies to eliminate it. It received 128 submissions from a wide range of organisations and individuals. Noting that it had been established 'against a background of intensifying commentary on and discussion of the status of women in society', it concluded:

The inequalities that remain characteristic of our society arise mainly from traditional acceptance of the assumption that men and women have essentially different roles, and the reflection of this view on the division of rights and responsibilities in employment, public life, education and the home. ... It is clear that it is much more difficult to alter deeply entrenched attitudes held by society that cause disadvantage to women than it is to amend the existing law or to effect new laws to prevent discriminatory practices. [30]

But all the committee could do was recommend some changes to the law and propose that an interdepartmental committee investigate state payment of a financial allowance 'to persons with full-time family responsibilities'. [31] It did not effectively challenge the traditional assumption that women should have the primary role in the home.

Such a challenge was issued, however, at the conference on Women in Social and Economic Development, organised by the Committee on Women in 1976 to consider the 'two basic assumptions that have limited the participation of women in society. The first is that women are economically dependent, the second that they should have primary responsibility for the care of dependents.' [32] But the final report showed remarkable restraint, perhaps because of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's opening remarks that his government felt changed attitudes were 'the best hope for progress and these would only come about slowly'. [33] The Human Rights Commission, established in 1977, was seen as a possible catalyst for such change; but the 1977 Report of the Royal Commission on Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion and the subsequent legislation, which fell far short of the feminist goal of women's right to choose, offset any optimism.

Meanwhile the National Party had established a tradition of strong women vice-presidents, and Labour women had created an Advisory Council as a power-base for their activities. In the early 1980s both major political parties elected women presidents – Sue Wood for National in 1982, and Margaret Wilson for Labour in 1984 – who had belonged to feminist as well as party organisations. In the 1981 election, held after a South African rugby tour which bitterly divided the country, eight women entered Parliament; in the snap election of 1984, ten. However, the New Zealand Women's Political Party, which contested the 1984 election, attracted only 442 votes for its three candidates.

Five women MPs

Alexander Turnbull Library, EP/1981/3920

Five of the six female MPs in the 1981 Labour caucus are shown here. Left to right: Margaret Shields (MP for Kapiti), Mary Batchelor (Avon), Whetū Tirikātene-Sullivan (Southern Māori), Fran Wilde (Wellington Central) and Ann Hercus (Lyttelton). The sixth female Labour MP in this period was Helen Clark. Elected to represent Mt Albert in 1981, she led Labour from December 1993 and became the first elected female Prime Minister in 1999.

Feminist organisations had injected a totally new purpose and dynamism into women's political activity in the 1970s, but by the 1980s the movement seemed to be running out of steam. When the Labour government held a series of nationwide women's forums in 1984 to place its women's policies in priority order, feminists were shocked, and reunited, by the strong opposition from well-organised groups of right-wing fundamentalist women. Fulfilling an election promise, the Labour government set up the Ministry of Women's Affairs and appointed Ann Hercus to the portfolio. Ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was placed on the political agenda, and discussions began on pay equity – equal pay for work of equal value. Women's issues were now apparently at the centre of the political stage; few women foresaw their subsequent upstaging by New Right political philosophy and economic policies.

The very success of the women's movement contributed to its fragmentation in the 1980s. Māori women, with the exception of a few individuals such as Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku, had not been much involved in the feminist revival. They now came to the fore, arguing for Māori sovereignty and holding their own hui. Their voicing of a different set of grievances forced other women's organisations to re-examine their assumptions about oppression, equality and social justice. Peace women went overseas to protest against nuclear weapons; media women focused on coverage of women and women's interests and on how women working in the media were faring, setting up their own organisation in 1978. Women's health groups became more vocal and more political, openly challenging the medical profession, one of the most powerful wings of the establishment. Pornography and violence against women became major issues; Women Against Pornography (WAP), formed in 1983, vigorously campaigned to change public attitudes to pornography and gain support for stricter laws governing it.

Gradually the broad-based collectives and liberation groups folded, and most branches of NOW and WEL went out of existence. This was partly due to the calculation that success would come from focusing on single issues; yet it also reflected the capture of liberal 1970s rhetoric – equity, fairness, choice, accountability – by advocates of free-market policies. Feminists objected to the new emphasis on top-down management, competition and deregulation, seeing it as at odds with consultation, consensus, co-operation and collective action. By the early 1990s feminists were rethinking their strategies in order to find effective ways of operating in the prevailing political climate.

IN 1943, women's organisations formed a national committee to celebrate suffrage's golden jubilee. It was wartime, the committee's donated income totalled £43 Is 7d, and the celebrations were low-key. The committee urged 'That practical recognition be given to the principle of equality of citizenship, politically, economically, and socially, as between men and women.' [34] Fifty years of women's franchise had failed to bring such equality.

A further five decades of political activity brought women nearer that goal. Change might have been slow, but it did occur – in legislation, in the workplace, in the home, in politics. That change, although the result of many causes – economic, demographic, technological – would not have happened as it did without women's organisations being involved. Yet reforms and advances can easily be slowed down, lost sight of and even reversed. The year 1993, celebrating the centennial of women's suffrage, was a time to remind all people that women's struggle for equality, and beyond that for true emancipation, was far from over.

Raewyn Dalziel


The most significant change in politics since New Zealand celebrated the centennial of women’s suffrage was brought about by the referendum on the political system held in November 1993. As a result, the electoral system changed from first past the post (FPP) to a mixed member proportional (MMP) system, in which the make-up of Parliament reflects the proportion of the votes cast for parties. Each voter has two votes, one for a constituency representative and one for the party they wish to see in power. Sixty per cent of the members of the House are those voted in to represent constituencies; the remainder are taken from lists drawn up by the political parties.

The change to MMP followed the recommendations of a Royal Commission on the Electoral System, which had reported in 1986. One of the reasons the Commission recommended change was a deepening distrust of governments that failed to disclose to the voting public what they intended to do once they were in power. But the overwhelming desire was for the membership of Parliament to reflect the wishes and profile of the voters more fairly than it did under FPP. It was expected that the change would bring more women and Māori into politics and into Parliament, representing both the two main political parties and newly emerging parties. In addition, from the first MMP election in 1996 it seemed clear that neither of the two main parties, Labour and National, would win a majority of party votes, and they would therefore have to enter into coalitions or other political arrangements with small parties in order to form a government.

Women MPS group

Parliamentary Collection

Women MPs gathered together in the Reading Room of the Parliamentary Library in 2018, to mark the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage. They were recreating an iconic photo of MPs in the same room in 1905.

Although MMP led to the formation of a Māori Party and to short-lived conservative and morals-based parties, by 2018 it had not led to a women’s political party. The impetus of second-wave feminism that had fostered the creation of women’s political organisations in the 1960s and 1970s started to slow in the 1980s and continued to wane in the 1990s. It was as if the message from the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women about ‘gender mainstreaming’, the practice designed to ensure that the concerns and experience of women as well as men became integral to all policies and programmes, was seen as making separate women’s political organisations unnecessary.

Some developments seemed to confirm ‘mainstreaming’. In the first MMP Parliament the proportion of women MPs increased from 21.2 per cent to 29.2 per cent. The majority of women MPs gained their seats from their inclusion on party lists, demonstrating that parties had paid attention to the need to provide women with places high enough on the list to ensure their return to Parliament. In 1999 there was an increase in women MPs to 30.8 per cent; in the 2017 election, they reached 38.4 per cent. In 2013, the Labour Party had set a goal of 50 per cent of its caucus being women; in 2017, 21 of its 46 MPs were women.

Women also began to win the top political jobs. In December 1997 Jenny Shipley replaced Jim Bolger as Prime Minister. Helen Clark, who had become leader of the Labour Party in 1993, became the first elected woman Prime Minister following the general election of 1999 and held the post until 2008. Other women were elected to co-lead smaller parties: Jeanette Fitzsimons for the Green Party and Tariana Turia for the Māori Party, formed in 2004. After the 2017 general election the country had its third woman Prime Minister, following the success of Jacinda Ardern in coalition negotiations with New Zealand First.

In terms of women’s issues and rights, there were clear advances. In 2002 the Labour-led coalition government passed the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act, providing 12 weeks of paid leave for the main carer. In 2006 this was extended to 14 weeks. Later amendments extended the time to 18 weeks and provided for partner leave. Also in 2002, the government launched the Family Violence Prevention Strategy, a five-year plan to reduce domestic violence and protect those at risk. More resources were put into early childhood education to make it easier for mothers to return to paid work. In May 2007 the Human Rights (Women in Armed Forces) Amendment Act removed the right of the armed forces to restrict the roles of women in combat. Women won a significant employment fight in 2017, when the government agreed to increase the pay of aged-care workers after a pay equity case taken in 2012 by Kristine Bartlett and the Service & Food Workers’ Union (which later merged with the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturers’ Union to form E tū) proceeded successfully through protracted court action and a drawn-out negotiation.

The political scientist Jennifer Curtin has argued that although ‘proportional representation provides more opportunities for increasing women’s presence in formal politics’, the effect ‘should not be taken as a given’. Additional pressure from women’s organisations, ‘within or outside the party system’, is necessary to ensure that women are recruited as candidates. [35] The entries for the Labour Women's Council and the National Party Women's Sections set out what had become of each group by 2018. Most universities hosted a feminist club or society. The National Council of Women maintained an active role on behalf of its affiliated bodies in addressing women’s concerns and monitoring legislation and policy.

However, the women’s political associations that emerged and flourished during the heyday of second-wave feminism had disappeared. In 2005 the Janus Trust, a group of women who had been involved in the 1975 Women’s Convention, organised a convention to examine ‘where we are as women in New Zealand, and how far the place of women in society has altered'. They found that ‘many of the specifically women’s groups have faded away’, and those political organisations that continued to exist ‘have reduced memberships, and many are struggling to keep going with members who can’t participate either because of age or over-commitment'. [36] Sandra Grey came to a similar conclusion: the period 1995-2005 presented ‘a litany of closures of feminist organisations….’ [37] This decline is usually explained by a combination of factors, including the prominence and success of women in mainstream political organisations. As women’s welfare organisations became involved in a new model of delivering services through contractual arrangements with the neo-liberal state, their political activism declined. Many women who had spearheaded the women’s movement became focussed on their careers, or their lives took a different direction.

From its inception in 1984 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs had a brief to advocate for women’s interests. Its 2004 Action Plan for New Zealand Women set out an agenda focused on enhancing women’s economic independence, achieving greater work-life balance for families and improving the well-being and quality of life for all New Zealand women. Fourteen years later, women were asking whether they had progressed towards these goals as far or as fast as envisioned. Issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and pay equity remained on the political agenda, and women were again getting together to deal with them.

Women's march

Stuff / Dominion Post

The Women’s March which took place in Wellington on 21 January 2017 was one of many co-ordinated global demonstrations by women to demand equal rights and protest against sexism and sexual violence, particularly when linked to women’s employment. It led to the founding of Women's March Aotearoa New Zealand, a collective concerned with women's rights and allied issues of social justice.

The ways in which women participate in and influence politics are continually evolving. In the connected world of the early twenty-first century, women were able to reach a wide audience with political views expressed online through the internet and social media. Movements based in social media, such as the Me Too Movement, were showing how quickly women could be mobilised across the globe to support campaigns that were intensely political in nature, contesting structures of power that had proved resistant to change. By 2018 it was possible that such changes signified a turning point in women’s political action, but it was still too early to make this assessment.

Raewyn Dalziel


[1] Muller, 1869, p. 6.

[2] Cited in Grimshaw, 1972, pp. 81–82.

[3] Proceedings of the Māori Parliament, Paremata Māori, Waipatu, 1893, ATL. Māori women succeeded in 1897.

[4] Cited in Simpson, 1940, pp. 174–75.

[5] Daybreak, 11 May 1895.

[6] Exceptions occurred, for example when Elizabeth Yates was elected mayor of Onehunga in 1893, and became a JP ex officio.

[7] The National Council of the Women of New Zealand, Third Session, April 20 to 28, 1898, Wanganui, 1898, p. 57.

[8] Sheppard to Dr Salomon, 9 March 1911, Sheppard Papers, Canterbury Museum Library.

[9] Siegfried, 1982 edn, pp. 290–291.

[10] Sievwright to Sheppard, 11 January 1905, Sheppard Papers, Canterbury Museum Library.

[11] Holt, 1980, p. 43; Sievwright to Daldy, 7 October 1904, NCW letter (photocopy) in possession of author.

[12] Grossmann, 1908, p. 43.

[13] Grossmann, 1908, p. 43.

[14] Stout, 1913, pp. 5-6.

[15] 'The Position of Women in New Zealand', New Zealand Herald, 17 February 1912.

[16] McCombs, 1933, [n.p.].

[17] Maoriland Worker, 17 July 1918, cited in Rodden, 1976, p. 62.

[18] National Council of Women in New Zealand, Minutes, 1897, p. 10; The National Council of the Women of New Zealand, Third Session, April 20 to 28, 1898, Wanganui, 1898, pp. 49–51.

[19] New Zealand Herald, 25 June 1919, cited in Kuitert, 1986, p. 117.

[20] Auckland Star, 19 September 1923.

[21] Kedgley, 1972, p. 261.

[22] Wilson, 1992, p. 36.

[23] Woman To-day, Vol. 1 No. 1, April 1937.

[24] Carter, 1947, p. 77.

[25] Women's Liberation Front, Vol. 1 No. 1, 26 June 1970.

[26] Craccum, Vol. 45 No. 21, 16 September 1972.

[27] Preddey, 1985, p. 23.

[28] Sally Casswell, 'The United Women's Convention or The One Who Got Away', Broadsheet, No. 32, September 1975, p. 9.

[29] Goodger, 1975, p. 11.

[30] The role of women in New Zealand society, Report of the Select Committee on Women's Rights, Government Printer, Wellington, 1975, pp. 7, 103.

[31] The role of women in New Zealand society, p. 85.

[32] Background Papers, Women in Social and Economic Development Conference, Wellington, 1976, IWY 76-Gen-Y, p. 5.

[33] Women in social and economic development: report of the Prime Minister's conference 11-12 March 1976, Committee on Women, Wellington, 1976, p. 7.

[34] Circular, 2 September 1943, Golden Jubilee of Women's Franchise in New Zealand, Fawcett Library, London.

[35] Jennifer Curtin, ‘Advancing Women’s Presence in Formal Politics: Proportional Representation in the Antipodes’, in Chappell and Hill (eds), 2005, pp. 98, 106.

[36] Margaret Shields, ‘Introduction’, in Dale Williams (ed.), 2006, pp. 1–2.

[37] Sandra Grey (2008), p.71.

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