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

'Town' and 'country' have been implicitly understood by New Zealanders as opposite categories, but in practice the interconnections between the two make definitions difficult. The usual distinction on the basis of size (in 1993 the Department of Statistics defined rural communities as those of up to 1000 people) encompassed a wide geographic, social and economic range. But this was masked by a stereotype which equated rural with farming, and farming with an affluent family farm.

Rural women have belonged to many organisations, but very few of these have been rural women's organisations. Many groups which helped to create a sense of community in rural areas, as well as providing essential services, are therefore not discussed here. These included child-oriented organisations such as play groups, church women's groups, arts and crafts groups and the Māori Women's Welfare League.

Major national rural women's organisations

The two major national rural women's organisations to emerge were the New Zealand Federation of Country Women's Institutes (CWI), called until 1952 the Women's Institutes (WI); and the Women's Division Federated Farmers (WDFF), [1] known as the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union (WDFU) until 1946. In terms of attracting large, loyal and widespread followings, they were possibly the most successful women's organisations ever seen in New Zealand.

Established in the 1920s, both sought to improve conditions for women and children in rural areas. Both operated on a community development model of providing mutual support, practical help, education and cultural activities for women as homemakers. As such, they provided important community services, raised extraordinary amounts of funding for others, and provided adult education services (mainly with a domestic flavour). They became a forum for discussion and action on matters of mutual concern. But the most important aspect for the majority of members before the 1990s was the public space they created for women's recreation. Early accounts emphasised the previous isolation of rural women, and the absence of other activities. Even in the 1950s these organisations were described as 'life-savers', and members' reminiscences dwelt on the sociability of the groups and the skills learned through them.

1926 Women's Division of Farmers meeting
First conference of the Women’s Division of Farmers’ Union held at the Dominion Farmers’ Institute, Wellington, 1926. Florence Polson, founding president, is centre front with Marjorie Coates to her left and Una Hawkin to her right.

Mass membership was built on an assumption that all women shared a common female identity, and was sustained while women were willing to conform to this (or had no option but to do so). This identity was reflected in the rhetoric of the organisations – the mottos, aphorisms and homilies – which were often expressed in Christian terms. [1] The organisations could be seen as offering women opportunities for a 'ministry' long denied them within the mainstream churches. The prayer known as the Woman's Creed or Mary Stuart Collect (adopted by the WI and WDFU, and also by the National Council of Women (NCW), enjoins: 'And may we strive to know the great woman's heart, common to us all, and, O Lord God, let us not forget to be kind.' [2] Women were presented as guardians of moral and spiritual values, as in this 1975 address by WDFF president Bridie Bryant, which could have been given in any one of the 70 years prior to the 1990s: 'Much of the development of a country falls on the shoulders of women; they are the homemakers, the mothers of the nations, the conservators of cultural life values, and to them falls the responsibility of moulding the citizens of the future.' [3]

Changes in the post-war era allowing women more opportunities to express diversity undermined the unity of this model of womanhood. The junior organisation, Country Girls' Clubs (CGC), was the first to confront these changes, and amalgamated with Young Farmers' Clubs in 1973. WDFF membership declined drastically as younger women preferred to join special interest groups; the fall in CWI membership was offset by a move to cover urban as well as rural women. A variety of new, sometimes transient, special interest groups sprang up. Greater mobility allowed many rural women to look to urban groups for recreation.

Social change and separate spheres

The WI and WDFU emerged at a time of tremendous social change affecting many features of New Zealand society. Huge shifts were occurring in land ownership: it was estimated that more than half the total land changed hands between 1915 and 1925. [4] The goal of closer settlement continued to be pursued, even though the idealised small family farm was in strife. Sheer hard work was no longer sufficient to ensure success: the best land had been occupied, and entry into farming now required adequate capital. Many under-capitalised families (often with young children) struggled on uneconomic holdings, with insufficient return for their products on a falling market. The labour of women and children, especially in the dairy industry, was essential to survival. Conversely, on established farms, mechanisation was resulting in women withdrawing from directly productive farm labour and focusing on duties in the home.

Despite the persistence of Arcadian ideals, New Zealand was becoming a predominantly urban society. Improved technologies, especially electrification, were raising the standard of living in the towns. More occupations were opening to women, especially in the service and industrial sectors. There was a sharp fall in the birth rate, and women began to experience increased opportunities for leisure.

Maori women farming
Women have always played an important part in rural life. Here a Māori woman is ploughing a field in around 1900, with a flax basket attached to her waist. Photograph taken by William Henry Thomas Partington, c. 1900, probably in the Whanganui district.

Although the birth rate fell even more dramatically among rural families (from an average of 6.8 to 4 children between 1907 and 1927), [5] the new opportunities were less accessible to rural women, especially those in more recent settlements. Transport, communications and community services lagged behind urban developments. Electricity did not reach many rural areas until the 1930s or even 1940s, and where it was available it was initially used for farm rather than household purposes. Concern was expressed about the changing balance of rural/urban population, and especially about the lack of attractions to hold young people in rural communities.

The expanded urban employment opportunities for women never developed to any extent in the rural sector. Rural daughters rarely inherited farms, and the persistence of gender role stereotypes limited their career choices. Nor were they encouraged to study agriculture – it was felt that farmers would not like taking advice from a woman, any more than their wives would like having another woman working alongside their man. Women employed as farm workers tended to be regarded as short-term substitutes for men. Young rural women therefore looked increasingly to the greater opportunities on offer in towns and cities.

Those same opportunities aggravated the perennial ‘servant problem’ for women of the employing class, particularly in farm households, where domestic labour was more burdensome. Rural women began to discuss their working conditions through the women's pages established by the farming newspapers in the mid-1920s. They also appreciated the horizons opened up by radio. In addition, some gained their first experience of organised recreation through war work – for example, the members of the first Women's Institute had all been members of the Red Cross during the First World War.

At the same time, new ideologies of child-rearing and housework (associated with the rise of the Plunket movement and domestic science) were resulting in a redefinition of the role of the housewife and an attack on women's wider education. The emphasis on motherhood and home management as a vocation requiring specialist training arose out of eugenic concerns about fertility and race fitness. It was supported by many women activists, including the university-educated Anna Elizabeth (Bessie) Jerome Spencer, founder of the WI; they believed that raising the status of domestic work would raise the status of all women – and solve the servant problem as well.

In fact it did neither. Instead, the emphasis on the home as the natural sphere for all women retarded women's participation in other areas; for example, home science successfully diverted talented women scientists. Additional leisure time for women was directed into elaborating their homemaking functions, rather than entering areas where they would have competed with men. This also happened on the farm, as women increasingly withdrew or were marginalised from market production.

The early history of the major rural women's organisations could be read as an attempt by women to assert the importance of their work in the home and to turn it into a political power-base. It was an extension of the 'separate spheres' argument used by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to lay claim to a territory where they held the expert knowledge. This was clearly apparent in the early literature of the WDFU, which asserted a partnership with men. Dr Frances Preston was probably one of the writers; her medical career had been sidelined through male prejudice, and she had become a career 'farmer's wife' instead. Dr Agnes Bennett, who defended women's education against the powerful misogynist doctors Truby King and Ferdinand Batchelor, was also a strong supporter of the WDFU.

A fair economic reward

Prior to the 1990s, this separate sphere was never translated into real political power. In the 1930s and 1940s, both WI and WDFU urged their members to stand for public office, and emphasised learning proper meeting procedure as a stepping stone. In 1946 WI acclaimed the election of six members to local bodies, but with 19,000 members, this was not a major achievement. In 1950 Helen Wilson claimed that 'practically every request we made to a minister has since been granted'; [6] but while rural services had certainly improved, progress on issues which challenged established gender roles (such as the call for women's jury service and women police) had been very slow. Both organisations repeatedly expressed concern about family violence and pornography, issues which remained unresolved in 1993.

Investing the homemaker with moral and spiritual mystique inhibited any demand for a fair economic reward for her labour. The quality of service was not to be subject to mercenary market considerations, but offered as an expression of love for her family. These inhibitions were apparent in the wages and conditions offered to workers in the housekeeping schemes run by WDFU, and to a lesser extent by WI. [7] The organisers were neither able nor willing to pay a professional wage for housework when they could not command one for themselves. Demand constantly exceeded the supply of 'that noble type of womanhood who can keep the usefulness of her work uppermost in her mind and above the question of remuneration'. [8] Various attempts were made to solve the problem by recruiting from the most economically vulnerable women in the community – young Māori women, unmarried pregnant women, workers ‘manpowered’ during the war, immigrants, and social welfare beneficiaries.

Group photograph of women, 1925
Meeting of the first federation council of Women’s Institutes at Rissington, Hawke’s Bay, 1925. Bessie Jerome Spencer is seated centre front; Amy Hutchinson is standing second row, fourth from right.

Members of organisations which glorified housework often appeared to obtain their greatest enjoyment from escaping it. Lady Bledisloe, in her address to the 1931 WDFU conference, spoke of the opportunities the organisation provided for 'the broadening of their outlook, the enrichment of their lives outside the exacting humdrum duties of housewife and mother in isolated rural surroundings'. [9] The organisations' leaders tended to be women who were relatively free of such responsibilities, and had sufficient financial means; many were educated urban women who had married into a rural community. Women of ability were thus able to have a satisfying de facto career.

The records of these organisations suggest a dependence on male approval which reflected the constraints on women's activities. Credit was given to men for founding the WDFU, the original Canadian WI, and the CGC. While some men were undoubtedly helpful, the first male reaction in many districts to the prospect of a women's organisation was suspicion, if not downright hostility: 'As was not surprising at that time [1929] the menfolk viewed our movement with apprehension.' [10] What Jerome Spencer described as 'the sly fun of the menfolk' was still apparent in the 1990s, but women continued to rationalise this trivialisation of their interests and achievements as masking secret male admiration. Nor was the negativity confined to men. Helen Wilson attended her first WDFU meeting expecting to meet 'strident man-haters and acidulated spinsters'. [12] Not surprisingly, the organisations emphasised the benefits to men of their wives' membership, as in this letter to Home and Country in 1929:

I think at first [men] are often inclined to feel rather suspicious about such a new venture among country women and more than a little puzzled by determined and vigorous outbursts of playful activities by wives who may even be long past middle age, rather as if they viewed some of their weathered fence posts breaking into bloom or their easy chairs rising to dance around the kitchen. But most certainly they are kindly disposed and it remains for our members to prove to them that the Institute stands for the making of happier homes and none the less punctual and well-cooked home meals. [13]

Even local histories published by these groups reflected a male (and entirely Pākehā) view of New Zealand. Although one collection was described as 'tales handed down to us by our mothers and grandmothers', most informants appeared to have been male. [14]

The early programmes of both organisations included talks on sideline farming activities for women, such as poultry, bees or rabbits, but the emphasis was on consumption for use, rather than for sale in competition with men.

However, both WI and WDFU organised 'Women's Exchanges' – regular markets where members could sell their produce to supplement the family income. These were credited with real economic importance for some rural families during the Depression. The markets persisted as a way of raising funds, but did not develop as a means to women's economic independence. The organisations' productive capacity was most evident during the Second World War, when their varied war work included packing soldiers' parcels, making camouflage nets, and organising holidays for the families of servicemen. It was also apparent in the activities of two other wartime organisations, the Women Herd Testers' Association and the Women's Land Army.

Similarities and differences

In New Zealand two parallel rural women's organisations developed, in contrast with the pattern in Australia, Canada and Britain. Jerome Spencer of the WI tried to prevent this, suggesting to the first annual general meeting of the WDFU in 1926 that the two should amalgamate to form a Country Women's Association. Her appeal, like similar moves in 1931 and 1932, was defeated. Not even Professor Ann Gilchrist Strong of the Home Science School, despite her importance as a provider of domestic education services, could prevent two groups being established in Otago.

The WDFU was initiated as a national organisation for the women of landowning families. By contrast, the WI grew from local level to become a federation of autonomous institutes which welcomed non-farm members, and also made efforts to include Māori women. The importance of property interests to the WDFU was reflected in a remit in the 1930s calling for the reimposition of the property franchise in local body elections. This would have removed the franchise from residents who were not ratepayers, even though many of these would be women. Where the WI emphasised its British connections, the WDFU seems to have feared any dilution of its New Zealand farming identity. In refusing the WI's suggested amalgamation, it stressed the importance of its association with the Farmers' Union. This may have been expedient, but the informal connection was always an important source of political connections and skills.

In 1932 a compromise was reached: WDFU would concentrate on 'the woman on the land', [15] and Wl on communities with populations under 4000 (expanded in 1952 to 6000). A hierarchy of co-ordinating committees (known as 'Co-ord') was established between the two in 1937. These later received government funding, and co-operated with adult education organisations, including the oddly named 'rural sociologists' (actually domestic science instructors) employed by the Department of Agriculture from 1944 to 1966.

Women dancing
Women’s Institute dance, Denniston, 1945. Women-only social functions became a regular occurrence during the war years.

However, there were more similarities than differences between the two organisations, especially at the local level. Women joined the one that was nearest, and sometimes belonged to both. WI and WDFU both developed into highly structured democratic organisations with local, regional and national executives, modelled on existing male associations. Both asserted strongly that they were 'non-party political'. Very full programmes of similar activities were devised at all levels, focusing on the annual national conference as a major organisational and social event. Both set up book clubs, housekeeping schemes, and group travel. Both affiliated to similar organisations within New Zealand and overseas, including the Associated Country Women of the World, supporting its aid and development projects for Third World women.

Both organisations aimed to equip their members, who often had very little formal education or self-confidence, with the skills to organise effectively for action, and many of their activities must be seen in this light. Jerome Spencer had very broad (and in 1993 as yet incompletely researched) aims for the WI, but her advice to Elsie Locke and a younger generation of activists was, 'Start with something simple that's widely acceptable.' [16] Roll calls were an example of a deceptively simple technique requiring all women to participate. The hilarity caused at a Plimmerton WI meeting in 1936 by the roll call 'What is your Christian name?' gives an insight into the etiquette of the time, which dictated that married women be known only by their husband's name.

The WI, WDFU and CGC flourished when there were few competitors, apart from church associations, for women's available 'leisure' time – which was limited anyway by domestic duties and lack of transport. Generations of women growing up in or marrying into rural communities were inducted into membership as an accepted (and expected) part of their female role. The 1950s and 1960s, with the renewed post-war emphasis on women's place in the home, saw peak levels of activity and prosperity for these organisations.

They had emerged at a time of demographic change; each succeeding generation of women had a better education, wider life experience, fewer children, lighter domestic duties, more mobility (i.e., a driver's licence and access to a vehicle), and higher expectations of activities outside the home than their mothers and mothers-in-law had. They also tended to be better educated than their husbands, and more likely to look for employment outside the home or off the farm.

Change arrives, 1970s-1990s

While the rural population remained roughly constant, by 1990 it had declined from 30 per cent of the New Zealand total in 1920 to 16 per cent, and had become increasingly urban-oriented. The numbers of farming – and farm service – families fell. Basic services migrated to the towns, and increasing numbers of rural dwellers, including farm households, became reliant on urban jobs for part or all of their income.

By the 1970s these changes were undermining the rural women's organisations. Many rural women were able to attend town groups; some joined embroidery or woolcraft guilds and floral art clubs, or started arts and crafts clubs in the rural community. Access to secondary school night classes, community college courses, the Rural Education Activities Programme (REAP) and extramural university courses undermined the CWI and WDFF as providers of education services. Mobility and television decreased their importance as providers of entertainment.

Many of the new options were still extensions of domesticity. Women's committees provided social and catering services to men's organisations ranging from Agricultural and Pastoral Associations to rugby clubs. Plunket, playgroups, playcentres and parent-teacher associations all focused on mothering. Women also spent more of their supposed 'leisure' in the role of chauffeur, driving their children to a range of sporting and cultural activities. However, the post-war child-focused groups were different in one important respect: they comprised a narrow age-band of women, who could form their own networks. Younger women were thus less likely to be involved in women's church groups, or to join CWI or WDFF. This made them much less subject to the influence of older women's views on the 'proper' conduct of the rural way of life.

By the 1970s most young women could take education, relative prosperity, contraception and a driver's licence for granted. They had financial independence before marriage, and where possible continued in the paid workforce until the birth of their children. While still taking the prime parenting role, they expected fathers to be more involved, not just as a favour, but as a shared responsibility. They expected to have the time (and money) to pursue their own interests, and to put less emphasis on self-abnegation in the service of others.

They were also products of a consumer culture in which traditional female crafts had a low economic value, and cash was a prerequisite for participation. They did not subscribe to the prestige system upheld by the traditional rural women's groups, and joined in denigrating their 'tea and scones' image, turning more toward the power and prestige of masculine value systems. National Council of Women president Jocelyn Fish, herself a rural woman, commenting in 1990 on the declining membership of rural women's groups, explained, 'Young farming women don't want to stop computing the latest herd breeding index to go and make a cake to have a contest with someone.' [17]

The semi-formal playgroups established in the 1970s were probably the most important of the new female solidarity groups, and may have educated the mothers as much as the children. 'When I talk to women about changing the world, I say starting a playgroup was my first step,' Danna Glendining commented. [18] Young rural women were able to spend time together discussing matters of importance to them, including topics off-limits or unknown to older generations. Women in one district recalled the hilarity – and solidarity –  engendered by a late-night discussion, after a playgroup meeting, in which they discovered they had all had honeymoon cystitis. Expectations of marriage changed too, as it became more possible for women to leave intolerable situations. The matrimonial property legislation of 1976 was a major step forward in recognising the economic contribution to a marriage of the wife's unpaid labour in the home and on the farm.

These younger women were financially and administratively competent, and their ability to tap sources of state funding (and later commercial sponsorship) freed energy which the older organisations had had to put into fundraising and the maintenance of complex structures. State-funded advisers or co-ordinators eliminated the resentments often caused by using local resources to fund national administration. Younger women also felt able to spend money on their own programmes, whereas the older organisations had mainly funded philanthropic activities for others.

The formation in 1980 of Women in Agriculture (WAg), an informal but well co-ordinated network of mostly younger rural women, was designed in part to counter the continuing 'invisibility' of women in farming. While still taking the main responsibility for domestic work, these women claimed recognition for their direct, rather than supportive, contribution to production, describing themselves as women farmers rather than farmers' wives. WAg attracted some CWI and WDFF members, as well as women who rejected these organisations as outdated. A further development from the WAg network was the Rural Women's Education Trust (1987).

From the 1980s their wider experience and support base encouraged increasing numbers of mostly younger women to enter previously male-dominated bodies. Playgroup mothers were elected to school committees (later boards of trustees). Farming women started attending farm discussion groups, and even Federated Farmers' meetings when a topic interested them. Their confident assertiveness was not always appreciated by older women, especially as it was often accompanied by adverse comments about the older organisations and their values. 'You young women are in too much of a hurry', one activist was told. [19]

CWI and WDFF members reacted indignantly to the impression they saw being created that 'country women have had a dreadful life, have had a misery of it for decades and only now, through these newly-emerging groups, found any support and friendship'. [20] Their publicity from the 1980s stressed that although the majority of their members might appear to be elderly, there were many younger members too.

However, many older women were also grateful for the freedom the new outlook gave them, if not to reject the ideology of self-sacrifice, at least to say 'no' more often, and to take time for themselves. The small community of Waikākā in Southland once supported both CWI and WDFF; by 1986, its largest women's organisations were an arts and crafts club and a golf club. Golf was particularly valued as an escape from responsibilities and as pleasant stress-free exercise. Defying categorisation as either 'worthy' or 'frivolous', it was a meeting place for a wide range of women.

From the late 1970s more informal, often localised rural groups sprang up to meet specific needs. Such structures did not require much energy, but might not survive changes of personnel, as shown by the Tutuanui Chit-chat Club in 1989. Members were mainly mothers in their late twenties to mid-forties, with young families and many other commitments through Plunket, playgroups or school. They did not want to belong to anything with a committee, or where they felt obliged to attend the monthly get-together in each other's homes. An informal atmosphere where young babies were welcome was a priority. There were sometimes speakers, usually on a craft topic, shopping trips, and Christmas socials. The club lapsed when key organisers left the district, although the need remained. Dinner clubs in small rural centres met similar needs, although here the opportunity for women to meet without children being present was important. (The presence of children at meetings was a potential source of conflict in the other women's groups.) Investment groups were also briefly popular in the early 1980s. The occasional group based in a small rural town, such as the Matamata Feminist Women's Support Group, had a specifically feminist agenda.

By the mid-1980s, the crisis in the agricultural economy and the axing of rural services was provoking anger at apparent government insensitivity to the effects of its policies. One farmer expressed a widely held view: 'The government may as well have taken a chainsaw and cut [the rural community] off New Zealand.' [21] Rural support groups sprang up in the wake of the crisis. Some were like the Chit-chat Club, designed to support their own members; others were pressure groups to resist government policies. Although not exclusively women's organisations, these were often instigated by women (including some members of the older organisations) and emphasised women's capacity to cope in a crisis.

Rural Sector Concern, for example, was established in 1986 by about 25 women from the Foothills district around Stavely, in Mid Canterbury. Speaking for the group, Juliet Kirke said that 'worry-worn and shell-shocked farmers were too exhausted to mount an effective resistance against economic adversity', but the men were 'right behind' the women's group. [22] Women in many predominantly Māori rural communities, which had endured years of economic depression, similarly acted as catalysts for change, through the Māori Women's Welfare League or through marae or community trust groups.

The business and professional expertise these groups could muster is indicative of change in rural women's lives. In previous generations this expertise was largely confined to teachers and nurses; such women could be capable leaders, but they lacked experience of public policy development and administration. WDFF, for example, might pass remits on economic matters, but it then referred them to Federated Farmers for action.

The need to bring rural women together at this time of crisis led to the United Rural Women's Gathering in Wellington in April 1986. This initiative, supported by WDFF, CWI and the Ministry of Women's Affairs, was attended by women from all rural organisations and occupations; the discussion on the impact of government economic policies was described by one woman as 'the angriest meeting I have ever attended'. [23]

One outcome of the gathering was the setting up of a small informal coordinating group, known first as the United Rural Women's Collective and later as the Federation of Rural Women, which continued to seek ways to combine resources and present a united rural women's voice to government. But despite the considerable initiative of individual women, differences in analysis between the organisations resulted in a limited outcome. [24] The proposed Rural Women's Forum 93 'Paddocks to Parliament' offered another chance for rural women to find a united voice.

Differences were also apparent in relations between rural and urban women's organisations, especially in the 1984 debates surrounding the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which NCW supported, but the rural organisations found more problematic. In fact CWI's role in the 1990s, and its emphasis on the size and spread of its membership in both urban and rural communities, could only be understood in terms of these ongoing differences, as it disputed NCW's claim to be the largest women's organisation in New Zealand.

Co-operation between rural women's organisations on political issues was also handicapped by their differing structures, and differing capacities to conduct well-informed discussion among members, collect data and opinions, formulate position statements, and lobby effectively. By the 1990s CWI and WDFF both had many members, particularly in the older age groups, who belonged for reasons of social support. They resented time put into business, and the input from branches was variable. WDFF was making strenuous efforts at the national level to become relevant to more than its senior members, before numbers sank below the point at which it could maintain its level of activity. As executive members pointed out, the need was still there, people wanted action, but they were not able or willing to give the time to maintaining the structures to carry it out. This was compounded by the economic pressures on women and their loss of leisure time for voluntary activities. The complexity of issues, the speed of change, and excessive governmental demands for public consultation (apparently not often listened to) were also taxing available resources severely. The research and public relations capacity of these organisations was minimal compared to that of Federated Farmers or other business-sector organisations.

By the early 1990s the viability of any rural women's pressure group was in question, and some rural activists were calling for women to express their concerns directly through membership of Federated Farmers. However, probably because of its low female membership, Federated Farmers took a narrow economic view of rural affairs, and showed little interest in social issues, leaving these to the women's organisations.

The rural women's organisations made a significant contribution to New Zealand society. They performed a staggering amount of unpaid community labour, brightened and broadened the lives of thousands of women, and campaigned successfully for improved rural living conditions and community services. As Marilyn Waring pointed out, one of the ironies of our national accounting system is that the enormous value of this work was discounted because it was not performed for payment. [25] The potential consequences of losing this voluntary workforce through the decline of the organisations was being underestimated, especially at a time when government policy was devolving more responsibility upon 'the community'. The temporary collapse of the Waikato WDFF Homecare scheme (the largest in New Zealand) in 1988 was a portent of the gathering crisis.

The organisations also taught each generation of daughters that women could be public actors, even though the result became a demand for change, expressed by a WDFF member at the 1989 national conference: 'Younger women are demanding new methods and embrace new thoughts as world thought moves forward. We will carry the Women's Division torch into the future. Listen to us or we will take our talents and enthusiasms and ideals elsewhere.' [26]

But amid the outward changes, continuities remained. The CWI and WDFF still portrayed women as the caregivers and producers of life. The rural community was still 'the backbone of the nation', and women 'its loving heart'. [27] In adversity, it was the women who took the initiative and combined for action. 'You women have the imagination to see the possibilities and you are really the folks who get things done,' the editor of the New Zealand Dairy Exporter had written in 1926. [28] More than 60 years later, the rural support groups were saying the same thing. When Jan Sinton, president of a newly founded WDFF branch in Gisborne, was interviewed in 1991 about the leadership shown by women in reviving the rural communities after Cyclone Bola, she said, 'Their strength and resilience got things back together. They learned they do make a difference, they can have their say, they are important.' [29]

Rosemarie Smith

Women gathered in theatre with banners over balcony
Country Women’s Institute members watch proceedings from the Wellington Town Hall balcony surrounded by some of the 620 banners that bedecked the hall, during their three-day conference in July 1994.


Twenty-five years on from 1993, those impatient 1980s rural activists of the Women in Agriculture (WAg) network could be seen as pushing change in the right direction. They demanded recognition as equal partners in rural enterprises, or indeed on their own account, and they wanted skills to increase their effectiveness, to take more control, and to get more personal satisfaction from their working lives.

With their ‘tea and scones’ focus on women’s unpaid work as nurturers and doers of good deeds, even in their community advocacy work, CWI and WDFF did not meet the new agendas, and their formalised national structures were challenged by fast-changing times. Nor did many of their members necessarily want change, as succeeding national executives would find in attempting to alter even a logo. The detailed histories of these long-established organisations indicate the extent to which they adapted. WAg gradually faded, as did its sister organisation, the Canterbury-based Rural Women’s Education Trust, which originated directly out of the mid-1980s farming crisis with all its economic, political and social turmoil.

However, the self-help impetus launched many women into public life (including future Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, elected to Parliament in 1987), and created space which new organisations filled, this time operating on a more corporate model, solidly backed by agribusiness funding, and providing more high-level business and strategic skills. This reflected not just recognition by agribusiness of the economic importance of women’s work, but the profound changes – demographic, economic, political, technological and social – impacting on the rural community.

By 2018 the statistical definition of that community had become more elusive than ever, with the thinning out of rural services, and so many rural residents commuting (including telecommuting) to urban employment. Rural industries were more diverse, farming operations were more likely to be large-scale and corporate, run by employed staff, and sectors such as tourism and horticulture were not exclusively rural.

Transport and communications technology reduced not only the tyranny of distance, but also face-to-face community contact, draining support from local stores, schools and sports clubs, and also from women’s groups founded in past realities. In addition, women associated with the rural sector had even better education and work experience than before, including in non-traditional areas such as engineering, economics, agricultural sciences and law, as well as wide-ranging community leadership experience.

All this change was evident in the biographies of women associated with contemporary rural organisations – from the winners of the awards they sponsored to the board members – and had major implications for the choices women made about where to put their energy.

With the massive expansion of dairy farming, it was not surprising that one of the first and most dynamic new women’s organisations to follow WAg was the Dairy Women’s Network, started in 1998. With 10,000 members by 2018, it celebrated its twentieth anniversary with an upbeat assessment of achievement, having raised women ‘from being an invisible force in farming to business leaders and board members in their own right’. The future looked equally bright: ‘Today’s women in dairy are multi-talented, capable and influential and we work alongside our members to give them additional skills to be the best they can be both on and off farm.’ [30]

Similarly, the Agri-Women’s Development Trust (AWDT), set up in 2009, ‘equips and supports women to generate economic, social and environmental progress in New Zealand’s primary sector and rural communities. We research, design and deliver personal, business, leadership and governance development for women.’ It also bluntly acknowledged the benefits of sponsorship: ‘Our valued partnerships with industry mean that AWDT programmes are available at no cost or at a heavily subsidised rate, reducing barriers to participation.’ [31] Businesses too offered programmes directly, such as beef and lamb exporter ANZCO Food’s 2018 conference, ‘Being Bold for Change’, with sessions covering a challenging range of topics, and opportunities to ‘network with like-minded women.’ [32]

With everything organised by professional event managers, and even a small accommodation allowance on offer, it was easy to see why ambitious and busy women would prefer these forms of organising to conferences or workshops involving months of planning (and later accounting) by voluntary organisers who could be too busy to participate. These new groups also visibly featured diversity, especially of talented immigrant women such as 2018 Dairy Woman of the Year Loshni Manikam, a former lawyer turned leadership coach, and high-achieving Māori businesswomen such as AWDT patron Mavis Mullins. [33]

However, while the aim and vision statements of these latest-model women’s organisations presented a different orientation from the past in being specifically industry-focused, they were more than just education providers and personal growth coaches, and all still referred to women’s wider community roles. In her website personal statement the 2018 Dairy Women’s network chair, orchardist and dairy farmer Cathy Brown, summarised her values as ‘Family Farm and Community’. [34]

In equipping women with skills and confidence, these successors to WAg were finally fulfilling the ultimate hopes harboured by Women’s Institute founder Elizabeth Jerome Spencer in the 1920s for that organisation: to train women for participation in all aspects of New Zealand life. For example, the 2012 Dairy Woman of the Year, Barbara Kuriger, became a National MP in 2014.  

They also created an industry environment in which women could participate on equal terms in former male bastions such as Federated Farmers, in 2018 led by its first-ever woman president in 118 years (and another former Dairy Woman of the Year), Westland farmer Katie Milne. Meanwhile agendas pioneered by the revamped longstanding rural women’s groups – such as Rural Women’s 1980s focus on landcare and rural mental health – became mainstream, adopted by Federated Farmers or by new initiatives such as the Rural Support Trusts, and indeed by political parties.

The need for gender-specific organisations had arguably diminished by 2018. This point was underlined by the number of women leaders (including Rural Women New Zealand chair Fiona Gower) who were alumnae of Lincoln University’s Kellogg Rural Leadership programme; its class lists showed participation by women increasing to near parity with men.

Nevertheless, in 2016 a lack of women in leadership roles was identified by Horticulture NZ as a constraint on the industry, and both the Agri-Women’s Trust and the Dairy Women’s Network were called on for advice. Discussion included possibly establishing a similar group to boost women’s input – not only a fascinating example of industry-led activism, but also an indication that separate spaces were still needed. [35]

Since 1993, both of the long-standing rural women’s organisations had modified their names: CWI became the New Zealand Federation of Women’s Institutes (usually known as WI), and the WDFF became Rural Women New Zealand (usually just Rural Women). In the 2000s, both sold their much-loved inner-city Wellington headquarters and called in management and public relations consultants.

Whatever the pros and cons, the energy put into ‘restructuring’, ‘vision statements’ and ‘strategic plans’ (as well as ‘revamping image’) certainly sharpened the focus of what each organisation was about; yet the traditional concerns were still there (including the seemingly endless defence of school bus and rural maternity services), but repackaged in twenty-first century terms. There were new concepts of governance and delegation to grasp, and new standards of health and safety, employer responsibility and public accounting to be met.

The detailed reports required by the Charities Act 2005, although pointy tools for measuring effectiveness, formed part of an increasingly untenable administrative burden for all voluntary groups. Organisations across the sector found ever fewer people willing to take on the responsibilities of office, and most certainly not treasurer, despite the expansion of the potential funding pool from sources tapped into by newer organisations.

Many women did always just want to get on with their own social, craft and charitable activities and cheerful chatter, and had never been interested in political advocacy, or became less interested as age and retirement distanced them from the issues. [36] Older women, reflecting on their past involvement with groups such as WI, reported that the younger women they knew did not have time for the previous level of commitment expected, with regular meetings and incessant volunteer expectations. Not only were they too busy; the social prestige that was once attached to being a good contributor no longer applied. [37] While some were philosophical, others were saddened that younger women did not want to support the kinds of organisation that had served them so well, where they had made lifelong friends and learned so much.

In fact, younger women were committed to their own new ways of organising. Nothing symbolised this better than what was, in 2018, New Zealand’s largest rural women’s group: the 11,000-member online network Farming Mums NZ, operating from the Facebook platform. The internet, and especially broadband access, made a stunning difference to rural life – as Rural Women recognised when it became a forceful advocate for improved service. Social media entrepreneur Chanelle O’Sullivan tapped its potential in establishing Farming Mums NZ in 2013, after noticing the lack of physical neighbourhood connection among rural mothers. [38] An active, cheerfully supportive and highly informative network, it had the advantage of being completely portable in a highly mobile world. Much of its content would be familiar to women of the past, especially around childcare and homemaking; but not the extent of members’ practical and agribusiness skills and the extraordinary frankness of discussion, especially about relationship difficulties (including family violence) and mental health.

This was far from the only virtual network by and for rural women, based around Facebook pages, less visible personal blogs and Twitter accounts. [39] In 2018 these provided a nimble form of the connection that women have always valued as part of group membership; and each had its own distinctive rural flavour, reflecting the remarkable diversity of twenty-first-century rural life.

Rosemarie Smith


[1] Lily Joll's twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to WDFF refers to 'the noble Christian women' among its early leaders: 'with their undying faith in the aims of the Division as our inspiration, we begin to see the words of Scripture being fulfilled – Cast thy bread upon the waters, it will be seen after many days' (And so we grew, p. 15).

[2] Harper, 1960, p. 12. In later years, the wording was altered to 'the great human heart'.

[3] Women's Division Federated Farmers annual report, 1975, p. 7.

[4] Day, 1991, p. 24.

[5] The mean number of children in urban families fell from 4.85 to 3.5 in the same period.

[6] And so we grew, 1950, p. 18.

[7] WI's first such scheme seems to have been in North Canterbury Federation (1935). By 1964 only eight of the 53 federations had schemes –  lack of suitable workers was said to be the reason.

[8] Women's Division of the Farmers' Union, Dominion Conference minutes, 1931. The 1932 conference set the housekeepers' wages at 25s per week – the lowest of the suggested rates.

[9] Women's Division of the Farmers' Union, Dominion Conference minutes, 1931.

[10 A.J. McCallion, E.D. Bennett and A.L. Gardiner (eds), Their greatness: tales of the Eastern Bay of Plenty, Eastern Bay of Plenty CWI, Rotorua, 1956, Introduction.

[11] Harper, 1960, p. 30.

[12] And so we grew, 1950, p. 18.

[13] Home and Country, August 1929, p. 11.

[14] McCallion et al., 1956, Introduction.

[15] Women's Division of the Farmers' Union, Dominion executive meeting minutes, January 1932.

[16] Elsie Locke, personal communication, 1991.

[17] Phillippa Stevenson, 'Food Image Fight', National Farming News, 19 January 1990.

[18] Pat Rosier, 'Farming Feminist: Interview with Danna Glendining', Broadsheet, No. 178, May 1990, p. 20.

[19] Danna Glendining, personal communication, 1992.

[20] 'Perceptions of Rural Women Refuted', Southland Times, 26 October 1985.

[21] Comment to author, 1992.

[22] 'Women Organise Opposition', Press, 21 February 1986; 'Rural Women Unite', New Zealand Woman's Weekly, 25 August 1986.

[23] Comment to author, 1992.

[24] A 1987 survey of rural women by the Federation of Rural Women encountered many problems and in 1992 had still not been published.

[25] Marilyn Waring, Counting for nothing: what men value and what women are worth, Allen & Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1988.

[26] New Zealand Countrywoman, July-August 1989, p. 2.

[27] Women's Division of the Farmers' Union, Dominion executive minutes, July 1929.

[28] New Zealand Dairy Exporter, 18 December 1926, p. 44.

[29] Jan Sinton, Radio New Zealand interview, 5 December 1991.

[30] Founded by Hilary Webber, Robyn Clements, Willy Geck and Christina Baldwin.

[31] Founded by Lindy Nelson, Mavis Mullins and fellow trustees. See


[33] Massey University Profiles, ‘Mavis Mullins MBA, MNZM, Rangitāne, Te Atihaunui-a-Paparangi and Ngāti Ranginui’. See:

[34] Previously at

[35] Yvonne O’Hara, ‘Lack of women in leadership “constraining”’, Otago Daily Times, 23 August 2017,

[36] Former RWNZ president Jeannette McIntyre, personal communication, 2018

[37] Ex-Pukerau Women’s Institute members, personal communication, 2018

[38] Chanelle O’Sullivan, personal communication, 2018; Chanelle O'Sullivan is a lot more than just a farmer's wife, Country Life, RNZ, 19 October 2018.

[39] For example, in 2018, Putaruru farmer Marilyn Baldwin had 2000 followers on Twitter:

Unpublished sources

Day, Delyn, 'The Politics of Knitting: A Study of the New Zealand Women's Institutes and the Women's Division of the Farmers' Union, 1920-1940', Postgraduate Diploma research essay, University of Otago, 1991

Women's Division Federated Farmers collection, c. 1925-1983, ATL

Women's Division Federated Farmers, Register of Resolutions, 1928-1992; annual reports, c. 1930-1992, WDFF National Headquarters, Wellington

Published sources

And so we grew: the story of the Women's Division of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand 1925-1950, Dominion Headquarters WDFF, Wellington, 1950

Carter, lan, ‘“Most Important Industry”: How the New Zealand State Got Interested in Rural Women, 1930-1944’, New Zealand Journal of History, Vol. 20 No. 2, 1986, pp. 27-43

Gill, T., P. Koopman-Boyden, A.R. Parr, W.E. Wilmott, in conjunction with WDFF, The rural women of New Zealand: a national survey, 1975, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 1976

Harper, Barbara, The history of the Country Women's Institutes in New Zealand 1921-1958, Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch, 1960

New Zealand Dairy Exporter, 1925-1992

Rivers, Mary-Jane, The contribution of women to the rural economy, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Policy Technical Paper 92/4, Wellington, 1992

Tui's Annual, 1927-1939