Service organisations

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


In 1993, the public perception of service organisations in New Zealand bore a strongly masculine imprint: they were seen as tight-knit men-only clubs, traditional and conservative, made up of men of substance and influence in the communities for which they were prepared to use their business and professional skills. It was only over the previous 25 years that women's organisations had adopted this model of service.

Early informal service organisations

Equally important, and with much deeper roots in New Zealand society, were women's groups offering a differently defined form of service, based on traditional womanly care and skills, rather than cash. Most of the early women's service organisations here were of this type. The origins of this kind of service lay in the private kindnesses and mutual support of women in an isolated colonial environment. The support was often provided within a family network. Jane Maria Atkinson, for example, living through the early 1860s in troubled Taranaki, cared for motherless children in her extended family. Even when not directly based in the family, the services women provided for one another tended to focus on childcare and child-bearing. Mary Cuddie, who lived on the Taieri Plain from the 1850s, used the experience of giving birth to 11 children (and the time left over from farming, planting trees, and making butter and cheese) to become nurse and midwife to her district. She was one of many women who helped others give birth. On Stewart Island, the legendary Granny Harrold combined roles as hotelier, nurse and midwife, and also found time, with her husband, to take on the care of state wards, sometimes a dozen at a time.

In this private provision of care, the line between welfare (which made life possible) and service (which enhanced its quality) was blurred, not least because the same women were often engaged in both. As the isolation of New Zealand's communities lessened, and welfare became a provincial and then national responsibility, charitable services tended to be taken over by groups of women rather than individuals or families. As urban poverty grew along with the European population – a mere 5000 in 1841, this exceeded 600,000 by 1891 – it was met by the philanthropy of the well-to-do and by the churches. It was to the churches that deserted wives turned in desperation when gold fever lured away their husbands, and it was the churches that organised the care of neglected children. Both personal philanthropy and church-based charity were typically the work of women.

An attractive example of a woman who combined both over a long life was Rachel Reynolds of Dunedin, the industrial capital of New Zealand in the late nineteenth century. As for many of the women who later joined service organisations, Rachel Reynolds' charitable work stemmed from a deep religious faith. She lived up to her belief that 'no-one can be living a truly Christian life who does not mingle frequently with the poor'. [1] During the recession of the 1880s and early 1890s she distributed fresh vegetables daily from her fine hillside home; each Sunday she read to the elderly inmates of the Benevolent Institution. Working closely with her friend the Reverend Rutherford Waddell, whose church she and her husband had helped to found, she organised women of the congregation into a Sixpenny Clothing Club, to which members contributed sixpence a month and material to make clothes for poor families. An expert needlewoman herself, each week she gathered impoverished young mothers of the neighbourhood in a Mothers' Club to teach them to sew. When the Reverend Waddell denounced from the pulpit the low wages and poor working conditions of factory workers in Dunedin, where 3000 women were employed in the clothing trade, she joined him in the agitation that led to the Sweating Commission of 1890. She served on a committee to raise money for a women's ward in Dunedin Hospital. Above all, motivated by pity for the waifs of notorious Walker Street, she was instrumental in setting up the colony’s first Free Kindergarten in St Andrew's Mission Hall in 1889.

Move to formal organising

Rachel Reynolds' style of service to the community – a combination of traditional gracious-lady philanthropy and church-based organisation – marks a stage on the way to more formal women's service organisations. The parish work of ministers' wives, such as leading 'Dorcas' sewing groups, or raising funds for foreign missions (the main goal) and sailors' rests, is also part of this intermediate phase. Not all New Zealand women found such work satisfying, however, and the foundation in 1885 of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the first national association of women in New Zealand, demonstrated an attempt to find an alternative. In denouncing alcohol as its enemy, the WCTU strove to grapple with the roots of social dysfunction, rather than merely to alleviate its effects. The new organisation espoused bold means in its bid to reform society, leading a campaign to enfranchise women.

However, the WCTU also recognised that there was still a need for on-the-spot charity from woman to woman. Its stated aim was to 'edify and build one another up, and then go out to help the world'. [2] Although the Franchise and Legislation Department, led by the charismatic Kate Sheppard, has overshadowed the other 20 or so departments of the WCTU, they remained active, engaging in traditional philanthropic service to the community as well as political action. They held mothers' meetings at which women were taught sewing, and ran temperance booths which provided refreshments at fairs. The WCTU's first president, Anne Ward, made her priorities clear when she opened a free childcare centre for 90 children in Auckland. The third annual convention adopted the aim of setting up free temperance kindergartens. Reclamation work with criminals and prostitutes was embarked on, but the main thrust was toward work with children.

The work of many departments of the WCTU was later taken over by specialised women's service organisations, almost all middle- and upper-middle-class in their membership, and effective in achieving their modest aims. Often the organisations were quite narrowly focused in the services they provided, but their capacity to adapt to changing circumstances was a mark of their strength. The Hospital Lady Visitors' Association (1887) in Christchurch was a case in point. Visiting the sick was a biblical injunction taken seriously by churchwomen of all denominations; it is a clear example of individual practice being extended to a group service, and changing to meet changing needs. Christchurch was not unique: the Dunedin Ladies' Hospital Guild laboured from 1892 to 1967 to 'supply hospital patients with such requisites as [were] considered necessary by the committee of the Guild for their bodily comfort'; [3] and in Auckland and Wellington, Hospital Ladies' Auxiliaries were set up in 1928 and 1929.

Some of the functions of the Christchurch association were carried out in Dunedin by a separate group, the Queen's Jubilee Convalescent Fund (established in 1887, it changed its name to the Queen Victoria Convalescent Fund on the death of the monarch). Presided over by the mayoress, it comprised the wives of prominent citizens, such as MPs and doctors. Its function was to select suitable women or girls, from the hospital or their homes, to send for a recuperative holiday to the country or seaside. The women raised money for this purpose by collections, subscriptions, donations and later carefully managed investments. After the First World War they merged with the Patients' and Prisoners' Aid Society, which since 1877 had provided religious services and missionary visitations to inmates of the hospital, gaol and lunatic asylum. Their combined resources enabled them to purchase a house on the coast north of Dunedin; in the 1920s, some 200 women a month benefited from post-hospital rest there.

The Hospital Lady Visitors, the WCTU, and from 1896 the National Council of Women (NCW) were made up largely of Christian middle-class reformers trying, in the traditional style of philanthropic women, to meet the challenges of an increasingly urbanised and industrialised society. At the same time working-class women were also banding together to meet these challenges, albeit from a quite different viewpoint. Women's lodges first appeared in New Zealand in the 1890s; the earliest was the Linda Rebekah Lodge (1895). The parent organisation, the Independent Order of Oddfellows (IOOF), had been in New Zealand since the 1860s, and women had been included in the Rebekah Degree – or branch – in the same decade. What was new in the 1890s was the degree of autonomy the women claimed, and the fact that they were often quite young, and unmarried.

By this time working-class women were earning their own livings in a variety of occupations, the old monopoly of domestic service having been broken. Like men, they wanted the financial support lodge membership offered – sickness benefits, assistance in old age, orphanhood or widowhood, help with funeral expenses. The cornerstone was the sickness benefit, which protected members from loss of earnings during illness. They also welcomed the socials, sometimes held jointly with male lodges, at the fortnightly meetings. The transition from being women's branches within the lodge to being full lodges, with the financial responsibilities that entailed, squarely posed the question of the relationship of women's and men's sections within an organisation and, indeed, women's role in society. In 1894, just after New Zealand women gained the vote, the Grand Master of a South Dunedin lodge had made an eloquent plea for the admission of women to Oddfellowship. Summarily dismissing suggestions that women would not be regular in attendance or faithful trustees of the secret signs of the Order, he urged that they should be privileged to join in 'enacting the great and elevating influence of our constitution'. [4] That his views were not generally popular among male lodge members was seen in the slow acceptance of women into Oddfellowship and the frequent resentment it caused.

If women's service organisations are defined as those whose primary aim is to serve the community, rather than their own interests, the lodges appeared to be an anomaly. But although the service the lodges provided to members was the main reason people joined, they also performed services to the community. Moreover, all service organisations benefit their members, if only by offering support and companionship.

Organising in the twentieth century

There was little change among women's service organisations in the first years of the twentieth century. The disappearance of the NCW, itself a symptom of the weakness of women's organisations at that time, became in turn a cause of their further decline. It was sometimes claimed that the women's vote had achieved its aim in legislation such as the Old Age Pension Act 1898, and reforms in the area of public health, so that there was no longer a need for women's service organisations to fill the gaps in the government's care for its citizens.

Greymouth Khaki Corps, 1901

Christchurch City Libraries, CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0088

Members of the Greymouth Khaki Corps, 1901. Several other fundraising women's contingents were formed during the South African War, including the Dannevirke Huia Khaki Contingent and the Amazon Contingent in Wellington.

One organisation which could perhaps be classed as a women's service organisation, and which was still flourishing in 1993, was founded in 1905 in Dunedin: the Victoria League for Empire (now Commonwealth) Friendship. The league was inspired by Rachel Reynolds' desire, after several visits to England, to achieve closer bonds with 'The Old Country'; its functions were to entertain overseas visitors, and later to assist new settlers. The practical tasks were carried out by women, who were also the office-bearers in all the branches; but when a national executive was at last formed in 1962, its members were male.

Floral fete in aid of the Palmerston North Public Hospital, 1909

Palmerston North City Library

Participants in a floral fete in aid of the Public Hospital in Palmerston North, 1909. Women and girls have played a prominent role in fundraising for countless public amenities throughout New Zealand.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 totally changed the previously sedate style of women's organisations. Women welcomed war work, approaching it 'with a zeal suggestive of long-repressed energy'. [5] Even before any troops had set off overseas, women were asking, 'How can we help?' They were soon told. Lady Liverpool, wife of the Governor, called on them to band together in small groups, led by mayoresses where appropriate, to provide 'necessaries' and 'comforts' for the troops at home and abroad. [6] She envisaged also the creation of a patriotic fund in every centre, managed by a small committee of women, who would receive contributions in money or in kind. It was the end of a long period of quiescence for women's organisations. A myriad of Patriotic Associations or Guilds did their bit to 'keep the home fires burning' by fundraising and providing items to send overseas in parcels to soldiers. The need was great. Between 1914 and 1918 more than a third of the eligible age group of men in New Zealand enlisted: 103,000 served abroad, 18,500 died and nearly 50,000 were wounded. [7] Women left behind, lonely, anxious to keep busy, and distressed as casualty figures mounted, flung themselves into patriotic work – perhaps inspired by the thought that they were 'taking their places by the side of the men in the trenches'. [8]

Women packing Red Cross parcels, Nelson, 1915

Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/1-009356-G

Women packing parcels for First World War refugees at the Red Cross depot, Nelson, 1915.

In every little community, it seemed, there was a ladies' patriotic organisation. By the end of the war the official tally was 568, but this did not include smaller branches. A list in Archives New Zealand shows more than 920. Some had a special focus, for example the Eltham Belgian Sewing Guild Relief Fund, the Hampden-Wainakarua Sewing Guild for Wounded Soldiers, or the Lady Liverpool's and Mrs Pomare's Maori Soldiers' Fund; but most were simply working bees, which met to sew or knit items of clothing for local soldiers. The list bears eloquent testimony to women's eagerness to help. 'The threat of national disaster', commented the New Zealand Methodist Times in 1915, 'has fused women into a greater sisterhood, that would have seemed impossible five years ago.' [9]

Leadership was generally provided by women of the social elite. Lady Liverpool herself, as patroness of the New Zealand Federation of Women's Patriotic Societies, was a model of womanly service, speaking at patriotic gatherings, visiting hospitals, inspecting Red Cross centres, even personally opening jumble sales and selling flowers on the streets. Christina Massey, wife of the Prime Minister, became president of the Soldiers' Wives, Mothers and Dependents' League. In the larger towns, the mayoress usually assumed responsibility for a women's committee made up of wives of prominent citizens; in Dunedin the names read like a page from a social register. Their efforts received official recognition: at the end of the war the most prominent organisers, such as Lady Liverpool, Christina Massey and Mīria Pōmare, were made Officers of the recently established Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Fundraising was a principal activity for wartime women's groups. They did it spectacularly well, raising a total of £4,866,520 by the end of the war. They could count on enthusiastic support from their constituencies, but their means of raising money were laborious – street appeals, fetes, and so on. They worked on a much smaller scale than their male counterparts. The Otago Patriotic and General Welfare Association, for example, was showered with almost £1000 within a few days of the outbreak of war; its largest and most successful venture, a 1915 Queen Carnival, crowded out the biggest hall in New Zealand (the Otago Drill Hall) for 10 days, and cleared an extraordinary £104,000.

If men had a head start when it came to raising money – a pattern that would be repeated in peacetime – women had the field to themselves in making comforts for the troops. Each recruit needed in his kitbag: '2 pair socks; 2 pair underpants; 2 woollen shirts; 2 undershirts; 2 towels; 1 pair braces; 1 cholera belt; 1 holdall; 1 handkerchief; 1 balaclava cap; 1 chest protector; 1 housewife [small sewing kit]; 1 service bag for holding rations on a march.' [10] It was up to the women of New Zealand to provide all these so-called 'comforts', which were really basic necessities, for the successive groups of men going overseas.

Nor did the provision of home-made comforts cease when the troops left New Zealand. Throughout the war, a steady flow of parcels containing tinned food, tobacco and hand-knitted woollens was maintained at a rate of 24,000 a month to soldiers serving abroad. It was organised through the Dominion Parcels Scheme, set up at a conference of women's patriotic committees in Wellington in 1916. As wounded soldiers began to return home, the women's committees kept up a supply of clothing for the hospitals. The patriotism of women's handcraft was even expressed in popular songs. The lyrics of 'Knitting', a rousing Canadian song which found its way here, contrasted the perceived role of men in wartime:

Marching, marching thro' the misty night,
Peering thro' the dark; longing for a fight

with that of women:

Knitting with a smile, knitting with a sigh,
For their sons, and brothers, fathers, lovers too;
They're knitting for the soldiers brave and true.
Knitting, knitting, knitting, with the khaki wool and grey,
Mufflers, socks and balaclava caps, they are knitting day by day;
Knitting, knitting, knitting, with a pray'r in every row,
That the ones they hold in their hearts so dear
May be guarded as they go. [11]

Soldiers were seen off and welcomed home with entertainments put on by the women's groups: these varied from the elaborate, with speeches, songs, and a procession, to the homely, using a local venue as a drop-in centre. Occasionally there were dances, with an orchestra playing for free and a supper provided by a ladies' committee. In Wellington a Soldiers' Club was set up by the local women's committee in 1915, to give servicemen somewhere to go while they were on leave in the city; later the other main centres followed suit. These clubs were the forerunners of permanent Returned Servicemen's Association (RSA) premises.

Enthusiasm for the nation's cause meant there was extreme pressure on young men to join the army. Recruiting rallies were rousing occasions and some women joined White Feather Leagues to shame men into enlisting by handing or posting them a white feather, the emblem of cowardice. There are accounts of such incidents in the press, reported in condemnatory tones; but how widespread the practice was is not clear, nor do the White Feather Leagues seem to have been formal organisations.

One women's club that tackled its war service with gusto in both world wars was the Spinsters' Club of Wellington, whose members initially worked to supply 'extras' to servicemen who had no relatives to do so. Its first effort was to send Christmas gifts to men stationed in Samoa: 50 parcels containing socks, bootlaces, biscuits, cakes, tinned goods, chocolate and chewing-gum. Realising 'something more was required', members then 'began to knit hard', producing an estimated 200 pairs of socks. [12] In July 1915, the club was reorganised, arranging to meet weekly (fining absentees) and raise funds, for example by selling flowers or roasted peanuts on the streets. Their efforts enabled them to send more than 100 parcels, each with a Christmas cake, a pipe, tobacco, writing paper and other small objects, to Gallipoli at the end of 1915. Nor did they forget soldiers still in New Zealand: members served them Christmas dinner at Trentham camp that year.

The armistice in 1918, it was hoped, signalled the beginning of a new world of peace and international cooperation. While there was no role in it for women's patriotic associations, the organisational and fundraising skills women had acquired in them carried over into peacetime service organisations. Many New Zealand women were also called on to use their traditional womanly skills to nurse family members through the influenza epidemic, which decimated the civilian population just after the war. Few women's service organisations were founded in New Zealand in the inter-war years. The women's branch of TocH, which emerged from a combination of wartime experience and Christian service, was an exception; its first branch was formed in Dunedin in 1925. However, it never flourished here, and by 1970 had only about 100 members. A number of service organisations for women, based on the male model, were formed overseas between the wars, mainly in the USA, but these were not generally imported into New Zealand until after the Second World War.

Significantly, there was more activity among organisations involving working-class women. The depressed 1930s was the most flourishing period for women's lodges, and the Co-operative Women's Guild was imported into New Zealand. In both organisations the form of service was economic self-help. By 1936 the various local Co-operative Women's Guilds, which had begun as offshoots of co-operative stores, had federated into a New Zealand organisation.

Similar to the Co-operative Guilds in its appeal to married women, its interest in community affairs and its British origins, the Townswomen's Guild also reached New Zealand in the inter-war period, federating in 1938. It provided companionship, celebrated womanly skills through the development of small craft circles, and fostered a sense of civic responsibility. An urban counterpart of the Women's Institutes, it tended to appeal to older middle-class women.

The way in which women's groups in general responded to the call of the nation in 1939 was reminiscent of their response in 1914. Once again the Governor-General's wife called on the nation's mayoresses to organise women's war work, through the Lady Galway Patriotic Guilds. In the ballroom at Government House, clothes for European victims of war were sorted on long trestle tables, with different women's organisations allotted their own day for working there. Once again, organisations such as the Townswomen's Guilds set up sewing and knitting circles to provide comforts for the troops. Middle-class women maintained their hold on running Women's Patriotic Associations, focusing on fundraising and providing fruit cakes, tobacco, balaclavas and socks.

Nevertheless there were significant differences, both in what the government was expected to provide for its troops – it now paid for items formerly bought by local subscription – and in much tighter regulation of the women's war effort, which reduced their autonomy. In accordance with the Patriotic Purposes Emergency Regulations 1939, regional quotas for knitted garments were established and knitting wool was distributed according to requirements. When, for example, 5000 pairs of woollen gloves were needed for New Zealand airmen going to Canada, knitters were provided with both wool and a standard pattern. The achievement was still impressive; between 1940 and 1945, the Wellington Women's Metropolitan Patriotic Committee knitted their way through an awesome nine tons of wool. Gift parcels for troops were still an important part of women's activity, but their contents tended to be more standardised and less personal. Organisations were encouraged to provide money rather than goods, so that items such as biscuits could be purchased in bulk from manufacturers. There was some opposition to the change, but the parcels were sent: by 1946 Otago alone had dispatched over 100,000 of them.

Entertaining the troops through service clubs marked a major change from the First World War. The (revived) Spinsters' Club opened for this purpose as early as 5 October 1939, the first New Zealand women's club to do so; during the war it provided a base, a meal or dancing for 130,000 servicemen. There was controversy about Sunday dances, and jitterbugging was not permitted, but such facilities were much appreciated by New Zealand servicemen, as well as American ones.

One important difference between women's roles in the two wars was that in 1940 they were able to join the New Zealand armed forces for the first time. The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was the largest service, with more than 4500 women serving overseas or in New Zealand toward the end of the war, but the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women's Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZS) also played their part. This war experience led to a special kind of service organisation, made up of former servicewomen bonded by the memory of serving their country, and still offering support and help to members.

Although the 1950s were characterised by the reimposition of the domestic role for married women and a retreat into family privacy, the decade also offered more varied employment opportunities for single 'career women'. The male model of service organisation came to be adopted by New Zealand women when, for the first time, there was a big enough group of women with the salaries and employment status to make this development possible. Henceforth 'service' for women's organisations would not be defined solely as the use of womanly skills to help others, but also as the utilisation of business acumen to raise money for worthy causes. Providing local amenities, always a major objective for men's organisations, assumed importance for women's ones as well.

Following international models

Because Rotary, until 1989 an exclusively male organisation, [13] served as a model for other service organisations, including the women's ones established in New Zealand since the Second World War, it is helpful to consider some of its history, characteristics and aims. Founded in Chicago in 1905, Rotary was the first organisation to combine fellowship in the world of business and the professions, providing 'mutually tangible benefits', with service to others. [14] This combination made possible both the phenomenal development of Rotary itself, and that of a range of other imitative service organisations. It demonstrated a complex mix of selflessness and self-interest, clearly seen in the motto 'Service above Self – he profits most who serves best', officially adopted in 1950. An unselfconsciously elitist organisation, Rotary was proud of the calibre of its members – 'an overflowing reservoir of high grade man power'. [15] This exclusiveness was ensured by rigid adherence to the classification principle: no club could have more than one member from any field of business or profession, thus forestalling professional competition among members. The biographer of Rotary's founder strongly believed it was this principle that triggered the whole service club movement: men who failed to get into Rotary because their classification was filled moved off to found clone service clubs, with similar aims. Sertoma, founded 1912, had as its motto, 'Service to Mankind'; Kiwanis (1915) had 'We Build'; and Lions International (1917) had 'We Serve'.

By the early 1990s, women's organisations which evolved from Rotary and Lions connections were thriving in New Zealand. They were not service organisations in their own right, but adjuncts to the male organisations, and were for many years subordinate to them. For example, when Inner Wheel was set up in Britain in 1924 by the wives of Rotarians, the women were prohibited from using 'Rotary' in their name; the standard account of Rotary in New Zealand did not even mention Inner Wheel. Such marginalisation did not prevent its rapid growth. However, as Inner Wheel's historian delicately noted, 'it is usually advisable that no club should be formed without the blessing of the local Rotary Club.' [16] Membership was confined to 'womenfolk of Rotarians'; fundraising tended to be labour-intensive, and reliant on womanly skills.

Lionesses, which arrived in New Zealand in 1976, also began as an adjunct organisation; but because membership was by invitation, the connection with Lions Clubs weakened. In 1991 New Zealand Lioness Clubs were offered the option of joining existing Lions Clubs or themselves becoming Lions Clubs – the favoured option. The women's clubs, which met twice a month – once for socialising and once for business – fundraised for international projects, such as 'Sight First', or local ones, such as the early 1990s drive to assist young diabetes and cancer sufferers.

In the inter-war years, independent women's service organisations were established, at first mainly in the USA, but soon spreading to Britain and then Europe. The end of the First World War had seen women in both the USA and Britain winning the franchise and the right to sit in Parliament, together with the opening of professions hitherto closed to them. A substantial number of women thus acquired the independent income that was a prerequisite for service clubs on the male model, with high national and international dues to meet, and the incidental expenses of regular dinner or lunch meetings. Altrusa International, founded in Tennessee in 1917, was the first. What became Zonta International  began in 1919, in Buffalo, New York, as a classified civic service club for women in business or the professions. The organisation from which Soroptimist International developed was established in Oakland, California, in 1921, by a keen male Rotarian.

The largest of the women's international service organisations, Soroptimists (as they became known), came to New Zealand on the eve of the Second World War. However, like Zonta and Altrusa, which were introduced here in 1965 and 1966 respectively, it took off in the late 1960s and 1970s when there had developed an adequate pool of highly qualified business or professional women to fill the various classifications. By the early 1990s each of the three organisations had its own distinctive style, but all shared an ideal of service, valued their international connections, and added the advancement of the status of women to their aims. Some fulfilled this aim by offering awards for female students or apprentices in non-traditional occupations; all supported women in business, politics and the professions. The networks they developed, while not as influential as those of equivalent men's organisations, were genuinely important to the women concerned, in both personal and career terms. All these organisations engaged in political activity, making submissions to Ministers or Select Committees on a wide range of issues, and co-operating with other women through NCW and the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Major fundraising projects were undertaken, using methods far removed from the traditional cake stall: in 1990, for example, the Altrusa Club of Dunedin's celebrity debate raised more than $20,000, and the Taupō club ran a very successful annual antique fair over a long weekend.

The establishment here of Soroptimists, Zonta, Altrusa and other women's organisations under an international umbrella stimulated New Zealand's awareness of the need for service – especially to women – not only locally, but globally. The consultative status with UNESCO enjoyed by some of the international women's organisations increased this awareness, which reached a peak during the United Nations Decade for Women, 1975–85. In 1976, as an example of this broader vision, Soroptimist International joined with four other international women's organisations – the Associated Country Women of the World (replaced in 1991 by Zonta International), the International Council of Women, the International Federation of Business and Professional Women and the International Federation of University Women – in Project Five-O, a co-operative venture to help women and girls in developing countries with vocational and other training. By combining in this way, the organisations could call on resources beyond their individual capacities.

The project was part of UNESCO's Co-operative Action Programme, which matched their contributions dollar for dollar. Several projects were well established by 1993. In Bacolod City in the Philippines, a training centre taught semi-rural and rural women leadership and income-earning skills. In Prajinbuti Province, Thailand, women from small villages were being trained in agriculture, food processing and preserving, handcrafts, and primary health care. A field worker in the villages of north-east Zimbabwe encouraged women to use improved technology; a centre for training nurses was opened at La Paz, Mexico. Project Five-O was both ambitious and modest: it provided service on a grand scale, by directing resources across the globe to where there was a perceived need; however, the kind of help given was intended to foster the skills of women in an entirely practical and empowering way. It was a far cry from the intensely local women's service organisations of New Zealand's past; but in taking part in this and other international projects, New Zealand women were reaffirming the value of the womanly skills and small-scale economies that had been an integral part of the history of their own service organisations.


In 2018, at first glance it would be easy to assume that New Zealand women’s service organisations were on a downward path. Of the nine featured service organisations functioning in 1993, two had officially closed and one was in recess. The most senior, the Hospital Lady Visitors’ Association, founded in Christchurch in 1887, had adapted nimbly to changes in its service to patients, recreating itself as the Hospital Library Visitors’ Association; but the 2011 Christchurch earthquake forced it to cease operations (although it planned to resume in the future). The Rebekah Lodge, the women’s branch of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, reluctantly closed when the parent body wound up in 1998. Such reluctance to give up was by no means unique. When the Dominion Federation of Townswomen’s Guilds disbanded in 2001, two Christchurch branches carried on, one of them closing in the aftermath of the earthquake, the other meeting until early 2018. Members of the New Zealand Women's Royal Army Corps Association, which became part of the RSA Women’s Section when the Corps was disbanded in 1977, were still recapturing some of the camaraderie that was so important to them through informal networking and occasional reunions.

The women’s service organisations continuing to flourish in 2018 had certain characteristics in common, the most significant being affiliation to an active international parent body. Soroptimists, which reached New Zealand in 1939, along with Zonta and Altrusa, both established here in the mid-1960s, fitted this model. They all catered to business and professional women and combined fundraising for a variety of charities, often on a large scale, with regular meetings for dinner, an invited speaker, networking and socialising. Members also enjoyed the stimulus of attending international conferences. Also flourishing, although less in the public eye, were the Inner Wheel Clubs of New Zealand, established in 1936 and affiliated to the International Inner Wheel Movement. By 2018 these clubs had relaxed the former requirement that members had to be closely related to Rotarians, but their overall membership had inevitably been affected by Rotary’s decision to admit women as members from 1989. [17]

The financial cost of belonging to such groups was not negligible. Where were the less privileged twenty-first century women, who wanted to serve their communities, to be found? Popular wisdom saw them as too burdened by the combined pressures of employment and family to have the time for community service, or the inclination for evening meetings. The evidence, however, does not fully support this. They continued to meet in groups which were not primarily service organisations, but which nevertheless had a strong service ethic: in church groups of all denominations, education and welfare groups, and many others, such as those set up to support Asian women or new settlers. The boundaries of what constitutes service are not always clear-cut.

New style of service

New styles of service organisations were also emerging. Typically these focused on one particular issue and relied on volunteer workers organised through a small salaried office staff. They had a presence on Facebook and sometimes a website, but did not feature the regular meetings, social interaction, ongoing costs and spread of interests of the traditional women’s service organisations.

Two of these single-focus women’s service organisations which sprang up after 1993 were Dress for Success and SuperGrans. Quite different in style, they operated in a similar way in their day-to-day operations. Both were volunteer-driven, with a central board and a small paid staff in each branch, and both grew at a rate which confirmed that they were addressing genuine needs. Each set up a trust to secure ongoing funding. Dress for Success, an international organisation established in 1997, boasted more than 150 affiliates in 20 countries by 2018. It launched in New Zealand in 1999, first in Auckland, then Wellington, and went on to form affiliates in Northland, Hamilton, Rotorua, New Plymouth and Christchurch. Dress for Success catered to a diverse range of clients, from young women just entering employment to those returning to it after raising children or changing their career path. Clients were accepted only by referral from a community or educational organisation. The mission of the organisation was ‘to empower women to achieve independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and development tools to help them in work and in life.’ It did this through three key programmes: a dressing/suiting programme providing each woman with a suitable outfit (new or very nearly new) for her job interview and, if the interview was successful, another to wear to work; career centres providing help with CVs and advice on interviews; and a professional women’s group, focusing on continuous self-development to enable job retention and leadership. [18]

SuperGrans Aotearoa operated in a different environment and on a more modest scale. The organisation emerged from a mature employment conference in Lower Hutt in 1994. Its format and focus were largely determined by its founding manager, Erin McMenamin, who also set up a network of North Island branches; the Dunedin branch was the only South Island one of nine. SuperGrans valued the domestic and life skills developed over years of experience and shared these in a practical hands-on way, mainly with mothers of young children whose own upbringing lacked such training. The women made contact with SuperGrans through either referral by a welfare agency, or social media. The SuperGrans taught them ‘what to do with what they have’ to make them self-reliant. Initially the volunteers worked with individuals in their homes, but increasingly the necessary skills were being taught in classes. Cooking and budgeting were basic components and this focus resulted in a popular cookbook of simple, economical recipes. A friendly long-term relationship often developed between the Grans and their clients. In 2018 the national manager commented that the service had met a need in 1994, and since then the need had grown tremendously. [19]

Verna McFelin (second right), Pillars founder


Verna McFelin (second from left) founded Pillars in 1988 after her husband went to prison. For the next three decades she worked with others in Pillars to meet the needs of thousands of prisoners' families in Christchurch and Auckland. This photograph was taken in 1989 outside the second Pillars centre.

Other single-issue women’s service organisations attracted volunteers and donors by word of mouth or through social media. They were wonderfully varied. Some bore the stamp of one committed individual. Verna McFelin was a young mother with a husband in prison when she founded Pillars (Ka Pou Whakaou) in 1990 to support children of prisoners. In 2018 she remained chief executive of a network of teams around New Zealand, and was also a founder and member of the International Coalition for Children of Incarcerated Parents (INCCIP). Pillars’ work ranged from providing adult mentors for the children to successful lobbying for more informal, child-friendly prison visits. [20] Good Bitches Baking was set up by women who wanted to give a taste of sweetness to people who were ‘having a tough time’. Their slogan was ‘We’re on a mission to make Aotearoa the kindest place on earth’, and they delivered their home-baked treats to organisations in touch with food banks, hospices or women’s refuges. This simple idea caught on and by 2018 there were chapters throughout the country. [21]

Nic Murray and Marie Fitzpatrick, co-founders of the GBB charity

Daniel Whiting

Good Bitches Baking (GBB) co-founders Nic Murray and Marie Fitzpatrick started the charity in 2014 to connect people to their communities and show people having a tough time that someone cared about them.

Myriad local service initiatives could be found on Facebook. One model was the drop-in centre, often with ‘women’ in its name. The Auckland Women’s Centre (AWC), for example, was by 2018 offering trained staff help to over 3000 women a year, with its website listing crisis intervention for women with complex needs; support, information, advice and referral for emergency housing, women’s refuge, rape counselling, child-abuse reporting, abortion, parenting; links to AWC’s low-cost community education programme and counselling; and referral to the right service based on particular needs. [22] The Women’s Centre Rodney networked with other community-focused organisations and groups to provide a wide range of support, information, courses and projects for women, teenage girls and children, as well as quiet women-only space, with a particular focus on reducing isolation for women, including new migrants and refugees. [23].

Some twentieth-century women’s service organisations may have faded away, but women had not abandoned the ideal of service. Rather, they had modified its implementation. By creatively using the internet to attract others to their cause and their services, foregrounding the role of   volunteers, and creating networks through social media, they were remodelling the concept of service organisations for the twenty-first century.

Dorothy Page


[1] St Andrew's Ladies' Association Annual Report, 1883, St Andrew's Church papers, Hewitson Library, Knox College, Dunedin.

[2] President's Address, Report of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand, fourth annual meeting, Wellington, 27 February 1889, Lyon & Blair, Wellington, 1889, p. 35.

[3] Dunedin Ladies' Hospital Guild annual report, 1910–1911, Hocken.

[4] F. A. Hancock, 'Women as Oddfellows', Independent Order of Oddfellows, Dunedin, 1894, p. 5.

[5] Piesse, 1981, p. 62.

[6] NZH, 7 August 1914.

[7] A.H. McLintock (ed.), Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1966, p. 567.

[8] Otago Witness, 1 September 1915, p. 52. It has since been made clear that many more New Zealand women than previously thought did join the overseas war effort in various capacities. See Tolerton, Jane, Make her praises heard afar, Booklovers Press, Wellington, 2018.

[9] New Zealand Methodist Times, 1 May 1915.

[10] Otago Witness, 2 September 1914, p. 28.

[11] 'Knitting, A Patriotic Song', words and music by Muriel Bruce and Baron Alliotti, Chappell and Co., Canada, 1915.

[12] Untitled typescript, in possession of Peggy Hyams, Wellington, p. 1; interview with Peggy Hyams,


[13] In 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled that Rotary clubs could not exclude women on the basis of gender. Two years later, Rotary’s council voted to remove the requirement in its international constitution that clubs be limited to men.

[14] Thomas, 1974, p. 32.

[15] Thomas, 1974, p. 198.

[16] Blakiston, 1980, p. 8.

[17] By 2017, all but one New Zealand club had allowed women to join; the Avonhead club in Christchurch was still refusing to do so. See J. Ineson and K. Shuttleworth, ‘Rotary Club of Avonhead the last of more than 300 in New Zealand not to allow women members’, Sunday Star Times, 4 June 2017.

[18] See Dress for Success website: Additional information from Dress for Success, personal communications, Wellington.

[19] In 2018 the Supergran branches were Māngere, Katikati, Gisborne, Pahīatua, Palmerston North, Levin, Masterton, Lower Hutt, Dunedin. Supergrans Aotearoa website: Additional information from Supergrans Aotearoa, ‘History of the SuperGrans Charitable Trust’ [3 pages, n.d. probably c. 2008]; SuperGrans, Dunedin; and Chris Martin and Erin McMenamin, Lower Hutt, personal communications.

[20] See Pillars website: ;;  Clare de Lore, ‘The Good Samaritan keeping prisoners in touch with their families’, New Zealand Listener, 4 August 2018.

[21] See Good Bitches Baking website:

[22] See Auckland Women’s Centre website:

[23] See Women’s Centre Rodney website:

Unpublished sources

Co-Action UNESCO, 'Project Five-O' [pamphlet, n.d.]

Olssen, Erik, 'Friendly Societies in New Zealand', conference paper, Colloque International sur I'Histoire de la Mutualité, Paris, December 1992

Piesse, S.J., 'Patriotic Welfare in Otago: A History of the Otago Patriotic and General Welfare Association, 1914-1950 and the Otago Provincial Patriotic Council 1939-', MA thesis, University of Otago, 1981

Queen's Jubilee Convalescent Fund records, 1888–?, Hocken

Published sources

Blakistron, E., Inner Wheel in New Zealand, Inner Wheel, Tauranga, 1980

Page, Dorothy, 'Rachel Reynolds', in The suffragists, Bridget Williams Books/Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Wellington, 1993

Rogers, Barbara, Men only: an investigation of men's organisations, Pandora, London, 1988

Thomas, H.T., Rotary mosaic: Rotary clubs of New Zealand, Rotary, Wellington, 1974

Walsh, J.P., The first Rotarian: the life and times of Paul Percy Harris, founder of Rotary, Seaward Books, Shoreham by Sea, 1979