Welfare organisations

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


The history of women's welfare organisations in New Zealand before 1993 falls into three broad and overlapping periods. The first, associated with the colonial period of New Zealand's past, was characterised by attempts to replicate British forms of charity in benevolent societies and in morally charged 'rescue' and 'preventive' work with women and girls. The second, spanning the early to mid-twentieth century, saw fewer welfare organisations with a specifically female identity, and greatly expanded state involvement. This was a period in which the delivery of welfare services by paid employees, many of them women, began to supplement and in some situations to replace the hands-on involvement of volunteers. The vast expansion of voluntary endeavour after the 1960s can be seen as a third phase of women's welfare work. New needs were recognised and new women's groups formed, many of them influenced by feminist ideals and analyses. Voluntary groups increasingly operated with a mix of government and private funds and found themselves encouraged to take on responsibilities which, in the 1940s and 1950s, would have been the domain of the state.

Throughout these phases, 'doing good' to others provided a relatively acceptable pretext for women to associate together, as an extension into society of their supposedly natural caring and nurturing capacities. Only in the 1980s–90s did it become acceptable for women to 'do good' for themselves; over the same period, consumers demanded a greater voice in welfare organisations, and the social and political dimensions of women's voluntary welfare work were overtly recognised.

The colonial period

Benevolence provided an early context for women's organisations in New Zealand, as a reflection (albeit a pale one) of British philanthropic models. In Britain the contribution of women to organised charity rose markedly from the early nineteenth century, partly in relation to the growth of religious evangelicalism. Justified on the basis of women's special compassion and moral authority, charitable activities were seen to have biblical sanction. Middle- and upper-class women visited prisons and workhouses as well as the homes of the poor and sick, and engaged in rescue work among prostitutes and the 'morally endangered'. Many did vast amounts of fundraising for charitable societies, running charity shops and bazaars, and soliciting subscriptions. By taking on tasks which men found time-consuming or disagreeable, British women gained a socially sanctioned foothold in public life. So it is not surprising that the first women's organisations known to have been formally constituted in New Zealand were the Auckland Ladies' Benevolent Society (1857) and the Onehunga Ladies' Benevolent Society (1863). Formed to provide non-institutional aid to women and children, both drew firmly on British precedent. The Auckland society, in particular, illustrated some of the key characteristics – and limitations – of benevolence in a colonial setting.

The feminine attributes used to justify British women's participation in charity took on a special force in New Zealand, where their role as the transmitters of civilisation and the moral vanguard of white society was all the more critical. In the fluid conditions of a colonial society, involvement in welfare work was one way to demarcate the respectable from the unrespectable and to establish status. It is significant that the foundation members of the Auckland Ladies' Benevolent Society were the wives of prominent officials, businessmen and clergy. The ladies stressed the importance of personally visiting necessitous cases; following British example, the society allocated responsibility for a sector of the city to each committee member. As the Southern Cross pointed out in 1864, this enabled the visitors not only to manifest sympathy and understanding, but also to impart 'advice, caution or (when occasion arises) admonition or reproof, which is calculated to render the moral influence of the Society effective'. [1] Nonetheless, the ladies themselves placed great stress on 'personal, sisterly ministrations' which, a later report claimed, differentiated their society's operations from 'mere perfunctory official poor relief'. [2]

Despite its potential for womanly influence, the scale of benevolence in New Zealand was limited by the availability of personnel and resources. The imbalance of the sexes and high marriage rate meant that New Zealand lacked a well-defined 'spinster culture' of the kind that characterised much British women's charity. Settler women were often isolated from each other, intensely involved in motherhood and the mundane tasks of survival. Those who participated in this first stage of welfare work were inevitably an urban-based social elite, highly selective about the objects of their charity. They firmly declined to assist the 'undeserving', or 'criminals and abandoned characters'. [3]

There was a fundamental ambivalence towards voluntary charity in New Zealand. Officially endorsed by governments anxious to save on poor relief, it was regarded as more 'pure', discriminating and socially beneficial than state welfare. However, there was also a strong reluctance to believe that true poverty could exist in this 'new' country, and a highly individualistic social ethos which tended to blame poverty and failure to cope on personal laziness, fecklessness and degeneracy. In focusing on women and children, the Auckland Ladies' Benevolent Society targeted the most obviously vulnerable groups; even so, members often complained about the lack of public support. There were few large reserves of private wealth in New Zealand to fund substantial philanthropic endowments, and charitably inclined ladies had to put considerable energy into collecting subscriptions from individuals. Some, including the Auckland society, came to rely heavily on government subsidies. The total number of benevolent societies existing here at any one time is unknown, but it was never large, and appears to have declined after the 1885 Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act established a national system of hospitals and poor relief under government supervision.

Most women's welfare organisations of the nineteenth century had male patrons, spokesmen and even office-holders. Although it began as a wholly female organisation, the Auckland society actually dropped 'Ladies' from its title between 1884 and the late 1900s, operating with a ladies' and a gentlemen's committee. It had reverted to its original name by 1912. The society showed very clearly the division of labour characteristic of welfare both here and overseas: the women did the basic work of raising funds, visiting the poor, and distributing aid, while the men saw to financial management and legal matters.

Feminine moral influence was implicit in nineteenth-century benevolence; however, a number of associations emerged with explicit moral aims. A few directed their activities toward 'preventive' work with impressionable young women; others were geared more to the reform of already 'fallen' women and girls. These two strands are illustrated by the Auckland and Wellington branches of the non-conformist Ladies' Christian Association. Founded in 1878, both groups initially combined general charitable activities with a particular concern for young women who arrived in the city as strangers. However, the Auckland association remained more oriented towards 'preventive' work, and converted to a branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in 1885. Like the Girls' Friendly Society, a parallel Anglican association, it provided social evenings and craft classes for young working women, and eventually became a major supplier of hostel accommodation.

The aim of the YWCA was the 'formation' of character, not its 'reformation'. [4] In contrast, reformation and reclamation were very much the aim of the Alexandra Home for Friendless Women, opened by the Wellington Ladies' Christian Association in 1882. Essentially a maternity home for single mothers, it remained open until 1991. It was but one of 16 rescue homes or 'women's refuges' that opened throughout New Zealand between 1870 and 1900. Many were associated with churches, particularly the Anglican Church and Salvation Army. In the early years of settlement, the main concern of the churches was their own survival, as they erected places of worship, repaid mortgages and attracted congregations. By the 1880s some were sufficiently established to extend their social outreach. Economic recession and the social needs of an increasingly urbanised society provided outlets for evangelical and charitable zeal. Drunkenness, degeneracy and prostitution were all thought to be rife in the corrupt environment of the cities, and it was there that rescue homes were located.

All the women's homes had a ladies' committee; most also had a gentlemen's committee or male trustees. The internal management of the refuges was firmly under the control of ladies, for men had been instrumental in the downfall of the females within (a moral distinction between 'ladies' and 'females' was basic to this area of work). Clergymen might be allowed to visit, but other men, including tradesmen, were regarded as a security risk. Even in the 1900s, the grounds around the Canterbury Female Refuge were a 'virtual wasteland' because it was felt impossible to send 'casual labourers to such a place' to do the necessary cleaning up. [5] Rescue homes were unquestionably the domain of women, but sisterly goodwill did not always prevail between helpers and helped. Although the ladies' committees all expressed concern for the 'fallen', the regime of most rescue homes was distinctly repressive. As a rule, inmates were expected to voluntarily commit themselves to a lengthy period of domestic and moral training (up to two years in some instances). Contact with the outside world was discouraged and heavy domestic work expected. Unlike most other forms of women's voluntary welfare, the homes generated much of their own income in the nineteenth century, taking in laundry work at commercial rates.

The rescue homes soon became sites of conflict between the ladies and their notoriously unsubmissive clientele. It was discovered that prostitutes did not particularly want to be 'saved' from their life of sin; they used the homes as temporary accommodation when they were pregnant, or when trade or their health was poor. By the 1900s many of these institutions had effectively become maternity homes for women having a first child out of wedlock, or were turning into preventive homes for 'morally endangered' (rather than 'fallen') younger women.

Discouraged by their lack of success, the ladies' committees appear to have handed more and more responsibility to the matrons of homes. Some were women with strong religious convictions and overseas experience in institutional care – the predecessors of what we might now call residential social workers. In the maternity homes they were likely to be trained nurses or midwives. Salvation Army women in particular came to acquire a high profile in the area, many having strong associations with other welfare organisations in New Zealand and elsewhere. In the 1890s it was these women who provided a far more explicit critique of male sexual behaviour than earlier ladies' committees had expressed. The Door of Hope's Sister Laura Francis spoke of her fallen sisters, brought down by the hands of 'cruel men'; and the Salvation Army's rescue secretary, Ensign Annette Paul, fiercely denounced 'fiends in men's clothing, waiting like wild beasts to pounce upon their prey'. [6]

Two Salvationists collecting funds, 1907

Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/1-005929-G

Two women of the Salvation Army, in uniform, collecting donations for missionary work as part of Self Denial Week, 12–18 October 1907.

Such rhetoric linked up with the social purity concerns of late-nineteenth-century feminist campaigners, and showed that the boundaries between women's political and welfare concerns were not always clear. Brought into daily contact with the consequences of a sexual double standard, physical and sexual abuse, and women's economic disadvantage, some women welfare workers added a political dimension to their activities. The Society for the Protection of Women and Children, formed in 1893, had among its formal aims 'to agitate for the improvement of statute laws with a view to the more effective protection of women and children'. [7] Social reform brought charity workers into contact with other publicly active women, and provided opportunities for the exchange of ideas. Organisations now best remembered for their political and pressure-group activities often carried out welfare functions too; for example, the WCTU worked with discharged prisoners and ran seamen's rests in a number of centres during the 1880s and 1890s.

The boundaries between religion and welfare were similarly blurred. Welfare did not take place only within the context of voluntary endeavour. Religious sisterhoods provided an alternative outlet for women's charitable interests and complemented the work of lay organisations. For Roman Catholic nuns and Protestant sisterhoods, charitable involvement was just one part of a disciplined way of life dedicated to the service of their God.

The majority of Catholic orders established in New Zealand in the nineteenth century were teaching orders, introduced to support a separate Catholic education system. Even so, the Sisters of Mercy established an orphanage in association with their school soon after arriving in New Zealand in 1850. The last decades of the nineteenth century saw more local religious communities specialising in the care of the elderly and the sick poor, especially within institutions. The Little Sisters of the Poor and the Sisters of Nazareth ran homes for the elderly in Auckland and Christchurch; the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, brought to New Zealand in 1886 specifically to engage in rescue work, ran the Mt Magdala Asylum in Christchurch for many decades. The most important order, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert's Sisters of Compassion (1894), was characterised by its breadth of work, which included soup kitchens and district nursing as well as institutional care for the sick, the elderly and the disabled. Mother Aubert herself maintained links with secular organisations, and was a member of the Wellington branch of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children. [8]

Such links were even stronger for the Protestant sisterhoods. Presbyterian and Methodist deaconesses were the most significant group in terms of active social work, and came to play an important role in the welfare of their communities. Unlike the benevolent ladies of earlier decades, deaconesses reached out to Māori areas, where some combined mission work with practical nursing. Others were prominent in the social work networks which began to develop from the late nineteenth century in larger cities, and worked in close cooperation with other women's organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Women and Children.

For these women, there were no sharp boundaries between their church-based pastoral role and voluntary welfare work. Methodist Sisters of the Poor worked as full-time volunteers in association with main-centre city missions from the mid-1880s. As well as undertaking religious pastoral work, they distributed food and clothing and visited the sick. In 1900 the first Presbyterian deaconess, Christabel Duncan, was appointed to St Andrew's Church in Dunedin to work among the poor and needy, as well as the young people of the district. Duncan and her successors became the basis of the Presbyterian Social Service Association, and prominent in the orphanages it ran.

Increasing state involvement

Over the twentieth century, three main developments influenced the course of women's welfare activities. The first was a tendency for social work to become more professionalised, with a growing distinction between an organisation's employees and its voluntary workers. The second was the emergence of larger and increasingly bureaucratic voluntary societies, often national in scope and providing specialised services to both sexes. The third was an expansion of the welfare state, slow and faltering at first, but accelerating rapidly during the 1930s and 1940s.

The increasing importance of matrons of women's homes has already been noted. They were part of a growing tendency for welfare services to be dominated by full-time paid workers. Women's homes and the increasing number of church orphanages were still likely to have ladies' committees, but their role became more restricted. They might supply additional comforts, give occasional advice on purchases, and organise social and fundraising events, but the tone of the institution was likely to be set by the matron. Likewise, the secretary-visitors of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children and the paid organisers of the YWCA constituted the real connection between these organisations and their clientele.

As overseas ideas about 'scientific' charity became more influential in New Zealand, careful casework was promoted as a welfare ideal. Casework was time-consuming and physically and emotionally demanding, often stretching the resources and the commitment of volunteers. However, in the early twentieth century there was a surplus of urban single women who needed to support themselves, and sometimes others as well. They found paid employment and a socially sanctioned role in what would today be called the personal social services. The 1926 census, the first to include 'social worker' as an occupation, identified 68 women in this category (or as 'welfare workers'); others carrying out social-work roles were probably included among nurses, matrons, managers of institutions, and those described as 'secretary' or 'organiser'. [9]

The formal training of social workers in New Zealand is usually seen to start with the establishment of the School of Social Science at Victoria University in 1949.  Prior to this (and, in practice, for many years after), social workers were expected to pick up skills on the job and rely on their own maturity and 'common sense' as a basis for sound judgements. Until 1949 a background in teaching and, more particularly, nursing was the nearest equivalent to social-work training available in this country. Given the early-twentieth-century emphasis on cleanliness, nutrition and 'good living' as the solution to all sorts of social problems, this seemed an adequate preparation. However, a handful of women did go overseas to gain a qualification – notably the YWCA's Jean Begg, who studied at the New York School of Social Work in the early 1920s.

The idea that women should care for others without recompense, and that such caring is somehow more worthy than work done for payment, has never died. The fact that most social workers were women, and that other women voluntarily undertook welfare tasks, ensured that salaries remained low. Inevitably, when staff were paid to perform secretarial or social work functions (and in many organisations the two were fused), donors and members raised questions about expenditure on salaries. It is likely that this issue led to some tension between paid workers and volunteers. Sandra Coney's history of the Auckland YWCA, Every girl, notes that its committee displayed a less than enlightened attitude to YWCA employees. The records of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children also suggest occasional disagreements between paid visitors and the voluntary committees which employed them, mainly over low rates of pay for what was extremely onerous work. On the whole, however, by the end of the 1980s the past dynamics of voluntary organisations had been little explored, and most histories, written to celebrate achievement, glossed over such conflicts.

As new, larger and less distinctively female welfare organisations emerged, women increasingly operated within the confines of male-dominated structures, even when the specific needs of war and depression brought an upsurge in welfare activities. During the 1930s, the needs of unemployed male breadwinners were given priority. While women served on local-body relief committees and were involved in church welfare activities, the sheer scale of distress seems to have discouraged the emergence of separate women's groups. Even a long-lived organisation such as the Onehunga Ladies' Benevolent Society found its resources stretched to the limit, and welcomed the formation of a larger metropolitan relief association on which to offload cases. As women's agencies geared to the assistance of women, the Women's Unemployment Committees were exceptional, and they owed their continuation at least in part to government sponsorship.

Four women in a kitchen preparing food as part of the Women's unemployment Bureau relief efforts.

Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/2-084166-G

Workers preparing a meal for unemployed women in one of the Technical College buildings on Mercer Street, Wellington, in 1932. The Unemployment Relief Committee, chaired by the Mayoress, Mrs T.C. A. Hislop, and organised by Amy Kane and Miss Gordon, provided a hot meal plus morning and afternoon tea for 40 women each day.

Some of the new organisations sprang not so much from periods of national emergency as from recognition of the needs of specific disadvantaged groups, which were gradually separated out from the amorphous mass of 'the poor'. A few, such as the Crippled Children's Society (1935) and the IHC (founded in 1949 as the Intellectually Handicapped Children's Parents' Society), moved into the large-scale provision of services throughout New Zealand. Within such organisations, long-standing gender divisions prevailed: often the administrators and the public face of the organisation were male, while women, even if they had been heavily involved in its foundation, tended to remain ground-level workers.

By mid-century women's welfare activities were less restricted to members of their own sex, but in terms of administration and responsibility, the gender divisions seemed as entrenched as ever. They may even have strengthened as organisations expanded, entered the realms of big business, and formalised their relationship with the government. In the IHC's early years, for example, mothers acted as a pressure group; but from the 1960s, policy development began to shift from volunteers to paid employees, especially senior management. By 1988 only 20 per cent of this management group were women. [10]

The key feature of social welfare in the twentieth century was the enormous extension of the state's role. This had major ramifications for voluntary welfare agencies. Not all were disempowered by the process, however, since most state activity centred on providing statutory benefits rather than personal social services. An important exception was the Child Welfare Division of the Department of Education, which developed a core of state social workers after 1925. Its existence impinged on the activities of voluntary groups such as the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, which sometimes noted with indignation the Division's reluctance to accept its reports on child abuse cases. Church groups and those running homes for single mothers likewise resented the much-needed checks on their procedures and standards of care which were part of the Division's statutory responsibilities. Voluntary agencies were beginning to lose some of their autonomy as the state extended its welfare outreach.

Unlike most voluntary agencies, the Division provided secure employment and a career structure for its officers – women and men who regarded themselves as something of an elite in the field. They, and later social workers appointed to the Departments of Labour, Social Security and Māori Affairs, also appear to have become rather inward-looking as a group, governed by their own training procedures and the minutiae of bureaucratic order. As one woman officer noted, the first conference of New Zealand social workers, held at Victoria University College in 1950, was a salutary experience for those in statutory agencies:

It is safe to say that we of the State services had long regarded ourselves as the only pebbles on the beach, and we knew little or nothing of the good work being carried out by the Salvation Army and other church and civic agencies, excepting when we needed clothing and financial assistance.... At the end of it all we were sadder and wiser men [sic], much humbled by the knowledge of what all the other agencies were doing, and with a deep respect for the voluntary agencies in particular. [11]

In later years the interaction between state and voluntary agencies was to become much closer, with the state putting increased funds into the voluntary sector and contracting agencies to supply services on its behalf.

Income maintenance was the more important component of state welfare. From the first state civilian pension for the elderly in 1898, through to pensions for widows (1911), miners (1915), the blind, and the first family allowance (1926), the state welfare net was spread more and more widely. But it was a net of uneven mesh: these early pensions were set at low rates, restrictive in coverage, and frequently administered in a mean spirit. Women benefited as wives and mothers according to perceptions of how 'deserving' they were: widows with dependent children gained a pension relatively early, but deserted wives had to wait until 1936, and even then were required to jump many hurdles before they actually received state assistance. Single mothers were initially excluded altogether, even from getting the family allowance, and did not receive a statutory benefit in their own right until 1973.

The difference between statutory pensions and older forms of charity was not immediately clear to all applicants, and some remained dependent on both. As late as 1936, the Auckland Ladies' Benevolent Society was noting that:

we literally work in a 'no man's land'. Elderly ladies not eligible for a pension, middle aged ladies broken in health, with perhaps four or five years to wait for a pension, many old age pensioners who find it impossible to make the pension provide for all their wants – for old people often require special invalid foods and little extra comforts – to all these people the money grant from the society makes all the difference in their lives. [12]

The Social Security Act of 1938 symbolised the first Labour government's commitment to social justice and state provision of welfare on a broad scale. It was part of what W.H. Oliver has termed an 'explosion of social policy' across the board, from welfare to culture to economic management. [13] Benefits under the Act were to be relatively generous and provided as a right of citizenship, not as a form of charity. The public expectation of state intervention rose considerably as a result, and those voluntary agencies which offered 'charity' in the old, pejorative, moralistic sense of the term found that their image suffered accordingly.

When the principal of Victoria University College approached Peter Fraser in the late 1940s to seek funds for a School of Social Work, the Prime Minister is said to have replied, 'Nonsense, we've done all the social work necessary in New Zealand!' [14] The Labour government prided itself on its comprehensive welfare provision; but in favouring statutory benefits over services as the essence of welfare policy, it left a niche for voluntary effort. In practice, voluntary welfare was still needed by those who found that government machinery moved too slowly (or inappropriately) for their needs. Voluntary groups dealt with people waiting to qualify for benefits, or needing a little extra to get by; and with all those, such as women living apart from their husbands, whose irregular status was too much for disapproving Social Security officials to cope with. It was very often women workers within these agencies who supplied the friendly personal contact and counselling that bureaucracies were not well placed to provide. However, they could also police female behaviour, for example in the way they ran the many homes for single pregnant women and the associated adoption services. By the 1960s the provision of services, combined with pressure group advocacy, had become characteristic of voluntary action.

The expansion of voluntary endeavour

Until the 1970s, the voluntary and state sectors on the whole followed their own lines of development. There were a few early instances of collaboration, when church and voluntary workers carried out additional duties on behalf of the state. State agencies routinely paid these groups to maintain certain groups of institutionalised poor, such as orphans and the elderly infirm, and the principle of state subsidies on funds raised through donations and voluntary efforts goes right back to the nineteenth-century ladies' benevolent societies.

YWCA collectors

Alexander Turnbull Library. Dominion Post Collection, PAColl-7327-1-039-1890

Wellington YWCA executive members preparing for a street collection in 1978. The YWCA was then in serious financial difficulties and facing closure.

The 1970s saw a major change in this relationship. The scale of government assistance to non-statutory agencies increased markedly. Social needs became more complex, with sharp rises in unemployment, the movement of population to northern centres, and changes in the position and expectations of women, Māori and other groups. Problems such as rape, incest and family violence, while not in themselves new, were brought out into the open to an unprecedented extent. Statutory and non-statutory bodies developed a much closer partnership – though often a painful and uncoordinated one – in responding to demand. In 1985 government departments transferred an estimated $75.3 million to the voluntary social services, and a further $6.7 million was paid out by the Lotteries Board. Additional non-financial help was provided in the form of training, secondment of staff, and advisory and support services. [15]

Substantial transfers at this level reflected the state's growing readiness to offload a whole range of welfare activities onto voluntary groups. At the same time, the proliferation of non-statutory welfare organisations over the 1970s and 1980s reflected a growing public disillusionment about the ability and, increasingly, the will of the state sector to provide adequate welfare services. An earlier generation's hopes that the state could and would do everything to achieve social equity had well and truly diminished by the mid-1980s.

A feature of the growth of voluntary agencies from the 1970s was the emergence of new welfare groups consisting of women and working for women. An outgrowth of the women's liberation movement, they included mothers' support networks, disabled women's groups, rape crisis services and women's refuges. Women's centres often provided premises and served as umbrella organisations for a range of groups.

Women protesting

Gil Hanly

Members of Women Against Violence attend a ‘Reclaim the Night’ march, Auckland, April 1983. The first such march in New Zealand was held in Wellington in 1979, following the lead of German, British and America feminists. Photographer Gil Hanly ensured that many feminist protests were recorded.

Whereas nineteenth-century ladies' societies had restricted their activities to women in part because dealing with men needing help was seen as improper, these new groups did so through conscious choice and a feminist commitment to the betterment of women. This commitment extended to political action and public education: the boundaries between social work and social protest were blurred in a way that would have been inconceivable to benevolent ladies of the 1860s and 1870s, though less so to feminists of the 1890s.

The new wave of women's organisations also differed in their emphasis on self-help, consumer involvement, and efforts to move away from hierarchical ways of operating. This too represented a considerable shift from the social distance and condescension which had permeated much earlier voluntary welfare effort. Yet there were parallels between old and new. In the nineteenth century, a women's refuge had been seen as a sanctuary from a life of sin and immorality; a women's refuge in the 1980s was a sanctuary from male violence and abuse. But in both cases men were the source of danger, and contact with other women opened the door to a sense of worth and new purpose in life.

Feminism provided one challenge to women's welfare services in the 1980s; biculturalism provided another. Outside Māori society, women's organisations had traditionally been predominantly middle-class and Pākehā, and before the Second World War few had encompassed the welfare of Māori women. The main exceptions were certain of the deaconess orders, and their role was as much a religious as a welfare one. Later urban contact between Māori women and welfare organisations appears to have been very much on Pākehā terms, conditional on Māori acceptance of Pākehā lifestyles, and aimed at assimilation.

The formation of the Māori Women's Welfare League in 1951 represented a major change: Māori women themselves organising on a national basis in response to Māori needs. During the league's early years there were some ambiguities, stemming from its links with the Department of Māori Affairs and its promotion of home and mothercraft, but it also provided Māori women with a political voice, a support network in urban environments, and a channel to preserve and promote Māori culture. [16]

Young Māori women were especially prominent in the resurgence of Māori protest which emerged in the 1970s. In welfare, as in other areas of public life, this involved a demand for mana Māori motuhake, for Māori autonomy and control over Māori concerns, and an equitable share of resources. Long-established organisations such as the YWCA and the Society for the Protection of Home and Family were forced to grapple with these issues, and did so with varying degrees of pain and success. Newer bodies, especially those based upon feminist principles, faced additional challenges to their core assumptions about the universality of women and shared oppression.

Other dynamics added to complexity and tension. Two major catchwords of social policy in the 1980s were 'devolution' and 'community care'. Although these were presented in terms of community empowerment, feminists saw them as part of a dismantling of the welfare state, adding to the burden of women's unpaid work. [17] Their concerns were reinforced by the appearance of New Right analyses which frequently lauded voluntary welfare in terms reminiscent of nineteenth-century philanthropic values. Voluntary endeavour was presented as more effective than the state at getting assistance to those most in need and exerting personal influence on recipients of aid. [18] Longstanding moral distinctions between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor meshed with a newly intense reverence for business models which promised greater efficiency and accountability.


The full elaboration of neo-liberal ideologies in the late 1980s and 1990s posed ongoing challenges for the ‘non-profit sector’, as it was increasingly termed. The economic referent was in itself significant, overshadowing older, more participant-focused terminologies which foregrounded voluntarism. Consultants, change managers, mission statements, brand identities (all too frequently ‘refreshed’), quality assurance and assertions of passion and excellence became standard terminology in welfare organisations, including those based on feminist principles, alongside the experience of constant change. Annual reports of many welfare-oriented organisations show how engagement with change could be a searing process. Some of the boundaries between non-profit and for-profit organisations started to blur, as the latter competed for government contracts, and non-profits began to charge, albeit modestly, for services: the Auckland Branch of the Home and Family Society, for example, had begun to charge for counselling services as early as 1991, and in 1995 it employed a professional fundraiser for the first time. Here, as in other welfare organisations, the woman with the collection box on the street corner was increasingly superseded by the specialist event organiser and by direct donations to causes from individual bank accounts. [19]

Legislative requirements further undercut the informal, diverse, and often small-scale nature of women’s welfare organising. Historically, legislation affecting the voluntary sector had largely been minimal and enabling, exercised with a light hand. But from the mid-1980s a number of new pieces of legislation had begun to weigh heavily upon it, including laws relating to employment, health and safety, privacy and taxation. In 2005 the Office for the Voluntary and Community Sector and the New Zealand Federation of Voluntary Welfare Organisations identified some 34 pieces of legislation which impinged upon the non-profit sector. [20] In that year the Charities Act 2005 mandated a Charities Commission to register and monitor charities as a condition of tax-exempt status.

Expectations of volunteers, their competence, training and professionalism, changed as a result of these new requirements. A volunteer base already diminished by women’s paid employment, the intensification of work demands and changing leisure patterns was faced with new pressures and accountabilities. As noted in a submission to the 2001 Community and Voluntary Sector Working Party, ‘Some people have come along “wanting to make a cup of tea” and have found themselves on the executive and becoming legally liable for contracts. This is just too complicated and worrying for them.’ [21] New kinds of volunteering emerged to compensate: the short-term volunteer, often a young person, wanting to gain experience as preparation for the workplace, employed on a short-term project or event; the corporate volunteer, engaged in ‘teambuilding’ or some other business promotion; the off-site volunteer, possibly using computer skills to work online for an organisation. Commitment to the cause could become secondary to the skills on offer.

Growing organisational complexity meant that the role of paid staff became increasingly important and a new cohort of managers appeared, some moving from organisation to organisation. This development opened up opportunities for women to gain qualifications and shift from volunteering into paid work, especially within welfare organisations, for these were women’s traditional domain. With this could come internal clashes of culture, divisions between paid staff and volunteers, and employment disputes. Organisations started on a non-hierarchical and collectivist basis, such as Rape Crisis, became employers with legal responsibilities and obligations to staff. Increasing numbers of paid staff also put pressure on funding as salaries absorbed an increasing amount of income, often encouraging bids for government contracts. Nationally-structured organisations had an advantage when competing for these contracts. The formation of the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges (NCIWR) and the National Collective of Rape Crisis groups in the 1980s was encouraged by state funding requirements. Buy-in to the so-called ‘contract culture’ brought its own pressures, most especially concerns that organisations were being diverted from their core mission into fulfilling onerous and usually only partially-funded government requirements. But the new accountabilities were not without advantages, ensuring consistency of service for clients despite a changing voluntary base.

Ethnicity was another dynamic with which women’s welfare organisations had to engage. From the 1980s many had ‘bicultural journeys’, based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, which were both challenging and rewarding. Some attempted to attract Māori women into existing structures; some to form alliances with separate Māori organisations; and some to make structural changes, in an attempt to embrace Māori and non-Māori on an equal basis within their own organisation. When the NCIWR used a process of internal parallel development to systematically address matters of resource sharing and representation between the two groups, it became apparent that this binary arrangement was complicated by other, intersecting identities, especially within the non-Māori, or Tauiwi, group. Nonetheless, despite ongoing tensions, it was remarkable how organisations such as Refuge held socially, politically and ethnically diverse groups of women together, focused on their core agenda, for so long, and were continuing to do so in 2018.

Shakti group photo


Volunteers outside the first centre in New Zealand set up by Shakti Asian Women’s Support Group to support migrant and refugee women and families of Asian, African and Middle Eastern origin.

Women-focused service providers found themselves competing with an expanding number of ‘by Māori, for Māori’ providers, for whom iwi and even hapū identity was more important than gender.  One estimate suggested that the number of Māori service providers increased ‘from almost zero to more than a thousand’ in the 20 years after 1984, while few new feminist activist service groups emerged after 1990. [22] Even a pan-Māori organisation such as the Māori Women’s Welfare League had to grapple with the resurgence of iwi identity and a state preference for negotiating with iwi service providers; but its established mana, national structure and history of dialogue with government and with iwi enabled it to retain influence. Then, as ethnic diversity became ever more apparent in many cities, other ethnic organisations emerged, such as the Shakti Asian Women’s Support Group founded in Auckland in 1995. With a presence in eight New Zealand centres by 2018, Shakti also developed international linkages. Smaller groups, such as the Ethnic Women’s Trust (originally the Somali Women’s Association), were also founded in the 2000s to assist ethnic women, many of them refugees, to develop skills in a safe environment. Many groups focusing on migrant women sought to promote gender equality within ethnic communities, teaching life skills while responding to more immediate instances of domestic violence.

The Auckland Ladies' Benevolent Society did not survive the expansion of the welfare state in the 1940s. Sustained by a handful of stalwarts, the Onehunga Ladies’ Benevolent Society experienced a brief resurgence of demand for its services in the 1980s and 1990s and survived into the twenty-first century, but by 2017 it was unable to meet the Charities Commission reporting requirements and was deregistered. In the complex spaces of the twenty-first century, new modes of organising were emerging, in which the formalities of annual reports and monthly meetings were replaced by electronic interactions and sharing on social media. The #MeToo movement suggested a revival of the links between a social movement and social service among a new generation of feminists. ‘Doing good’ to others might be a less overt driver of such activities, but a sense of women’s commonalities was still very much to the fore.

Margaret Tennant


[1] Southern Cross, 12 March 1864, p. 5.

[2] Auckland Benevolent Society, Annual Report, 31 March 1906, p. 3.

[3] Auckland Benevolent Society, Annual Report, 31 March 1906, p. 4.

[4] Coney, 1986, p. 204.

[5] Ashburton and Canterbury United Charitable Aid Board Minutes, Report on Female Refuge Presented to Board, 19 October 1904.

[6] Door of Hope Association, Minutes of the Second Annual General Meeting, 4 July 1898; War Cry, 26 December 1891.

[7] Society for the Protection of Women and Children, Auckland Branch, Annual Report, 1895, frontispiece.

[8] For a full biography of Mother Aubert, see Munro (2009).

[9] Census of New Zealand, 1926, Part IX, p. 88. Fifty-five of the 68 were women who had never married; most of the remainder were widows.

[10] Munford, 1989, p. 9.

[11] Lorna M. Hodder, 'Recollections from 1940', New Zealand Social Worker, October 1969, p. 28.

[12] Auckland Ladies' Benevolent Society, Annual Report, 1935–1936.

[13] Oliver, 1988, p. 29.

[14] J.R. McCreary, 'The School of Social Science Part One – The Martians', New Zealand Social Worker, Vol. 7 No. 1, January 1971, p. 11.

[15] Driver and Robinson, 1986, pp. 10, 20.

[16] James and Saville-Smith, 1989, p. 44; 'Mira Szaszy', in Virginia Myers, Head and shoulders, Penguin, Auckland, 1986, pp. 240–41.

[17] James and Saville-Smith, pp. 99-101; Anne Else, 'To Market and Home Again: Gender and the New Right', in Rosemary Du Plessis (ed.), Feminist voices: Women's Studies texts for Aotearoa/New Zealand, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1992, pp. 239–51.

[18] See, in particular, John C. Goodman and Alistair Nicholas, Voluntary welfare: a greater role for private charities, Centre for Independent Studies, 1990; Alan Woodfield, 'Private versus Public Provision of Social Welfare Services in New Zealand', in Michael James (ed.), The welfare state: foundations and alternatives, Centre for Independent Studies, 1989, pp. 113–54. See also Rosemary McLeod, 'The Welfare Burden: The Choking of Our Country's Spirit', North and South, June 1992, pp. 40–55.

[19] Onehunga Ladies' Benevolent Society, Annual Report, 1991.

[20] Cited in Margaret Tennant, Jackie Sanders, Michael O’Brien and Charlotte Castle, Defining the nonprofit sector: New Zealand, Working Paper No. 45, Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, Baltimore, 2006, p.17.

[21] Community and Voluntary Sector Working Party, Communities and government: potential for partnership, Ministry of Social Policy, Wellington, 2001, pp. 92–3.

[22] Durie, 2005, p. 50; Vanderpyl, 2004, p. 280.

Unpublished sources

Auckland Ladies' Benevolent Society, Annual Reports, 1884–1938

Munford, Robyn, 'The Hidden Costs of Caring: Women Who Care for People with Intellectual Disabilities', PhD thesis, Massey University, 1989

Tennant, Margaret, 'Matrons with a Mission: Women's Organisations in New Zealand 1893– 1910', MA thesis, Massey University, 1975

Vanderpyl, Jane, ‘Aspiring for Unity and Equality: Dynamics of Conflict and Change in the "By Women for Women" Feminist Service Groups, Aotearoa/New Zealand’, PhD Thesis, University of Auckland, 2004

Published sources

Community and Voluntary Sector Working Party, Communities and government: potential for partnership, Ministry of Social Policy, Wellington, 2001.

Coney, Sandra, Every girl: a social history of women and the YWCA in Auckland 1885–1985, Auckland YWCA, Auckland, 1986

Dougherty, Ian and Jane Thomson, Making a difference: a centennial history of Presbyterian Support Otago 1906–2006, Presbyterian Support Otago, Dunedin, 2006

Driver, Sue, and Dave Robinson, Voluntary social services: a review of funding, New Zealand Planning Council, Wellington, 1986

Durie, Mason, Ngā tai matatū: Tides of Māori endurance, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2005

Else, Anne, A question of adoption: closed stranger adoption in New Zealand 1944–74, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1991

James, Bev, and Kay Saville-Smith, Gender, culture and power: challenging New Zealand's gendered culture, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1989

Munro, Jessie, The story of Suzanne Aubert, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2009

Oliver, W.H., 'Social Policy in New Zealand: An Historical Overview', in Report, Royal Commission on Social Policy, 1988, Vol. 1, Government Printer, Wellington 1988, pp. 1–45

Rogers, Anna and Mīria Simpson (eds), Te timitanga tātau tātau: early stories from the founders of the Māori Women’s Welfare League as told to Dame Mira Szaszy, Māori Women’s Welfare League/Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1993

Social Advisory Council, Partnership: the delivery of social and community services, Government Printer, Wellington, 1986

Tennant, Margaret, Paupers and providers: charitable aid in New Zealand, Allen and Unwin/Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1989

Tennant, Margaret, The fabric of welfare: voluntary organisations, government and welfare in New Zealand, 1840–2005, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 2007

Tennant, Margaret, Across the street, across the world: a history of the Red Cross in New Zealand 1915–2015, New Zealand Red Cross, Wellington, 2015

Wilson, Carla, The changing face of social service volunteering: a literature review, Ministry of Social Development, Wellington, 2001