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Women's Committees of the New Zealand Public Service Association

1943 – 1960

This essay written by Margaret Long was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

The Women's Committees of the New Zealand Public Service Association (PSA) operated throughout the 1940s and 1950s in the pursuit of equal pay for women in the service. Most active and influential was the Wellington Women's Committee (WWC). Although committees were set up in other areas, for example South Canterbury, Palmerston North and Auckland, they operated only intermittently. In the 1950s strong support came also from women in three occupational groups: mental hygiene, nursing and dental nursing.

The women's committees of 1943–60 must be seen in the context of women's changing place in the public service and the broad policies and strategies of the PSA. The public service was designed for men working for 40 continuous years. In the early years of this century, a few women were accepted as cadets in the key clerical division. But from 1921 to 1948, no female cadets were accepted, and all new appointments of women were 'temporary', giving them no rights of promotion or appeal. Although the PSA supported equal pay for women 'in principle' from 1914, there were almost no gains for women over the next three decades.

Changes in PSA policies came in the 1940s, when a group of young men –  'Depression juniors', aggressive in manner and radical in thought – emerged in the association. Jack Lewin led a campaign to improve salary scales and to move thousands of temporary public servants (including many women) onto the permanent staff. The campaign triggered a sudden upsurge of interest among women in the service.

The first women's committee of the PSA was formed in Wellington in 1943 from a general meeting of over 100 women public servants. Its leadership came mainly from a group of Victoria University College graduates, its first president being Pixie Higgin, former president of the Victoria University College Students' Association. The committee was affiliated to the PSA's Wellington Section Committee as an advisory group, and later became a formal sub-committee. Unlike other sub-committees, it always retained the right to co-opt or elect women who were not members of the Section Committee.

As most women in the public service were temporaries there was little information on them, so the WWC began by issuing a questionnaire to 1000 women, asking for information on their conditions, wages and classification. Asked 'Do you believe in the principle of equal pay for equal work with provision for family allowances?', 83 percent replied 'yes'. [1]

The WWC worked on three main fronts: research, headed by Mary Boyd, a historian from the Department of Internal Affairs; organisation, headed by Rona Meek (later Bailey), a physical welfare officer; and publicity, headed by Kate Ross, a child welfare officer. The organisation team recruited women to the PSA and began regular quarterly lunch-time meetings. The publicity team organised letters to the press and articles to trade union journals, The New Zealand Listener, and The Southern Cross. Ross also edited the women's page in the Public Service Journal.

The WWC made links with like-minded women's organisations, and affiliated to the Wellington branch of NCW. They jointly ran lectures, and with the Wellington Business and Professional Women's Club sponsored a handbill containing questions for candidates in the 1946 election.

In 1944 Prime Minister Fraser agreed to set up a joint Consultative Committee between the PSA and the Public Service Commission (PSC) to formulate new salary scales for the public service. The WWC's research team then prepared a massive case for Equal Pay for Equal Work, which Boyd presented to the Committee in April 1945.

With the PSA strongly supporting the WWC's case, the Consultative Committee accepted equal pay 'in principle'. In practice, the results were that many women public servants transferred into the permanent service in 1947, and in 1948 – after a lapse of 27 years – appointments of new female cadets again began to be made. However, the seniority handicap, which gave automatic advantage to men in determining promotion, and the introduction of barriers in the lowest class of the clerical division applying only to women, created a whole series of new disabilities which took more than a decade to get rid of.

In November 1954 the Wellington Section Committee revitalised the equal pay issue, following a motion at a general meeting calling for a full campaign by the PSA. The WWC responded by electing a committee of twelve at a general meeting of women public servants in February 1955. It included veterans Cath Eichelbaum, Letty Allen and Margot Jenkins, and newcomer Margaret Brand (later Long). One of the committee's specific objectives was to hold the PSA's first-ever women's conference, which took place in August 1955. It was attended by fifteen women – those representing the seven major sections and three occupational groups, and the three women on the national executive (Jenkins, Brand and Joyce McBeath).

Members of the Public Service Association Equal Pay Committee, including Margaret Brand (later Long), third from right, meeting with three of New Zealand’s four women MPs to discuss the case for equal pay in the public service, August 1955. The MPs are Ethel McMillan (far left), Mabel Howard (third from left) and Hilda Ross (far right).

The conference was memorable for three reasons: the sharing by women of common concerns; PSC chairman George Bolt's comment in relation to equal pay for women, 'Why pay 10 bob for an article you can get for five?'; [2] and the report on the economic impact of equal pay prepared by Dr Bill Sutch, economist for the Department of Trade and Industry. The report discredited many of the myths against equal pay; leaked to Truth (by persons still unknown in 1993), it gained an unexpectedly wide readership.

The PSA's annual conference that year endorsed most of the recommendations of the women's conference, which then formed the basis of the association's strenuous five-year campaign for equal pay. The WWC supported the campaign through meetings, bulletins, press releases, letters, buffet teas, meetings with MPs, addresses to public service groups and to women's organisations, with an occasional more daring foray into men's groups. Contacts with unions were not very fruitful, until the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity was formed in 1957 and some unions joined. Spectacular cases, such as that of Jean Parker, attracted great publicity and drew PSA members into the campaign. Other women's committees began to flourish, particularly in Hamilton and Christchurch, as they joined the cause.

Success came at last in 1960, when the Government Service Equal Pay Bill was introduced to Parliament by a Labour government with a majority of one, near the end of its last session. The Bill was supported, surprisingly, by the Opposition, and became law in October 1960. The women's committees went into recess shortly afterwards.

For nearly two decades the women's committees played an important educative role, publicised equal pay policies, encouraged women to take appeals to the Appeal Board, collected information for cases to the Government Service Tribunal, made links with other organisations, answered criticisms, sponsored meetings, and generally ensured that the PSA leadership did not flag in pursuing the goal of equal pay.

Margaret Long


[1] Quoted in Corner, 1988, p. 23.

[2] Recollection of those attending the conference.

Unpublished sources

Equal Pay Archives, 1943–1960, Dan Long Union Library, PSA, Wellington

Equal Pay Oral Archive, Dan Long Union Library, PSA, Wellington

Published sources

Corner, Margaret, No Easy Victory: Towards Equal Pay for Women in the Government Service 1890–1960, New Zealand Public Service Association/Dan Long Trust, Wellington, 1988

Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 6 No. 2, March 1944

Roth, Bert, Remedy for Present Evils: A History of the New Zealand Public Service Association from 1890, New Zealand Public Service Association, Wellington, 1987