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Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

1916 –

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

1916 – 1993

The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) aims to bring together women of different political and philosophical beliefs in order to study, make known and abolish the political, social, economic and psychological causes of war, and to work for a constructive peace. Although never a large organisation in New Zealand, WILPF was the oldest internationally organised women's peace group in the world. In New Zealand in 1993 there was a national executive body, called the Aotearoa Section (formerly New Zealand Section), and two branches in Wellington and Auckland, with a total membership of around 250 women.

The International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace (ICWPP) was founded in the Netherlands in 1915. Its aims were an end to the war in Europe through a negotiated settlement, and the solution of any future international disputes by arbitration and conciliation. The ICWPP wrote letters to various women in New Zealand, including Kate Sheppard, inviting them to start a branch here. Apparently there was no reply, and it was early 1917 before the ICWPP was informed that a New Zealand section had been established. It was probably founded in Auckland in 1916 by Marianne Jones and Annette D'Arcy Hamilton, and was referred to variously as the Women's International League, the Women's International Peace League, and the ICWPP. Branches formed in other main centres, but did not survive.

Founders of the Women’s International League in New Zealand, Marianne Jones (second left) and Annette D’Arcy Hamilton (third from right) with other members and Adela Pankhurst (centre, with flowers). The group sponsored Pankhurst to tour New Zealand in 1916, speaking on women, peace and internationalism.

The league protested strongly against the deportation of conscientious objectors in 1917, declaring that it was 'incredible' that 'the liberty of conscience, so dearly bought in other times by our forefathers, should be deliberately set aside'. [1] In May 1918 the Women's International League and the Auckland Women's Political League decided to amalgamate, 'the work of the two Leagues being almost identical'; [2] the organisation became known as the Women's International and Political Leagues.

In 1919 the ICWPP changed its name to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The Women's International and Political Leagues continued to be the New Zealand section of WILPF throughout the 1920s, even after changing their name yet again in 1926—to the Auckland Women's Branch of the New Zealand Labour Party (possibly because of an overlap of aims and membership). In 1930, in order to avoid confusion, the section dissociated itself from the Labour Party and re-established itself on an 'independent footing apart from politics'. [3]

From the 1920s until 1964, the New Zealand section of WILPF consisted only of an Auckland branch. Its corresponding secretary, Emily Gibson, almost single-handedly kept it alive during the early 1920s and late 1930s, when membership was small and there was little activity. In 1928 a public meeting supporting the abolition of conscription was held under WILPF's auspices in the Strand Theatre in Auckland. New Zealand was represented at the WILPF Congress in Prague in 1929 by a Mrs Cassidy, who presented two remits calling for the abolition of conscription and the provision of a motherhood endowment.

The New Zealand section supported a range of causes concerning peace and justice, particularly as they affected women. Some, such as the Mau nationalist struggles in Samoa in the early 1930s, were brought to its attention by the international body; but others, such as the nationality of married women, were more obviously the interests of individual members—in this case, Miriam Soljak. During the early Depression years, the section held many discussions on the position of unemployed girls and women, and the discrimination they suffered in getting unemployment relief. Members worked closely with the Auckland Unemployed Women's Association on the issue.

The section's largest undertaking began in 1931, when it was asked by the WILPF in Geneva to gather signatures on a petition for international disarmament. With the help of other organisations, members collected nearly 42,000 signatures, and held a disarmament meeting in the Auckland Town Hall. In 1932 'economic conditions' and declining membership led to a decision to 'discontinue work as a section of the WILPF and to form a corresponding group'. [4] In late 1933, having received a protest from Geneva and sorted out its finances, the section rescinded its decision and continued its work.

During World War II activities ceased, possibly because of dwindling membership and the difficulty of maintaining a peace group during wartime. In 1955 WILPF was re-established in Auckland following a visit to New Zealand by Quaker physicist Dame Kathleen Lonsdale. Like its predecessor, the new WILPF focused on a variety of issues. Meetings featured talks on the effect of nuclear weapons on the human body, the world's crisis spots, for example the Middle East, and New Zealand's role in the Pacific. In 1964 the Wellington branch was re-established, and both branches began protesting against New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam war. Throughout the latter part of the war, Wellington members held a silent vigil from 4 pm to 6 pm daily outside Wellington Railway Station.

Peace march
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom members were among 15,000 women taking part in an International Women’s Day of Action for Nuclear Disarmament march along Queen Street, Auckland, May 1983.

By the early 1990s WILPF continued to be involved in the campaign against the sale of war toys, and for the resolution of conflict by non-violent means. A booklet, Learning Peaceful Relationships, was first published in 1979 as a contribution to the International Year of the Child. Designed for use by teachers and parents, it was a collection of practical activities for children to help them learn communication, co-operation, and non-confrontational ways of dealing with conflict. By 1993 It had been reprinted five times.

WILPF became affiliated to the National Council of Women  in 1917, and had a long association with the United Nations Association and its predecessor, the League of Nations Union. WILPF also had close contact with the Society of Friends in New Zealand—over the years many members were Quakers, and meetings were often held in the Friends' Meeting Houses in Auckland and Wellington.

By 1993 WILPF's ageing membership was a cause for concern. From the late 1980s the organisation attempted to become more bicultural, changing its name to WILPF Aotearoa Section in 1989, and placing more emphasis on the rights of indigenous peoples, especially in the Pacific. However, the basic aims of WILPF were still to secure the rights of women, general disarmament, and the peaceful settlement of conflicts, and to work for a world-wide economic and social order founded on the absence of violence and a respect for basic human rights.

Megan Hutching

1994 – 2018

From 1993 WILPF Aotearoa increased its number of branches to three, with the addition of a South Island branch based in Christchurch, but the number of active members dropped to below 100. Each branch had its own focus. Wellington engaged more directly with the machinery of government, often participating in parliamentary select committee submissions. Christchurch had great expertise in nuclear disarmament and was closely involved in taking a case to the International Court of Justice at the Hague in 1996, resulting in a declaration that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law in armed conflict in most circumstances. The branch also worked closely with younger women.

The Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) branch had a particular focus on educating Pākehā about the Treaty of Waitangi and on New Zealand’s relationship with the Pacific. [5] The branch, in association with Ngā Wahine Pasifika, provided significant support for a Pacific Conference and Court for Violence against Women and the Land, held in Auckland in 1999, which addressed violence against women as a consequence of colonisation of the Pacific. The work in this area of supporting indigenous rights continued to be a focus of branch activities in 2018.

WILPF supported the publication of Pacific Women Speak Out for Independence and Denuclearisation, based on interviews recorded with indigenous women working for justice in the Pacific, and As Mothers of the Land: The Birth of the Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom. [6] Through vice-president Pauline Tangiora, WILPF tried to raise awareness of the need for more indigenous women’s voices to be heard at an international WILPF level.

In the 2010s there was a focus on regionalisation at the international level of WILPF. In 2004 and 2014 WILPF Aotearoa hosted Asia-Pacific regional meetings in Christchurch and Auckland respectively, and at the 2018 international Congress in Ghana the regional structure was formally adopted. WILPF Aotearoa became part of the Asia Pacific region, along with Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Tahiti Polynesia. Working on regional issues, such as the denuclearisation of the Pacific, as well as national concerns, was encouraged.

WILPF celebrated its international centenary in April 2015 with a conference at The Hague, and WILPF Aotearoa celebrated its centenary in 2016 with low key events at each of the three branches. Issues such as disarmament, decolonisation and women’s human rights, viewed from an international and feminist perspective, continued to be integral to the organisation’s work.

Megan Hutching


[1] Māoriland Worker, 26 September 1917, p. 7.

[2] Auckland Women's Political League minutes, 7 March 1918.

[3] WILPF minutes, 15 July 1930.

[4] WILPF minutes, 12 April 1932.

[5] Holt, 1985, p.3.

[6] See de Ishtar (ed.), 1998; Sirivi and Harivi (eds), 2004.

Unpublished sources

Hutching, Megan, '"Turn Back this Tide of Barbarism": New Zealand Women who were Opposed to War, 1896–1919', MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1990

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom collection, 1915–2005, ATL

Women's International League for Peace and Freedom records, 1930–1985, ATL

Women's Political Leagues minute books, March 1917–4 November 1926, ATL

Published sources

Holt, Betty, Women for Peace and Freedom: A History of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in New Zealand, WILPF, Wellington, 1985

de Ishtar, Zohl (ed.), Pacific Women Speak Out for Independence and Denuclearisation, Raven Press, Christchurch, 1998

Sirivi, Josephine and Marilyn Harivi (eds), As Mothers of the Land: the birth of the Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom, Pandanus Books, Canberra, 2004