Women’s Studies Association (NZ) Pae Akoranga Wāhine

1976 –

Women’s Studies Association (NZ) Pae Akoranga Wāhine

1976 –

Theme: Education: girls and women

Known as:

  • Women's Studies Association
    1976 – 2015
  • Women’s Studies Association (NZ) Pae Akoranga Wāhine
    2015 –

This essay written by Margot Roth and Claire-Louise McCurdy was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Hilary Lapsley in 2018.

1976 – 1993

The Women's Studies Association (WSA) was formed as a feminist organisation to promote radical social change through the medium of women's studies. Full membership was open to all women, and in 1993 stood at 380. Although the Auckland-based national association never had affiliated branches, local Women's Studies groups were formed in Auckland (1979-83), Wellington (1983) and Dunedin (1987).

The WSA was one of a number of organisations which emerged as part of, but with more specific aims than, the 'all-purpose' women's liberation movement of the early 1970s. Women's studies began with attempts to answer the question, 'Where are the women?' – to make visible the women ignored or marginalised by a patriarchal knowledge system. Gerda Lerner called this 'additive history … filling in the gaps about women and women's experience'. In recent years the focus has changed to the construction of feminist knowledge – 'making women central to our conceptual framework'. [1] The first long-term women's studies programmes were set up in 1974 by Rosemary Seymour (sociology) and Jane Ritchie (psychology) at the University of Waikato, and by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Auckland. In 1978 there were 46 women's studies courses available in New Zealand, and by 1980 the number had almost trebled.

WSA conference

Gil Hanly photo / Broadsheet.

A session at the third Women's Studies Association conference, Auckland, 1980. The wide variety of papers on offer discussed topics such as aspects of women's work, education, creativity, and identity.

When the WSA began in 1976 it had a ready-made national membership – an informal network of correspondents who had been answering Seymour's 1974 appeal for material on women produced in New Zealand. The response was 'a deluge indicative of the vital interest women now showed in something previously denied to them, their own heritage'. [2] Seymour initiated the WSA to meet the obvious need for women to communicate about 'problems associated with the research, techniques, results, the availability or otherwise of data, and its interpretation'. [3] The association's initial aims were to encourage and store research; to co-ordinate and circulate information about research activities of all kinds; and to publish a newsletter ('not "glossy" or barrenly academic') and occasional articles. [4]

The draft constitution presented to the WSA's first AGM in 1978 was complex in its wording and contained the controversial proposal to include men as equal members. This draft was not approved. A simpler constitution, which accepted men only as associate members, was approved at the 1979 conference.

The annual conferences became a major focus. The first two, in 1978 and 1979, were held in Hamilton, but they then moved round the country, with local groups undertaking the organisation. Their growing popularity – over 400 women attended the 1990 conference – caused some logistical headaches, but reflected the rare excitement of a woman-supportive setting for intellectual debate. Conference organisers devoted much time and thought to making the event as enjoyable as possible: one committee noted in its minutes that 'Candles, logs (for burning) and spring flowers will be needed.' [5]

Conferences were open to all women, though only WSA members could present papers and workshops. The published Conference Papers formed a unique record of developing New Zealand feminist theory and practice from 1978 on. Feminist concern about sexism – and one of its manifestations, heterosexism – was frequently expressed at conferences, particularly by a lively lesbian caucus which provided an added dimension to all issues debated. Racism, and the WSA's need to foster biculturalism in practice as well as in theory, were central issues at several conferences. A parallel Māori women's hui at a marae accompanied the 1982 conference in Palmerston North. Following resolutions from the lesbian caucus and an anti-racism workshop at the 1986 conference, and further debate in subsequent issues of the newsletter, the constitution was amended at the 1987 conference in Dunedin to include 'particular responsibility to address . . . oppression [of the Māori] among our work and activities'. [6] The very successful 1990 conference in Rotorua was bicultural, with Māori and Pākehā groups organising parallel programmes.

One outcome of the WSA's analysis of social issues was the strong resolutions passed by conferences, and the press statements and submissions made by Wellington WSA on behalf of the whole membership. The 1987 submission to the Royal Commission on Social Policy was particularly influential.

The WSA also administered the annual Rosemary Seymour Award for research or archival work. The award was set up by the 1984 conference in recognition of the contribution made to the WSA by Seymour, who died of cancer shortly afterwards. In line with the change to the constitution in 1987, the 1988 conference agreed that the award would alternate between going to Māori women one year, and being open to all women the next.

Anne Else behind a books stand selling WSA journals

Anne Else, Women's Studies Journal editor 1988-91, selling the journal at the 1990 Women's Studies Association conference, held at Rotorua Girls' High School.

The need for a feminist journal as a forum for research and debate was recognised early. The Auckland Publications Committee, which had from 1981 been responsible for the quarterly Newsletter and annual Conference Papers, began producing the Women's Studies Journal in 1984. Published twice a year, the journal gained subscribers in many countries. In 1988 its production passed to a Wellington collective, and to Dunedin in 1992. The Dunedin collective canvassed opinion on changing the policy of publishing contributions from women only, but the response showed the majority of members to be against the inclusion of contributions from men.

Such issues may be seen as part of a wider debate about women's studies, feminism and academic standards. Despite the high standards of interdisciplinary research and debate displayed at WSA conferences and in its publications, allegations of lack of objectivity continued. The continuing discussion on the form, content, teaching style and politics of women's studies courses in later years included controversy among members over university appointments.

By 1993 women's studies courses still had relatively marginal academic status, but high student popularity – a combination which left over-extended staff endlessly battling for resources and recognition.

Despite such differences, the economic undermining of women's educational opportunities, and the fact that 1991 and 1992 passed without the maintenance provided by conferences, membership increased steadily from 120 in 1977 to 450 in the mid 1980s, and then fluctuated around 400. One measure of WSA productivity was the number of significant books and articles written or edited by members. The association's records – minutes, reports, correspondence – also reflected the enormous voluntary contribution of hard-working, competent members.

Margot Roth and Claire-Louise McCurdy

1994 – 2018

Over the 25 years following 1993, WSA, known from 2015 as the Women’s Studies Association (NZ) Pae Akoranga Wāhine, continued with its usual activities, experiencing some decline of membership and interest towards the end of the 2000s. By 2018 it was flourishing again and welcoming new generations of feminists.

The 1993 Suffrage Centennial gave an enormous boost to feminist activities and publications. During the 1990s women’s studies teaching and research continued to grow, especially in the university sector, although community programmes were hard-hit by withdrawal of funding. By the late 1990s, despite student enthusiasm, a lack of official support for hard-won university women’s studies programmes had become obvious. The context was the backlash against feminism and cuts to the tertiary sector, which had followed cuts to community and adult education. Subjected to frequent restructures, women’s studies programmes lost their independence and were either abolished or placed within other social science programmes, often as gender studies. Despite this setback, feminist research continued to be popular; by the 2010s, a new feminist revival began to open up new opportunities for women’s studies, at the same time suggesting different ways of organising, particularly through the emphasis on intersectionality.

The Association continued to hold successful conferences through these years. A website was put in place, as was an electronic mailing list and later a group Facebook page. WSA organisation moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1999, with Prue Hyman as convenor, followed by Lesley Hall and Mary Mowbray as co-convenors from 2009 to 2013. At a special general meeting in late 2012, it was proposed to close down the Association; but an offer was made from a new organising group in Auckland, and Hilary Lapsley became convenor.

From 2013 on some changes to the usual operations were made. Most of the regular activities continued, such as the annual Rosemary Seymour Research and Archives Award, which by this time had changed to award two separate prizes in alternate years, one open to all women and one for Māori women only. Conferences were held in Wellington in 2013, Auckland in 2016 and Wellington again in 2018. From 2016 a Margot Roth lecture was added as a regular conference feature, in recognition of Margot’s important contributions to the Association over the years, including as first editor of the Women’s Studies Journal, and contributor of an astute and often extremely witty topical column in the WSA Newsletter from 1982–2015. A group of members also put together and published, in 2016, a collection of Margot’s writings, Roll on the Revolution…But Not Till After Xmas!, the WSA’s first venture into book publishing. [7] Several special events were held, including a successful summer school in Kerikeri and two funded events examining women’s lives in World War I.

The newsletter moved to a digital-only format in 2013. Conference papers were no longer published from 2016 onwards, although the 2016 offerings were abstracted in the Women’s Studies Journal, which had continued its success, with the full text becoming freely available online from 2008. The editorial collective moved to be based at the University of Waikato in 2013, and shifted to the University of Auckland in 2018. A graduate essay prize began in 2015. Thanks to a Suffrage 125 grant, in 2018 planning was under way to make all back issues of the Journal fully available in digital form.

The Māori title of the Association, Pae Akoranga Wāhine, means a place for women’s learning or education. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku became our Māreikura, or patron, in 2016. In 2018 there was more work to do to honour Treaty obligations. WSA also struggled with issues around the inclusion of men and forms of gender identification in its activities; but it was clear that younger members did not place the same value on women-only spaces as in the early days, when such a space was deemed essential.

By 2018, although formal membership remained lower than at its peak, new media were generating new forms of connection. Judging by conference attendance, Facebook posts, the electronic mailing list, and general interest, it became clear that the Association still had a large following. In 2014 it joined the National Council of Women, which had become more publicly outspoken on issues of importance to women. The organising group again became Auckland based, with Rachel Simon-Kumar taking over from Hilary Lapsley as convenor in 2018, and Panteá Farvid as convenor-elect.

As the WSA adapted to changing times, it kept its focus on encouraging the production of feminist scholarship and knowledge, and disseminating these through women’s studies and other forms of feminist learning environments.

Hilary Lapsley


[1] Gerda Lerner, 'Reconceptualising Differences among Women', Journal of Women's History, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1990, pp.106–122.

[2] Jane Ritchie, 'Rosemary Seymour', Women's Studies Association Newsletter, Vol. 6 No. 1, 1984, p. 8.

[3] Women's Studies Association Newsletter, May 1977, p. 5.

[4] Women's Studies Association Newsletter, October 1977, p. 1.

[5] Minutes of the Christchurch WSA Conference Collective, 1 August 1983.

[6] AGM minutes, 21 August 1987.

[7] Roth, Margot, Roll on the Revolution…But Not Till After Xmas! Selected Feminist Writing (selected and edited by the Margot Collective), WSA (NZ) Pae Akoranga Wāhine, Auckland, 2016

Unpublished sources

Auckland Women's Studies Association (New Zealand) records, 1979–1983, Auckland Women's Studies Association (New Zealand) minute book, 1978–1992, Women’s Studies Association (New Zealand) papers and records, 1978 onwards, ATL.

Published sources

Women's Studies Association Newsletter, 1977–2018 (in print form until 2013, then emailed to members)

Women's Studies Conference Papers, 1978–2013 (published in 1978–9 as Research Papers Women’s Studies)

Women’s Studies Journal, 1984–2018, www.wsanz.org.nz

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