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Women's Unemployment Committees

1931 – 1939

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

The depression of the 1930s was widely perceived as a male experience. The official focus was on unemployed men; women's paid work was seen as temporary, supplementing an existing family income, and their unemployment was therefore a matter of lesser consequence. Women, it was assumed, would have a male breadwinner—a husband, father or brother—on whom they could call for support and protection. Men had a prior claim to whatever employment was available, with the exception of domestic work. The 1930 Unemployment Act and its later amendments gave legislative support to these suppositions, making no provision for women to register as unemployed. Women were excluded from unemployment relief despite being required, from 1931, to pay an unemployment tax on their earnings. Not until the passing of the 1938 Social Security Act did women gain entitlement to an unemployment benefit.

By 1931 it was apparent that the plight of single unemployed women was becoming increasingly desperate. The lack of government assistance meant that hospital board charitable aid and private charity were the only avenues open to those without family support. Women's groups feared that young women living alone in rented accommodation were turning to prostitution: as one Auckland deputation told the Minister of Labour in May 1931, 'Definite knowledge had been obtained of girls having been compelled to resort to degradation in order to avoid starvation.' [1]

Existing women's organisations, especially those whose work had a moral orientation, were the first to respond. In the main centres the YWCA joined forces with the National Council of Women and the Society for the Protection of Women and Children to organise public meetings, raise funds, and pressure government on the issue. In 1931 they formed Women's Unemployment Committees in the four main centres and established registers of unemployed women, initially to gauge the extent of the problem, but later directing women to employment. Most of the employment offered was domestic work, and there were soon complaints about exploitative conditions and the expectation of work without wages. Since their members were drawn mostly from the ranks of potential employers of domestic servants, the unemployment committees played a highly ambiguous role in these developments.

During 1931 the committees opened workrooms, taking in mending and knitting, providing opportunities for stenographers to practise their skills, teaching handcrafts and basic domestic skills, and providing meals. The Unemployment Board made a small grant of £500 to support these activities, but government still refused to recognise that female unemployment was a serious problem.

Women's Unemployment Committee shop display, 1932
Shop window in Willis Street, Wellington, specially dressed for the Women’s Unemployment Committee appeal on behalf of unemployed women, June 1932.

In 1932 women's organisations continued to make representations to government, as the needs of unemployed women were clearly outgrowing the resources of private charity. In Auckland, for example, there had been up to 1500 women on the unemployed register, and this was estimated to be far below the actual level. However, the presence of 'screaming women' in the April unemployment riots probably had the greater impact on government consciousness. [2] In late April, government activated a Women's Advisory Committee to co-ordinate the work of further Women's Unemployment Committees throughout the country. By 1933 there were fourteen committees. A high proportion of those assisted were young women under the age of twenty, the largest category being girls engaged in 'domestic duties'.

The Unemployment Board increased its assistance to the committees to £16,000 over the 1932-33 year. Most of this money went towards domestic training programmes, an extension of schemes already initiated by bodies such as the YWCA. Women were to be paid 10s per week (7s 6d if they were living with their parents), and given three meals a day, while they learned a variety of skills. One of the most intensive schemes was organised by the Dunedin Women's Unemployment Committee, which drew on the resources of the University of Otago's Home Science School. It included such topics as hygiene and sanitation, clothing and household fabrics, nutrition, menu-making, account-keeping, table service, cookery, home nursing, infant care, laundering, 'intelligent shopping' and, significantly, 'right attitudes in their relationship to employers, co-workers and associates'. [3]

The programme's aim of producing efficient domestic servants was described by one trade unionist as amounting to a 'fetish'—the production of cheap female domestic labour for the farming community. [4] In this it was less than successful. Women attended the courses for their meals and sustenance payment, but Helen Wilson, a member of the government's Women's Advisory Committee on Unemployment, complained that they often refused point-blank to move to jobs away from home: 'What, me stuck over at St Clair and me boy in Mornington? Not likely!' [5]

In other ways, too, the women rebelled against what was essentially a charitable and outdated approach to their predicament. A knitting class organised by the Dunedin committee in 1931 produced work which was so 'disgraceful', grubby and misshapen that it had to be unravelled and remade. Girls helping at the relief depot in 1932 were disciplined for obstreperous behaviour. Others skipped training classes, pleaded ill-health or, on graduation (and the number of graduates in Dunedin was very small), simply went home to help mother.

By 1935 an expansion of female employment, mainly in secondary industries, meant that the activities of the Women's Unemployment Committees contracted. Older, 'inefficient' women still needed their services, and some committees remained in existence until the introduction of social security in 1939. They had been largely ineffectual in dealing with women's unemployment, but did provide venues for unemployed women to meet together, some practical assistance in the form of food and clothing, and publicity for the needs of single women who were critically disadvantaged by the discriminatory basis of state unemployment relief.

Margaret Tennant with Kate Flintoff


[1] NZH, 26 May 1931.

[2] Coney, 1986, p. 201.

[3] 'Unemployment Problem of Dunedin Women. Scheme of training Household Aids’ [1932?], Dunedin Women’s Unemployment Committee minute book, April 1931-April 1933.

[4] J. Roberts, quoted in Watson, 1984, p. 240.

[5] Wilson, 1956, p. 21.

Unpublished sources

Dunedin Women’s Unemployment Committee minute book, April 1931-April 1933, Society for the Protection of Home and Family Dunedin records, Hocken

Oakley, P.J., ‘The Handling of Depression Problems in Christchurch 1928-35: A Social Study’, MA thesis, Canterbury University College, 1953

Robertson, R.T., ‘The Tyranny of Circumstances: Responses to Unemployment in New Zealand 1919-1935, with particular reference to Dunedin’, PhD thesis, University of Otago, 1978

Unemployment Board Annual Report, AJHR, 1931-1935

Watson, James, ‘Crisis and Change: Economic Crisis and Technological Change Between the World Wars, with Special Reference to Christchurch, 1926-1936’, PhD thesis, University of Canterbury, 1984

Published sources

Black, Helen, Sunshine and Shadow, John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1947

Wilson, Helen, My First Eighty Years, Paul’s Book Arcade, Hamilton, 1950 (reprinted 1956)

Further Resources

Listen to Elsie Locke speak recalls women's part in the unemployment movement, and why they organised separately from men: