Young Women's Christian Association of Aotearoa New Zealand

1878 –

Young Women's Christian Association of Aotearoa New Zealand

1878 –

Theme: Welfare

This essay written by Marion Wood was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Liv Doogue in 2018.

1878 – 1993

The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) started in England in 1855. There were two founding organisations. Mary Kinnaird started the General Female Training Institute for nurses working with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. The women who went to the Crimea were the feminists of their day—young women who sought a little more from life than the constraints of Victorian England were likely to provide. At the same time, Emma Robarts started the Prayer Union to intercede for young women. Both organisations took the name of the Young Women's Christian Association, and in 1877 they amalgamated. Apparently 'no greater formality was needed to bring about this union than the mutual agreement of the two leaders over a cup of tea'. [1]

The first YWCA in the southern hemisphere was the YWCA of Dunedin, established in 1878, just one year after the amalgamation of the English association. It was followed by Christchurch (1883) and Auckland (1885). The World's YWCA was started in 1894. [2] In the twentieth century YWCAs were set up in fourteen different towns and cities here; in 1993 there were ten local associations from Whangarei to Dunedin.

YWCA collectors

Alexander Turnbull Library, EP/1956/2809-F

YWCA volunteers gathering before a street collection, 1956.

The national association had its roots in the Joint YWCA of Australia and New Zealand, established in 1907. In 1920 a New Zealand Field Committee was set up and discussions soon began on whether and when to separate from Australia. In the event the New Zealanders' decision to delay this was overruled by the Australians, and in 1926 the YWCA of New Zealand was established. By that time the local associations had many years of experience and had built up an impressive record of achievement. In 1991 the national association changed its name to the YWCA of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The safety of women was a concern from the time the organisation began. One of the initial activities undertaken by many local associations was to meet the immigrant ships and look after young working class women, arriving alone and at risk, and destined to work in domestic service or factories. The main concern was to safeguard their respectability by providing healthy, clean-living leisure-time activities. Besides bible studies, the YWCA offered meals, a place to meet friends, classes, and sporting activities. For many young women at the turn of the century, the YWCA became a major influence and important anchor in their lives.

This early work led to the establishment of the first hostels for immigrant women, and later for young rural women coming to the cities. In the 1950s and 1960s the hostels were used as student accommodation. By the 1980s the focus was changing again in some YWCAs to providing boarding house or emergency accommodation for women.

The safety of women's souls was also of concern to the early members, who were ardent Christians. Prayers were an essential part of all activities, and hymn singing and bible readings were taken to women in the factories as they worked. For most of its first century, the YWCA interpreted Christianity as a call to action. Its Blue Triangle symbolised the interplay of the spiritual, mental and physical in the lives of women. By the 1990s, however, the relevance of a patriarchal Christianity was being strongly questioned by YWCA women, and the national association was calling for a change in the exclusive language of the Christian basis of the World YWCA.

But the movement also recognised more earthly threats to women's safety. It included advice on sexual harassment in early publications, and pioneered sex education from 1913. In the 1990s the YWCA continued this tradition of providing a practical response to violence against women, with self-defence classes for women and girls.

A major function of the YWCA was providing leadership opportunities for women, both for the mainly middle class, Pākehā women who served as its volunteers, and for the young working women the YWCA aimed to reach. Although individual members were involved in the temperance and suffrage movements, the organisation itself was usually a step removed from the forefront of radical political campaigns. In the 1990s the YWCA still had a tradition of accepting new ideas 'in principle', then confirming them in practice once they seemed feasible. It was usually the staff who led the more conservative volunteers in change. Yet the YWCA was often the first mainstream women's organisation to lend respectability to causes, and the emphasis it brought was always a practical one. In the 1990s this was reflected by its work with young women on sexual harassment and body image, and by its commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi in its partnership schemes with Māori women.

A safer campaign issue than suffrage was raising money for buildings, and in this the organisation excelled. In the 1910s and 1920s, board members organised sophisticated campaigns for buildings to house the increasing numbers of clubs and activities run by the YWCAs, which had become central meeting places for young working women. Extremely competent, well-trained staff, such as Elsie Griffin in Auckland, Florence Birch in Wellington, and Marjorie Black in Dunedin, co-ordinated these campaigns.

The same calibre of leadership was evident in the Girl Citizen Movement, joined by thousands of 14 to 20-year-olds. For country girls it provided a surrogate family. Leila Bridgman, YWCA girls' work secretary 1926–32, led the Girl Citizens as they learned the skills of running conferences and meetings, speaking in public, and organising fundraising, holiday camps, dances, plays and outings.

The YWCA was a pioneer of sport for women. The first YWCA recreation class was held in Dunedin in 1883; there was gymnasium work in Auckland by 1886. During the 1940s, the Wellington YWCA developed this into Eurhythmics (rhythmical gymnastics), the forerunner of YWCA Newrhythmics in the 1980s. Most YWCAs had a gymnasium attached to their building, and the associations were heavily involved in all aspects of women's sport until after World War II.

But whether they were swimming or playing basketball, tennis, cricket or hockey, in sport women always had to take a back seat to the requirements of men. The YWCA fought this in 1920s Auckland by initiating sports organisations run by women, such as the Auckland Girls' Athletic Association and the InterHouse Girls' Sports Association. They also succeeded in raising funds and outbidding the men for control of a 15-acre sports ground for women, with the men able to be accommodated 'as far as space would permit'. [3]

Jean Stevenson was general secretary of the YWCA of New Zealand 1932–37, and her business background and financial acumen guided the organisation through the Depression. The YWCA faced a dilemma in those lean years: its traditional clientele were the young women who were among the first to lose their jobs. The YWCA initially provided them with some free meals and beds and set up employment services; but this practical response was soon swamped by the enormity of the problem, and the organisation saw no sense in going gloriously down with its unemployed clientele. So it balanced these activities (and its books) by initiating the Business and Professional Women's Clubs in the 1930s.

Employed women had to pay unemployment tax during the Depression, but women were not eligible for relief payments from the unemployment fund. The YWCA, together with the NCW and unemployed women's groups, lobbied the government to change this inequitable situation.

The YWCA's leadership training came into its own during the war years, 1939–1945. The YWCA had campaigned for peace, and was not totally impressed with the men's decisions to go to war:

The Brotherhood of Man, alas, is rather on the blink
The Sisterhood of Woman, though, is possible, we think. [4]

During the war local associations organised hostel accommodation for women coming to the cities to keep industries running. They also ran thriving but respectable social clubs.

The YWCA always tried to respond to the current aspirations of women, and in the comfortable 1950s and 1960s it reflected the emphasis on femininity, home and family. For most of its herstory up to the 1980s, the organisation had an ambivalent attitude towards women in the home. While lauding the ideal of woman as wife, mother and homemaker, it consistently attracted strong, independent women, many of whom made a career in the organisation and stayed single. New Zealand women such as Jean Begg served the cause of women in YWCAs around the world. The international aspect of the organisation was always important too: in the early years members supported YWCA staff in China, India and Japan, and in 1925 more was spent on such work than on local projects.

In the 1970s financial worries with the hostels began to shake the YWCA out of its 1960s complacency. In the 1980s the energy of feminism claimed the organisation, and it began to focus more on issues of social justice. This attracted more young women, Māori women and lesbians to the organisation, and initiated a number of new women's groups, including Te Kākano o te Whānau and the Pacific Islands Women's Project.

But the priorities of the 1990s all found their genesis in the organisation's earlier activities. By the early 1990s, the YWCA had worked with women of all ages in Aotearoa for well over a century. It initiated many women's groups, and then encouraged them to independence. Its herstory reflected the priorities of ordinary Pākehā women. Few Māori women were involved in the administration, though Mary McKail Geddes was president of Auckland YWCA for six years from 1913, and Amo Bennett attended the World Council in 1938. There were also relatively few young women in leadership roles, though Sylvia Chapman was apparently only 29 when she became president of the YWCA of New Zealand in 1929.

The YWCA featured a mixture of conservative and progressive forces. Robarts' legacy emphasised the development of women's personal potential. Kinnaird's promoted the equality of all women through social action. By 1993 the YWCA of Aotearoa New Zealand continued to be a pivotal women's organisation, one which touched the lives of thousands of women, helping to develop their skills and confidence, and empowering them to reach their full potential.

Marion Wood

1994 – 2018

The 1990s were a period where the YWCA of Aotearoa New Zealand sought to target its programme and activities to work with women with the least access to resources. The primary focus for the association was steered back to young women, particularly since the appointment of a position in the national office focused in this area.

The new millennium saw yet more changes in the YWCA. The focus for young women was paramount in the success of national campaigns and projects undertaken by the national association. Advocacy efforts saw the YWCA play an integral part in the campaigns for the Prostitution Reform Bill and paid parental leave legislation.

Constitutional changes enabled the association to be more proactive and empowering for young women involved in the organisation. Their journey into working with the Treaty of Waitangi resulted in the creation of the Wāhine o Wairua Collective, for wāhine Māori.  As a tauiwi organisation, this group set out to lead the organisation through the process to biculturalism. The YWCA was also instrumental in co-ordinating the YWCA Girls’ Self-Defence project, promoting positive body images for young women through the Like Your Body booklet, and supporting young women’s leadership in promoting youth as a voice for social change.

Dunedin YWCA established the Angel Fund in 1997 with the support of the Community Employment Group, part of the Department of Labour, in response to the growing need for a women’s development fund targeted at low income women. The intention was that the Fund would be specifically targeted at women who were not able to access funding from conventional sources, usually due to insufficient income, lack of traditional forms of security, or current debt encumbrance. The Angel Fund remained Dunedin’s focus in 2018.

Hamilton YWCA’s buildings, Bishopscourt and the Chapel, purchased in 1954, gained Historic Places Category II registration in 2010 through Heritage New Zealand. Despite there being many attempts to have the buildings demolished, the YWCA Hamilton had proactively sought to retain them, with support from the local community. In 1997 a joint project between Hamilton YWCA and Whakahou Services began the transformation of the Chapel into Te Whare Wāhine, decorated by Māori women who had experienced family violence. The National Women's Carving Group helped with the designing and carving of the panels, featuring atua/goddesses telling stories of courage, survival and hope. The space was reopened in 1999, and the project won Hamilton City's Civic Trust premier project award. In 2018 the site remained the home of YWCA’s social enterprise hostel and facilities, where they ran events, Meals on Wheels programmes, and programmes empowering young women.

Christchurch YWCA was disrupted by the 2011 earthquake: their Community Development Centre, providing emergency and transitional accommodation, was forced to close. Following a period of consolidation and relocation to new premises, Christchurch YWCA were able to continue their accommodation service, but overall their services were a pared back version of what they had been pre-earthquake. Their programme in 2018 involved mentoring, upskilling, sharing skills, tutoring and peer teaching, as well as workshops for the resident children, and on-site counselling.

Whangarei YWCA continued to run their centrally-located hostel ,providing safe and affordable accommodation, in Rust Avenue, the same street in which their original premises had stood a century before. Whangarei also ran training courses and workshops centered around female empowerment and economic independence.

Auckland YWCA’s core focus on leadership, through their Future Leaders programme, in 2018 saw the launch of Hinekura, a new tuakana teina programme to support young Māori women aged 14 to 18. They were also at the forefront of equal pay advocacy, with the Equal Pay Awards in their fourth year, and the recent launch of the Gender Tick accreditation programme.

Liv Doogue


[1] Jenkins, [1978], p. 3.

[2] The original name, World's YWCA, was changed in 1955 to World YWCA.

[3] Coney, 1986, p. 176.

[4] The New Zealand Girl, 1 June 1940, p. 17.

Unpublished sources

Heritage New Zealand,’Bishopscourt and Episcopal Chapel (Former)’, 31 April 2010,

YWCA records, 1912–1969, ATL

(Note: In 1993 each branch of the YWCA held its own records, and in many cases deposited those for earlier years in a local library or archival institution.)

YWCA records, 1995–2018, YWCA national office

Published sources

Coney, Sandra, Every Girl: A Social History of Women and the YWCA in Auckland, Auckland YWCA, Auckland, 1986

Jenkins, Greta M., One Hundred Years, 1878–1978, Dunedin YWCA, Dunedin, [1978]

Law, Eupthemia Ethel, Down the Years, YWCA of New Zealand, Wellington, 1964

Mains, Frances Helen, and Grace Loucks Elliott, From Deep Roots: The Story of the YWCA's Religious Dimensions, YWCA of USA, 1974

Sims, Mary Sophia Steven, The Natural History of a Social Institution – The YWCA, Women's Press, New York, 1935

Sims, Mary Sophia Steven, The YWCA: An Unfolding Purpose, Women's Press, New York, 1950

Sims, Mary Sophia Steven, The Purpose Widens, 1947–67, New York Bureau of Communications, New York, 1969

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about Young Women's Christian Association of Aotearoa New Zealand

What do you know?

Can you tell us more about the information on this page? Perhaps you have a related experience you would like to share?

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments will be reviewed prior to posting. Not all comments posted. Tell me more...