On 3 August 1870 17-year-old Marianne Allen Manchester arrived at Auckland on the Excelsior. She was one of a group of single women brought out from Britain on assisted passages by the Hawke's Bay provincial government to work as domestic servants. Marianne had been born Maryann Manchester in Brighton, Sussex, England, on 13 November 1852, the daughter of Matilda Gillet and her husband, James Manchester, a shoemaker. Her mother had died when she was eight; it is not known what happened to her father. In her shipboard journal she records feeling 'very desolate' at having left her brother and sister.
Marianne changed situation frequently in the first year in New Zealand, leaving Hawke's Bay for Gisborne in April 1871 where she worked at the home of Joshua Cuff, a solicitor, and at the Albion Hotel. On 14 May 1874, in Gisborne, she married John Tasker, an Englishman five years her senior and a clerk with the Armed Constabulary. Over the next 12½ years they had seven children: five daughters and two sons. In 1879 the Tasker family moved to Wellington, where John was to spend the rest of his career, as a clerk in the Defence Department and then in the Police Department.
Marianne Tasker made her first known appearance in public life in April 1895, when she was 42 and her youngest child was seven. She led a breakaway group from the Women's Social and Political League (WSPL) to form the Women's Democratic Union (WDU). The inclusion of the term 'democratic' in the name of the new society was doubtless a reference to her bitter row with the WSPL president, Mary Player, over the alleged lack of open, democratic procedures, which had led to the split. As president for six years Tasker dominated the WDU, and its platform and activities may be taken as a reflection of her own beliefs and goals.
The WDU was committed to the betterment of women's position in society through legislative reform and education, and to promoting policies designed to remove inequalities in society. It also had a special interest in the protection of the moral health and welfare of society, and to this end sought to encourage women to take a more active role in community affairs. The WDU supported, moreover, all societies and laws whose objectives were the prevention of cruelty to young children, the aged and animals.
Listening to lectures and debating were important activities of the WDU. Topics at the weekly meetings included voluntary unionism, the position of women, divorce, the use of the lash, and juvenile depravity. Marianne Tasker frequently gave the lecture herself. The WDU was also actively involved with labour organisations, and in political campaigning on behalf of Labour and Liberal parliamentary candidates. One of the WDU's objectives – the appointment of women to public bodies – was furthered by Tasker in late April 1895 when she won election to the Mount Cook School Committee.
From 1896 to 1900 Tasker was the WDU delegate to the annual conferences of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, and was a vice president of the council from 1898 to 1900. She organised the 1898 Wellington conference, at which she and Kate Sheppard gave the opening addresses, and regularly gave conference papers – on undesirable immigrants (1896), technical education (1897), the Master and Apprentice Bill (1899) and parental responsibility (1900).
Labour issues were particularly dear to Tasker, and she pursued them through other channels as well as the WDU. In August 1895 she was a founding member of the Anti-Chinese League, believing that the Chinese presence was contributing to the unemployment problem. In October 1895 she joined a committee formed from trades and labour organisations and religious bodies to 'formulate some practical scheme for the solution of the unemployment difficulty'; this committee proposed opening up land for settlement for the unemployed, establishing labour colonies, and sending men to the goldfields. In the same month she also took part in founding the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Workers' Union. She proposed a separate branch for women workers, and a call went out for domestic servants to join.
The status and working conditions of domestic servants was a cause Marianne Tasker pursued with especial fervour. In September 1897 she mounted a campaign to have domestic economy included in the curriculum of the Wellington Technical School and cookery in primary schools in the Wellington region. In her opinion 'Many of the girls who went to the factories for employment simply went because, being unable to cook, they were useless as domestic servants. If they had learnt to cook they would be much better off.' In 1898 the Wellington Education Board introduced a training scheme along the lines advocated by Tasker.
In 1898 and 1899 two unions were set up in Wellington specifically for domestic servants. The first, led by Kate Evans, sought to improve the working conditions of domestic servants through moral suasion of employers, and by the establishment of a clubroom and a benefit fund for domestic servants. The second, supported by Marianne Tasker, took a more militant line, proposing to register itself under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894 as a means of securing better conditions for domestic servants. However, both unions petered out.
In April 1901 the WDU was wound up. Marianne Tasker continued her interest in general women's issues through the WSPL: she had re-established friendly relations with the league late in 1895, after Louisa Seddon assumed the presidency, and was herself president in 1911. She also maintained her interest in the cause of domestic servants.
In September 1906, 10 months after her husband's death, Marianne Tasker held a meeting to establish yet another domestic workers' union in Wellington. Those attending hoped that by improving the working conditions of servants, more young women would be encouraged to pursue domestic duties. As in 1899, the strategy was to register the union under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, and to use the act's machinery to force employers to comply with the union's demands. The campaign generated lively debate in the press and roused the employers to form a 'Committee of Employers of Domestic Employees' to meet the challenge. However, in mid 1907, before the union could bring the issue to a head, Marianne Tasker left New Zealand for a visit to Britain, and the acting secretary omitted to re-register the union. On her return in 1908 Tasker failed in her application to have the union registered again.
Marianne Tasker died in Wellington on 4 February 1911. Her concrete achievements were few; she had embraced many causes, but had little time to sustain her initiatives. She was most successful in generating debate, especially on labour issues. Far from wishing to overturn the existing order, however, her motive was to maintain it through 'Evolution not Revolution'. Moreover, in her work to improve the status and conditions of domestic workers, the impetus probably stemmed as much from an interest in maintaining the supply of domestic servants and a belief in domestic service as a suitable calling for young women as from a desire to organise women industrially.