Elsie Mary Griffin was born on 1 November 1884 at Lawrence, Otago, New Zealand, the daughter of Mary Brown, a Canadian by birth, and her husband, Cornelius Griffin, a Wesleyan minister. The Griffins moved around the Wesleyan preaching circuits, reaching Auckland province when Elsie was 16. She attended the Methodist Prince Albert College in Queen Street, Auckland, and in 1906 was awarded an MA with first-class honours in botany after studying at Auckland University College. In the same year she took up a position as botany mistress at Auckland Girls' Grammar School. When in 1909 the school moved to a new site in Howe Street, she was able to equip a laboratory said to have been one of the most up to date in a New Zealand school.
As botany mistress and leading enthusiast of the field club, Elsie Griffin took her pupils on long hikes in the Waitakere Range to collect specimens. A tall, angular woman, she set little store by dressing or even behaving in the ladylike manner convention demanded of women at the time. She could be boisterous, and she liked to joke. These qualities ensured her success with her students.
While teaching, she also became involved with the Young Women's Christian Association in Auckland, and it was here that her personal and organisational abilities would find their most fulfilling outlet. In 1908 she helped form a study group, composed primarily of university graduates, and in 1910 led a Bible study circle and served on the Evangelistic Committee.
Her Methodist background impelled Elsie Griffin to work for the community. She also believed in lifelong education and understood that women could only improve their position if they formed a powerful organisational base. Hence, when the World's YWCA put out a call around 1911 for university-educated women to take over the administration of the local branches of the association, she volunteered. She was secretary of the YWCA in Dunedin from 1912 to 1915, and this experience led her to spend the next two years studying social work methods in America.
She returned to Auckland in August 1917 as secretary of the local YWCA, and was in this position as the association went through its period of greatest growth. She is credited with modernising the Auckland YWCA, so that it was fully part of the secular world while retaining its Christian roots. Contemporaries noted her business sense, her organisational flair and her ability to get people working for her on a task. In 1918 the YWCA moved to imposing new Queen Street premises, and by 1919 could boast 2,500 members.
One of a group of single, university-educated professional women who provided much of the leadership for the women's movement after the First World War, Elsie Griffin brought with her from America a vision of a women's club movement which would operate as a feminist force across class boundaries. She argued for 'the same virile club life' in New Zealand so that women could 'take a live interest in municipal matters', and with other like-minded women inaugurated a number of women's clubs. She was a foundation member of the Auckland Women's Club (later the Auckland Lyceum Club), the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Federation of University Women, and the Pan-Pacific Women's Association. In 1917 Griffin, city councillor Ellen Melville and social worker Sarah Jackson initiated a meeting that led to the revival of the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW) in Auckland. Despite her leading role in forming these groups, Griffin rarely held prominent office; but she went to national conferences, was on the national executive of the NCW from 1919 to 1923 and represented New Zealand at conferences of the International Council of Women and the International Federation of University Women held overseas.
Elsie Griffin was a key figure in the establishment of the YWCA of New Zealand as a separate body to that in Australia. From 1907 the Australian and New Zealand associations had been combined and in 1920 she was a member of the New Zealand Field Committee that planned the separation from Australia. She took responsibility for constitutional matters, an area in which she showed particular talent. In April 1924 Griffin travelled abroad to study new methods of education and social service and later that year was appointed national general secretary of the YWCA of Australia and New Zealand. In this post, which she held for 10 years, she was able to assist in the final separation of the Australian and New Zealand associations in 1926.
She returned to New Zealand to care for her ageing mother, over a period described by her friends as 'exacting'. She never married, and apart from time spent helping to re-establish the Pan-Pacific Women's Association in Honolulu after the Second World War, she spent the rest of her life in Auckland, an honoured and active member of the many organisations she had helped to found. During these years she was also involved with the Workers' Educational Association and the New Zealand Women's Food Value League.
Elsie Griffin was a distinctive figure in her big black hat, black scarf and floppy coat. A strong-minded woman who was not afraid to express her views, she sometimes encountered 'strong opposition, but always saw the other point of view and remained friendly and tolerant'. She was kind to younger women and respected. She died in Auckland on 3 May 1968, leaving generous legacies to the Auckland YWCA and University of Auckland.