Maria Selina Hale was born on 23 May 1864 at Glasgow, Scotland, to Margaret Forrest and her husband, Joseph Hale, both English-born Methodists. There were seven surviving children in the family; Selina, as she was called, was the third and youngest daughter. Around 1876 the family emigrated to New Zealand, settling in Caversham, Dunedin. Joseph had been employed in iron manufacturing in Glasgow but he was a gardener in Dunedin for over 25 years. The Hale children entered the skilled trades: Selina trained as a tailoress, serving a four-year apprenticeship.
Selina Hale was employed by a merchant tailor and took pride in the fact that she had never worked in a factory. She was active in the Dunedin Tailoresses' Union from about 1898, becoming its fifth secretary as well as secretary of the national federation of tailoresses' unions in July 1901. For seven years she did a weekly round of workplaces collecting the threepence union dues. She helped prepare cases for the Court of Arbitration in 1900, 1902, 1905 and 1907 and was involved in the negotiations that resulted in the abolition of the piecework system and the institution of set wages for journeywomen.
Her public profile rose during the subsequent 1906 dispute in which employers, claiming some tailoresses were slower and therefore not worth the skilled rate, demanded that 116 of them obtain under-rate permits allowing lower wages to be paid to them. Hale and the union protested that they were slow but competent and should be paid full rates. Hale called on the government to establish a state clothing factory for the 'locked out' tailoresses, but in the end the employers' view prevailed.
These experiences strengthened Selina Hale's support for government labour legislation and intervention, and in 1908 she was given charge of the recently established Dunedin office of the Department of Labour's Women's Branch. For 11 years Hale was to manage the Dunedin office, which was one of six women's employment bureaux set up around New Zealand between 1908 and 1910. Both employers and women seeking employment applied to the offices, which charged no fee for matching workers with jobs. She embarked on her mission with enthusiasm: in July and August 1908 she distributed 2,500 circulars to advertise the services of the branch.
However, Hale encountered major difficulties. The number of jobs on offer always outnumbered the women seeking employment. In particular, there was a shortage of domestic servants, and it was almost impossible to get young women to work in the country. Most of the women applying for work were 'quite ignorant of the commonplace duties of a household', resulting in 'a continual changing about from place to place'. Hale repeatedly suggested that the government establish a domestic training home or college for domestic servants. Also, women in paid employment were very young and soon left to marry. During the war, Hale dealt with the added difficulty of obtaining farm work for married women whose husbands had gone to war, leaving them supporting their children on inadequate incomes. By 1920 the women's employment bureaux were deemed to be ineffective and they were closed. Four women staff were made redundant, but Selina Hale had already obtained another position.
In 1919 she began work as a factory inspector for Dunedin. She was one of four female inspectors appointed that year; they were to have responsibility for women, who by this time comprised over a fifth of the total number of factory workers. Hale had been doing some factory inspection from 1908, but after October 1919 she devoted most of her time to inspecting factories, shops and offices, for a significant increase in salary. She was charged with ensuring that hours of work and physical conditions of employment met statutory standards. She was also responsible for meeting women immigrants arriving to take up employment in New Zealand.
Hale was on the maximum salary for her job; her annual income rose from £175 in 1913 to £270 in 1930, when she finally retired. Although she did not achieve parity with her male counterparts, she earned well above the average wage for a woman. In a newspaper interview Hale observed that working women were not so dependent on marriage as they once had been, and that skilled women workers were less likely to marry than unskilled women. She herself remained single. She lived with her parents until she was in her early 40s, then went into lodging. In 1927 she moved into the house of a friend, Mary Corbett, with whom she lived for the rest of her life. In her last years she suffered ill health and was admitted to Orokonui Home, Waitati, where she died on 5 March 1951 aged 86. No-one erected a headstone for her after her ashes were buried in her parents' plot in the Southern cemetery, Dunedin.
Selina Hale was notable for having two significant careers: seven years as a trade unionist, and 21 years as a public servant. Because of her lengthy period of service for the Department of Labour in Dunedin, during which she held the most responsible positions then available to women, she qualifies for a place in the select group of high-ranking women public servants.