Story: Women’s health

Page 4. Women’s health activism, 1840 to 1940s

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Māori health activism

Although Māori women faced particular health challenges, the entire community’s continuing battle with epidemics took precedence in terms of health campaigns. Within general campaigns, the responsibility Māori women had as ‘mothers of the race’ was sometimes focused on. Improving the health of whānau (families) and hapū (sub-tribes) through improving that of women was one of the results aimed for.

The Young Maori Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) leader Te Puea Hērangi all worked to improve the health of Māori. Infectious diseases, housing, clean water and hygienic waste disposal were the focus of campaigns.

Young Maori Party

Behind the government’s appointment of the first Māori health officer, in 1901, was a programme developed by a group who had attended Te Aute College. From 1889 the group, which became known as the Young Maori Party, began to push for improvements in housing, water supply and sewage disposal. An important element was acknowledging traditional beliefs while introducing the concepts of hygiene and bacterial transfer that were becoming understood by science.

The government picked up this programme. The essential, basic improvements that resulted benefited everyone in a community, but its effectiveness was undermined by miserly government support.

Women’s Christian Temperance Union

Māori women within the WCTU in the 1890s and early 20th century fought against use of alcohol, signing personal pledges not to drink, encouraging sobriety, and resisting the infiltration of alcohol into Māori communities. The dangers they identified were strongly health-related, but also concerned loss of Māori land, which some argued was sold by men while drunk or in order to pay for drink.

Te Puea Hērangi

Te Puea Hērangi was deeply concerned to improve Māori health. Despite her own illness, she cared for others in her community in the 1918 influenza epidemic, afterward adopting many children orphaned during it. She also worked to reduce high mortality rates from typhoid and tuberculosis. Te Puea banned alcohol from marae because of its negative effects. In the early 1940s she opened a medical clinic at Tūrangawaewae House (the Department of Health had prevented her earlier attempt to open a hospital for Māori).

Pākehā women’s health activism

Women and men, as individuals and in groups, pushed for improvements in women’s health from the 19th century. Those involved included political activists, unionists, clergy, journalists, society women, and medical and lay people. Occupational health, hospital facilities, hygiene, food, dress, sexually transmitted diseases, exercise, maternity, abortion and contraception were all focused on. Campaigns took place in the 1870s and 1880s, with a concerted burst in the 1890s.

Dress, food, cleanliness

The ‘laws of health’ were ‘so simple and plain,’ wrote E. Miller, Women’s Christian Temperance Union superintendent of hygiene and food reform, in an 1889 report.1 In addition to pushing for more women doctors and women in hospital management, the WCTU believed that women should not wear corsets, and instead should build up ‘nature’s corset’ (abdominal muscles), eat a vegetarian diet, exercise, and know their own body and the health issues that might affect it.


Hospitals had been set up from the mid-19th century, and at times conditions within them provoked action. When conditions for female patients at Dunedin Hospital caused concern in the late 19th century, women from the local elite formed the Women’s Ward Committee. Their remarkably successful fundraising resulted in the building of a new women’s ward and the introduction of trained female nursing staff (at that time hospital nursing was generally men’s work).

Early 20th-century health activism

Activist campaigning slowed in the 20th century. In its place were strong pushes to improve home hygiene (to cut the rate of disease), reduce maternal mortality, and prevent abortion. Maternal mortality and abortion were both focused on by government and doctors; but neither were willing to make women’s very limited access to contraception easier. Activists – mainly women and non-medical people – responded to this need from the mid-1930s.

Family planning

Many women desperately wanted reliable contraception. They were dependent on doctors to fit cervical caps and rubber diaphragms, or on their husbands to use condoms. Disapproval of contraception was so widespread among doctors that even married women with children were sometimes refused help.

The Family Planning Association (FPA) started in 1936 as the Sex Hygiene and Birth Society. Most of its members were women, but the group included men and a few doctors. At first the society only provided contraceptive advice, but even that was a radical move. Although disapproved of by many, the assistance was seen as a lifeline by those who contacted the society.

  1. Quoted in Jean Marie O’Donnell, ‘Female complaints: women’s health in Dunedin, 1885–1910’ MA thesis, University of Otago, 1991, pp. 12, 13. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s health - Women’s health activism, 1840 to 1940s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011