Story: Women’s labour organisations

Page 1. The first women’s unions and associations, 1878 to 1939

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Women in the labour market

Before the Second World War, paid employment for girls and women was limited by age and occupation. Paid work was common before marriage but unusual afterwards. In the 19th century, virtually all employed women undertook domestic service, shop work, sewing, nursing or teaching. In the 20th century, increasing numbers of women worked in light manufacturing or as clerks or bookkeepers. Whatever their occupation, women were paid less than men.

Women’s unions

Women workers were not strongly unionised. Domestic workers (the largest single female occupational group until the 1930s) were isolated in their employers’ homes, worked long hours, and in many cases had to ask permission to leave the house. It was impossible for them to form or join a trade union.

Shop and clerical workers’ unions included both men and women. Women’s short working lives limited their involvement in union activities. Many male unionists were unsympathetic to demands for equal pay and opportunities for promotion for women.

In other female-dominant occupations, women-only unions or associations were formed.


The Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union, established in 1889, was the first women’s union to be formed. Public concern about sweating in the clothing trade – working long hours in poor conditions for little money – prompted Dunedin labour leaders and prominent citizens (all men) to form a committee to negotiate with employers. When the employers refused to do so, the committee formed what became the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union. At first the union was run by men, but by 1891 its secretary was Harriet Morison, and there were 13 other women on its executive.

No picnic!

Active socially as well as industrially, the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union held picnics attended by hundreds. These events were also fundraisers, used to support the union’s wide-ranging interests. When rain reduced the attendance at two picnics in 1895, the union got into financial difficulty. Secretary Harriet Morison organised a carnival to recoup the shortfall, but failed to keep track of funds. Accused of embezzling money, Morison resigned.

Its concerns included working conditions and wages, but also organising other women workers, promoting training and supporting favourable legislation. The union provided money and an organiser’s time to fledgling Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch tailoresses’ unions.

In the 1940s the tailoresses’ unions were absorbed into mixed-gender clothing workers’ unions; despite women’s numerical dominance, men would run these unions for more than 20 years.


Persistently treated as inferior to male teachers in terms of pay, promotion and status, women teachers began to organise on a regional basis in 1901. In 1914 the New Zealand Women Teachers’ Association was formed. The association pushed for equal pay, the promotion of women, and the inclusion of women in the inspectorate. The association went into recess in 1964, after equal pay for teachers was won.


The New Zealand Nurses Association was founded in 1909 with assistance from doctors and the Department of Health. The association opposed strikes and industrial action, arguing that nursing was a vocation, not a job. It had considerable influence on the government, but until the 1950s was concerned with nurses’ status rather than working conditions and wages.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s labour organisations - The first women’s unions and associations, 1878 to 1939', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 March 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Dec 2022