Story: Women’s labour organisations

Page 2. Women’s organisations and employment, 1878 to 1939

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Women’s employment issues

From the 19th century, many non-union women’s organisations were concerned with employment. Issues of concern included:

  • the prevention of sweating – long and poorly paid hours of work in substandard conditions, or as outworkers
  • forcing employers to pay girl apprentices during their first year of work
  • the provision of a weekly half-day holiday
  • seats at work for shop assistants
  • equal pay
  • reasonable hours of work
  • access to public-service jobs for women.

Some issues attracted widespread public support, notably the prevention of sweating. Others, like equal pay, were a standard demand of women’s groups (and women’s unions), but were not widely supported outside them.

YWCA, 1878

The first group concerned with women and employment was the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), set up in 1878. YWCA members waited on the wharf to meet young working-class women as they arrived in New Zealand to work as domestic servants or in factories. The association provided leisure activities, Christian teaching and accommodation.

Linda Rebekah Lodge

Working women formed the Linda Rebekah Lodge in 1895 to insure themselves against times of trouble and hardship – sickness, widowhood and poverty in old age. The Lodge, whose members included domestic servants and shop workers, was part of the Independent Order of Oddfellows (IOOF). Membership (which meant payment of dues) guaranteed a sickness benefit, assistance for orphans, widows and the elderly, and help with funeral expenses.

In the 1910s and 1920s local YWCAs became central meeting places for young working women. The Auckland branch, for example, ran lunch and thrift clubs for working girls. In the inter-war period the YWCA (and some unions) began organising working women’s sport on a very large scale.

Late 19th century organising

The late 19th century saw a burst of organising. Many of those setting up groups were suffragists. In towns around New Zealand, societies for the protection of women and children and women’s political leagues were formed. Groups like these included employment issues among their demands.

Some, like the Auckland Women’s Liberal League (formed in 1895), were linked with, or later absorbed by, a political party. In the 1890s it was the Liberal Party that attracted women concerned with employment issues; in the early 20th century it was the Labour Party.

Pester power

Emily Gibson, a member of the Auckland Women’s Political League, described women’s methods when fighting for wages for apprentices as ‘pestering Mr Seddon and all his satellites on the subject, in season and out of season, and worrying the life out of MPs’. Having given women the vote ‘it was therefore in [Seddon’s] interest to do all in his power to keep them on his side of the fence, and well he knew it.’1

National Council of Women, 1896

The National Council of Women (NCW), set up in 1896, was an umbrella organisation to which all New Zealand women’s groups could affiliate. At its annual conferences, work-related issues such as equal pay and equality for women teachers were regular topics of debate and resolutions. Its very broad base of member organisations meant the NCW was sometimes slow to act or react, but gave its decisions weight with the government.

Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, 1939

The New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), set up by the YWCA in the 1930s, was concerned with women’s employment from the beginning. From the 1940s, the BPW became particularly concerned with equal pay, campaigning alongside unions and other women’s organisations.

  1. Quoted in Connie Purdue, ed. Women in the labour cause: the history of the Women’s Branch of the New Zealand Labour Party, 1925–1975. Auckland: Auckland Women’s Branch New Zealand Labour Party, 1975, p. 16. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s labour organisations - Women’s organisations and employment, 1878 to 1939', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

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