Story: Women’s labour organisations

Page 3. Women and unemployment

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Unemployed women workers

From the 1920s and into the depression of the 1930s unemployment grew, among both men and women. In the 1920s unemployed women received no government assistance. Although women were required to pay unemployment tax from 1931, they were not entitled to unemployment benefits and received almost no government support.

Because few women joined unions or associations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unemployed women workers depended on other organisations to represent them. Women’s organisations, including the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), the National Council of Women (NCW), the Girls Friendly Society, and the Society for the Protection of Women and Children (SPWC), all protested to the government about the treatment of unemployed women, but to little effect.

Mayoresses’ and Women’s Unemployment Relief committees

In 1930 and 1931 mayoresses’ relief committees were formed in cities and many large towns. In 1931 and 1932 the mayoresses’ committees were replaced by women’s unemployment relief committees. Both were government-instigated and had a similar membership of YWCA, NCW and the SPWC representatives.

A workless woman

Political activist Miriam Soljak helped set up the Auckland women’s section of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. ‘A workless woman’, she wrote, ‘cannot sleep out in parks; she must preserve a tidy appearance or lose respect; for her there is no “doss-house” or free counter lunch, few friends to “shout” a meal, and the bread of charity tastes exceedingly bitter when one is unaccustomed to the taste.’1

The mayoresses’ committees and the women’s unemployment relief committees ran employment bureaus and recreation and training centres focused on domestic work. They also provided unemployed women with small allowances.

Different interests

The sometimes different interests of the often middle-class women in the committees and those who were unemployed showed up strongly in relation to domestic service. The committee women saw unemployment as an opportunity to resolve the decades-old servant shortage. Among working women dislike for domestic service – usually poorly paid and isolated – was entrenched; factory or office work had long been preferred.

Organising the unemployed

Left-wing women, many of them members of the Labour or Communist parties, objected to the domestic-service focus of the unemployment relief committees, and the bullying of unemployed women who refused unpaid live-in work. In some towns alternative organisations were started.

Labour Party activists set up the Wellington Unemployed Women Workers’ Association in 1932. Like the relief committees, the Wellington association provided lunches and an employment service. Its room in the Trades Hall was a place where unemployed women could meet, do their washing and ironing, and get assistance with personal problems.

Down and out

Unemployed women in the 1930s were organised by others more often than they organised themselves. Activist Margaret Thorn, who helped set up Wellington’s alternative unemployed women’s group, recalled that ‘we wanted the women to do it themselves, but most were too miserable even to think’.2

Working women’s committees

Auckland activists set up women’s sections of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) from 1932. A newspaper, the Working Woman, was started in 1934. Working women’s committees were set up across the country. In Huntly West a Māori Working Women’s Committee was set up by two Pākehā women.

The committees held conferences in 1934 and 1936. The first conference set up the Working Women’s Movement, and the second set up the United Council of Working Women. The links between the working women’s committees and the NUWM were strong. Some of the working women’s committees merged with NUWM women’s branches.

Women’s unemployment organisations, whether conservative or radical, were short-lived. Rates of unemployment among women dropped in the mid-1930s, so the need lessened, and the electing of a Labour government redirected radical energies.

Women’s unemployment organisations, 1980s

When unemployment became widespread from the late 1970s to the 1990s, most of the unemployed groups set up were mixed, including women and men, Māori and Pākehā.

Exceptions were the Canterbury Women’s Employment Trust (1985) and the Ōtautahi Women’s Labour Pool (1984). The trust was set up in response to increasing unemployment among women. It provided employment and training opportunities, and promoted alternatives to full-time work, including job-sharing, flexible and part-time hours, and cooperatives.

The Ōtautahi Women’s Labour Pool existed for over a decade in Christchurch. It focused on helping women who were unemployed or on the domestic purposes benefit to become economically independent through access to better-paid, non-traditional trades like painting, carpentry and gardening. It provided training and a way in to self-employment or business.

  1. Quoted in Sandra Coney, Every girl: a social history of women and the YWCA in Auckland. Auckland: Auckland YWCA, 1986, p. 200. Back
  2. Margaret Thorn, Stick out keep left. Auckland: Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books, 1997, p. 66. Back
How to cite this page:

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

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