Story: Women’s movement

Page 3. Tailoresses’ unions

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Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union (1889–1945)

The Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union (DTU) was set up in 1889 by local labour leaders and respectable citizens (all men) concerned about conditions and pay for working women. Management of the union was quickly taken over by women. It pursued a broad feminist programme, and assisted in the formation of tailoresses’ unions in other centres.

Women’s suffrage

The DTU was involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Harriet Morison, secretary of the DTU from 1891 to 1896, was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and a friend of Helen Nicol, WCTU suffrage organiser in Dunedin. When the Dunedin WCTU began organising among working-class women, Morison was vigorously involved in the campaign. She spoke of the interests of working women, their desire for employment reform, and the need for members of Parliament who would represent them.

Class contempt

The involvement of unions and working-class women in national suffrage petitions provoked dismissive comment from Sir George Whitmore of the Legislative Council. As the petitions were signed by ‘the Tailoresses’ Unions and women of the working-class in the towns, with a few of the women’s-rights women added’, he was sure that they need not be taken seriously.1

Rank-and-file members of the union were also active. Suffrage petitions were circulated by DTU members, and in shops and factories generally. The strength of local tailoresses’ unions appeared to influence the number of signatures collected in the three national petitions. Dunedin, with its strong union, consistently did well, and Helen Nicol reported that two-thirds of those signing were working women. In Auckland in 1891, 397 women signed. The local tailoresses’ union was revitalised before the next petition in 1892, and it was signed by 2,479 Aucklanders.

Industrial feminism

The Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union and Harriet Morison were the best-known, but not the only, union and unionists involved in the 19th-century feminist movement. The Christchurch Tailoresses and Pressers Union, the Auckland Tailoresses Union, and unionists Margaret Scott, Selina Hale, Elizabeth Bremner and Emily Gibson were all involved in campaigns that affected women generally, as well as working women.

  1. Quoted in Patricia Grimshaw, Women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 49. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s movement - Tailoresses’ unions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 May 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011