Story: Women’s movement

Page 5. The mid-20th century

All images & media in this story


Between the mass movement of the late 19th century and that of the 1970s and 1980s, women inched closer to full citizenship. A trickle of ‘firsts’ marked their progress.

Women won the right to stand for Parliament in 1919, and in 1933 Elizabeth McCombs became the first woman MP. In 1927 Dr Nina Muir, New Zealand’s first woman house surgeon, became the first woman president of the Medical Association of New Zealand. In 1941 Edna Pearce walked the beat as the first woman police officer. Mary Anderson became the country’s first woman judge in 1945.


From the 1910s women’s groups argued that women should not lose their New Zealand nationality when they married a citizen of another country (a change that finally happened in 1948). In the 1930s economic depression a range of groups provided services to women, and campaigned for unemployment payments to women. In the 1940s groups lobbied for women to be allowed to serve on juries. A more public campaign was fought in the 1950s for public-service equal pay.


Some groups remained active throughout the whole period. The National Council of Women, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and at times the Society for Protection of Women and Children continued to raise issues and organise in relation to women’s domestic and working lives, sport, and civil and political rights.

These groups became more socially respectable and politically conservative in the early decades of the 20th century. Women interested in more radical political or social change became involved in socialist or communist groups, or in the Labour Party, formed in 1916.

New groups

A number of groups, notably the New Zealand Federation of University Women (1921–), the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society (1936–), and the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (1939–) were set up.

The Federation of University Women concentrated on building networks between female graduates. After the Second World War the organisation’s focus expanded, and it became involved in issues of general concern to women.

The Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society, renamed the Family Planning Association (FPA) in 1939, lobbied for provision of contraception and contraceptive advice, sex education and relationship counselling. Founders included men, but the organisation was dominated by its female members. Concern that the birth rate was falling below replacement level, and a widely held notion that women who did not want to have children were selfish, meant the FPA was not officially approved of until the early 1960s.

The Business and Professional Women’s Clubs were set up by the YWCA, and focused mainly on employment issues.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s movement - The mid-20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011