Story: Women’s movement

Page 8. Health, fertility and education

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Women’s health was the focus of many campaigns and activities. Women’s health centres were set up in cities, and conferences were held and a national network established. Issues included the quality of medical care women received from their general practitioners, contraception methods and their safety, and the treatment of cervical cancer.


Of all women’s health issues, abortion was the most hotly contested. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s it was argued about in Parliament and by the public. In the early 1960s legal abortions were very difficult to get. Illegal abortions were common, with 200 to 300 women hospitalised a year as a result. Each year a few of these women died.

Abortion law reform groups

Women’s liberation groups supported ‘a woman’s right to choose’. Three groups campaigned for a change in abortion laws or supported women seeking abortions. The Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ) was set up in 1971. ALRANZ avoided using the phrase ‘abortion on demand’, seeing the matter as one of responsible reproduction and parenting.

In 1973 the more radical Women’s National Abortion Action Campaign began campaigning for the repeal of all abortion laws.

When the Auckland Medical Aid Clinic (a private abortion provider) closed down in 1977, a number of groups banded together to form the Sisters Overseas Service (SOS). SOS helped women travel to Australia to have abortions. When abortion became more easily available in New Zealand, several SOS branches became women’s health organisations.

Homebirth and midwives

Birth and midwifery (the specialist support of women during pregnancy and birth) had been progressively brought under the control of the medical profession since the 1920s. This medicalisation of childbirth was challenged by the Homebirth Association and the Save the Midwives Association.

The Homebirth Association started in Auckland in 1978 and became a national organisation in 1980. It campaigned under the slogan ‘Women need midwives need women’. Save the Midwives (STM) successfully campaigned for midwives’ independent training and work.

Mothers and midwives worked together to improve the professional status of midwives and widen the choices available to women. Partnership between professionals and consumers was a central element in feminist approaches to health care.

Mothers and midwives together

Consumers could be members of the New Zealand College of Midwives, which was formed in 1989. The college saw partnership between women as pivotal to midwifery. The International Council of Midwives disagreed – midwifery was a profession and consumer representation was inappropriate – and the New Zealand College of Midwives was nearly expelled at the first international meeting the New Zealanders attended. Three years of lobbying later, the international council unanimously accepted the New Zealand college’s constitution.


Women’s liberation groups paid a great deal of attention to education and the education system. They pointed out sex-role stereotyping at primary and secondary level and the resultant limiting of girls’ choices and chances in life. At university level, some students and staff highlighted the lack of research on women and the invisibility of women’s history and achievements.

Feminist parents pushed for wider choices, while feminist teacher groups wanted a broader curriculum. Female students moved into what had been male preserves, including law and engineering, and flocked to courses about women and gender. Feminist lecturers pressed universities to establish women’s studies, gender studies or feminist studies programmes.

In the 1970s and 1980s feminist teachers’ groups were set up and the Women’s Studies Association was formed, including academics and community activists. These organisations served a dual purpose, bringing like-minded women together, and encouraging change and development in educational institutions.

In the 2000s some university programmes in women’s and gender studies, which had always been small, began to be absorbed into other subject areas. By this time, feminist scholarship had been incorporated into many academic disciplines.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s movement - Health, fertility and education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011