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Women’s movement

by Megan Cook

‘Not the church and not the state! Women must decide our fate!’ In the 1970s the women’s liberation movement surged onto the streets, demanding better representation in Parliament, equality in the workplace and education, contraception and abortion rights, and an end to violence against women. It was a fitting follow-up to 19th-century feminism, which won the vote for women in 1893 – making New Zealand the first country in the world to give women the vote in national elections.

The 19th-century women’s movement

In the 19th century New Zealand women were part of an international movement fighting for equal rights. Women campaigners, and the men who supported them, were reacting to inequalities in marriage, education, paid employment and politics.


Most of those who fought for women’s rights valued differences between women and men. Woman’s place was seen as domestic: she was mother and homemaker, the source of love and moral guidance. Men were in charge of the public world of business and politics; theirs was the task of building the new colony. At the same time, many women firmly believed that if women had access to education and training they could achieve as much as men.

Both beliefs were apparent when women campaigned for change. They argued that their positive moral influence on public life was needed to ensure the protection of women, children and home life, and they also asserted their right to the privileges of citizenship that men enjoyed.

Local and international influences

Thinking and events in Britain and the United States had a powerful influence. Movements for women’s rights in these countries were reported in letters and newspapers, with further news from the continuing flood of British migrants. Barbara Bodichon’s campaign for married women’s rights, and the writings of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor on the position of women, were known and discussed in New Zealand. Overseas speakers travelled around the country, holding meetings in cities and towns.

Arguments for women’s rights had a particular strength in a new colony in which many women worked alongside men and struggled to set up and maintain homes. As men headed for speculative ventures like gold mining, some wives were deserted, or left in charge of home and family, and sometimes of business.

First moves: 1860s and early 1870s

‘Femmina’ and ‘Polly Plum’, the assumed names of writers in newspapers during the 1860s and early 1870s, argued for equality in marriage, the education of girls, and the vote for women. They drew strong support, as well as fierce opposition, stirring up vigorous controversy.

Some women joined temperance organisations, campaigning to limit the sale and consumption of alcohol. These provided a base for many budding activists. Individuals or informal groups campaigned for local initiatives on issues, notably education.

1870s and 1880s

The debate and the number of women involved expanded in the 1870s and 1880s. Women’s rights within marriage, the sexual double standard (which allowed men to be sexually assertive, and condoned their affairs outside marriage, while requiring women to be sexually passive and chaste), education, employment, corsets and the vote were all discussed at meetings and in the columns and editorials of local newspapers.

Licentious women

‘We used to hear only of women’s rights,’ wrote the editor of the New Zealand Herald in 1878, ‘now we hear about their liberty and even what seems like their licence’.1 Some women wanted not only an equal partnership in marriage, but also sexual fulfilment and the right to control their fertility.

By the end of the 1880s the right to vote in national elections was the focus of a mass movement, spearheaded by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).


In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women (both Pākehā and Māori) the right to vote in general elections. After this, activists turned their attention to other issues. Debate and lobbying focused on women’s rights within marriage, employment rights, and the repeal, reform or passing of legislation concerning prostitution, the age of consent, incest and other matters.

Māori women sought the right to vote for, and stand for, Te Kotahitanga, the Māori parliament. They also joined with other women in the temperance movement.


In the early 1900s the radicalism of the 1880s and 1890s died down. Differences between some groups and the ageing of many of those involved led to less activism around women’s issues. Although some groups continued to campaign, others faded away.

  1. Quoted in Patricia Grimshaw, Women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 7. Back

Women’s Christian Temperance Union

Women’s rights and temperance

Women’s rights and the temperance movement were intertwined in New Zealand. Large numbers of women joined temperance organisations from the 1870s, motivated by the desire for a secure home, and concern at the damage done by alcohol abuse. Within these organisations women were usually accepted as men’s equals, and were able to vote, stand for committees and hold all official posts.

When Mary Clement Leavitt of the United States-based Women’s Christian Temperance Union arrived in New Zealand in 1885, her mission was to set up a local equivalent. New Zealand women were enthusiastic at the prospect of their own organisation. Within seven months the first 10 branches of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were formed. It was the country’s first national women’s organisation.

Women’s zeal

Many men in the temperance movement offered the WCTU wholehearted support. ‘[G]o your ways, work out your own destiny, in faith and love, in earnest zeal and womanly tenderness,’ wrote the Temperance Herald. Delighted and impressed by what women were achieving, the men conceded that temperance societies run by men ‘with all their knowledge and experience of business could [not] show such a good record’.1


Members included women well-known for activism. Learmonth Dalrymple, advocate for girls’ secondary schooling and access to university, labour activist Harriet Morison and kindergarten-movement leader Lavinia Kelsey were all part of the WCTU.

Many members belonged to Baptist, Methodist or Congregationalist churches, which were more committed to the equal status of women than other churches. A number of prominent members of the WCTU were unmarried, or had no or few children. Often reasonably well-to-do, many employed a servant. These factors gave these women time free from domestic responsibilities and allowed them to be politically active. But WCTU leaders’ lack of husbands and children was used against them by opponents, who described them disparagingly as ‘old maids, or wives who are not mothers, or eccentrics’.2

Good Christian women

Christianity was taken for granted in the WCTU. The union’s suffrage leader, Kate Sheppard, wrote that ‘we gladly enlist rich and poor, high and low, Priest, Levite or Samaritan … We are perfectly sure that if our Lord Jesus Christ were here he would not hinder one of His followers from engaging in temperance, or any other good work, because of an error in the theology’.3

In the 1890s many Māori women joined the union. They were concerned at the effect of alcohol on their communities, and its relationship to land sales – some men were getting drunk and signing sales papers, or selling land to pay debts to tavern owners or to buy alcohol. At the first Māori conference of the WCTU, held in 1911, seven unions were represented.


The WCTU was concerned with all matters affecting women, not just temperance. Classes were held presenting new ideas about healthy clothing, food, and diets for children and the sick. Pre-school centres, staffed by WCTU volunteers, were set up. Working women’s claims for better conditions and pay, and attempts to unionise, were actively supported. ‘Fallen women’ (those who became pregnant outside marriage, or prostitutes) were helped to find homes and employment.

During the 1880s economic depression the union’s branches ran soup kitchens and raised funds for a night shelter for the homeless. ‘Prison-gate missions’ were set up, which met newly released prisoners (particularly women) and supported them until they found their feet.

The union campaigned persistently over decades for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, which allowed women suspected of working as prostitutes to be forcibly examined and held for treatment. The WCTU also lobbied the government to set up clinics to treat venereal disease.

Temperance was a broad movement, within which the WCTU focused on preventing sale of alcohol to minors (those under 21) and children, ending exploitation of women barmaids and getting women the right to vote in licensing elections.

The vote

From the later 1880s to 1893, the WCTU led the campaign to get women the vote in national elections. Kate Sheppard, leader of the union’s franchise department, became the face of that campaign.

During the campaign for the vote, Christianity and at times temperance took a back seat to suffrage.

Bright spark

Suffrage campaigner Lily Kirk travelled New Zealand speaking for the cause. Her appearance on stage prompted ‘an outburst of hearty greeting’. Addressing her audiences as ‘beloved comrades’ or ‘sisters’, Kirk urged them on. They were crusaders, she said, able to bring about a ‘bright and bloodless revolution’. Her bright and racy manner combined with a persuasive earnestness delighted listeners in town and country alike.4

Persuading politicians to support women’s franchise was critical to the campaign. WCTU members and other women engaged in vigorous lobbying, wrote letters to newspapers, published pamphlets, and held or participated in sometimes rowdy public meetings as the campaign gathered pace.

Petitions were an important element. The final petition was signed by more than 30,000 women over the age of 21 (then the age at which men could vote). It was the largest petition the New Zealand Parliament had ever received.

    • Bronwyn Dalley and Yvonne Robertson, 'Unsexed women': The nineteenth century women's movement and the background to suffrage in New Zealand. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1994, p. 37. Back
    • New Zealand Herald, 8 March 1887, p. 6. Back
    • Quoted in Patricia Grimshaw, Women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press; Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 31. Back
    • Quoted in Frances Porter, 'Atkinson, Lily May 1866–1921'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (last accessed 1 June 2010). Back

Tailoresses’ unions

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

Women’s groups, 1890s

Women’s interest in political activism was high during and after the successful campaign for the vote, and in the 1890s many new groups appeared. Some were related to the suffrage campaign; others were active on different women’s issues.

Some were important for a few years or decades. Others, notably the National Council of Women (NCW), would prove longer-lasting.

In addition to suffrage, these groups focused on:

  • the status of women within marriage, particularly their economic independence
  • seeking equal divorce laws
  • promoting social purity (sexual chastity and faithfulness)
  • the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act
  • the removal of ‘civil disabilities’ (such as women not being allowed to hold some types of public office)
  • gaining employment rights.

These matters had been debated since the 1870s – in some cases earlier.

Many women’s groups formed in this period were committed to temperance. The NCW, for example, advocated teaching ‘scientific temperance’ in schools, rigorous enforcement of liquor laws, and homes for habitual heavy drinkers.

Women’s Franchise and Political Leagues

Women’s Franchise Leagues were set up by non-temperance women and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to provide a non-temperance lobby for the vote. They ran from 1892 to 1893–94.

Once the vote was won in 1893, groups were established to educate women politically. Among these were the Women’s Political Leagues, which were Women’s Franchise Leagues renamed. The leagues’ first task was getting women onto the electoral roll – there was barely two months until the next election. About 80% of adult women were registered before the roll closed.

Differing political inclinations, other interests and the ageing of stalwart members meant that many of these groups were short-lived.

Canterbury Women’s Institute (1892–1920)

The Canterbury Women’s Institute (CWI), formed in 1892, had four ‘departments’: literary, economic, hygiene and domestic science. Its members included some of the best-known feminists of the time, including Kate Sheppard, her sister Isabel May, and Edith Searle Grossmann. At first the Institute had male as well as female members, including well-known women’s dress reformer James Wilkinson.

Christchurch leads the world

James Wilkinson was one of several men who joined with women in founding the first Canterbury Women’s Institute. He told the first meeting that as New Zealand women led the world in their education and political development, Christchurch led the colony in culture. ‘What, then, are we bound to infer? What but the power, ability and duty of this city to lead the world in the cause of women.’1

As well as the standard activities – discussing issues of concern, writing letters and organising deputations – the institute held women’s conferences and in 1896 convened the first meeting of the National Council of Women.

The CWI pushed over many years for the election of women to public bodies. Several members were elected to local charitable aid and hospital boards, and in 1917 CWI member Ada Wells became the first woman elected to the Christchurch City Council.

Society for the Protection of Women and Children (1893–)

The concerns of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children (SPWC) were domestic: conditions within marriage, including desertion, domestic violence, adoption, neglect and abuse of children, and divorce.

Rewriting marriage

Like its overseas equivalents, the New Zealand women’s movement inspired novels. Edith Searle Grossmann wrote four novels, two of which – In revolt and Hermione: a knight of the Holy Ghost – explore the position of women within marriage and suggest possible solutions. The outlook was not good. Hermione, the central character in both books, was trapped by restrictive laws and eventually committed suicide.

Branches were founded in all the main centres in 1893, and in some the membership included men. The SPWC became a conservative organisation, influenced by eugenics and a desire to keep families together that sometimes took precedence over the protection of women.

National Council of Women

The National Council of Women (NCW) was set up in 1896, with suffrage campaigner Kate Sheppard as its first president. The NCW aimed to unite women’s organisations, encouraged ‘all that makes for the good of humanity’,2 and supported the formation of women’s unions, associations and political groups. Its membership was small and middle-class; many had been teachers.

In the 1900s generational change, factionalism, and the ageing or ill health of many of those involved meant that activism dwindled. The NCW went into recess in 1906 but re-formed in 1916.

In its first 10 years the council had been more radical, but far less representative of women. In its new form, the NCW went on to become New Zealand’s largest women’s organisation, providing an effective network for women’s groups and being consulted by the government.

    • Lyttelton Times, 21 April 1893, p. 6. Back
    • Roberta Nicholls and Dorothy Page, 'National Council of Women of New Zealand 1896–1906, 1916–.’ In Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand: nga ropu wahine o te motu, edited by Anne Else. Wellington: Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs; Daphne Brasell Associates, 1993, p. 81. Back

The mid-20th century


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.

The women’s liberation movement

From the late 1960s the vigour and energy of the women’s liberation movement inspired some women and frightened others. Groups formed in 1970 in Wellington and Auckland, spreading to Dunedin, Christchurch and provincial centres over the next few years.

Women’s liberationists saw women as an oppressed group and demanded radical change. Arguing that ‘the personal is political’, women began talking about who cleaned the house, made the coffee at work, or looked after the kids. They discussed health, sexual behaviour, and how women were expected to dress. Matters that had not been seen as political were suddenly the subject of debate.

Belittling women

Women’s liberationists argued that women were routinely patronised and treated as less important than men, and that the movement was treated by the media in the same way. ‘Our concerns and actions, and the movement itself, were consistently ignored, trivialised and distorted,’ said Sandra Coney, editor of women’s liberation magazine Broadsheet.1

Influenced by political initiatives in the United States and Britain, the movement worked to fundamentally change the position of women. Some issues, notably abortion, attracted vehement support and opposition. Domestic violence, which had often been hidden from public view, was openly discussed.

Women’s networks and groups

The movement boomed in the 1970s, when groups attracted many members very quickly. Attendance at national women's conventions jumped from over 400 in 1972 (including 70 men) to over 2,000 in 1975 (with hundreds turned away).

Women-centred communities and ways of thinking flourished, and many aspects of society were criticised. Religion, art and the education system were challenged, communal care of children was encouraged and a range of networks and collectives were established.


Consciousness-raising – a method developed by American feminist groups in the late 1960s – was widely used by groups in New Zealand. It involved women sharing their experiences, developing an understanding of oppression in their own lives, and using that as a basis for political action.

Socialist and Marxist feminism

Some women’s liberation groups were formed by members of existing left-wing organisations. Socialist-feminist or Marxist-feminist groups included the Working Women’s Alliance and the Women’s Unions in Auckland and Wellington (set up in 1975), which argued that the women’s movement ignored the working class. These groups focused on working-class women, publicised their situation and worked with them to improve it. The strong socialist and Marxist influence on New Zealand feminist groups was similar to that in Britain.

Women’s rights groups

Women’s liberation groups conflicted with existing women’s rights groups such as the National Council of Women and the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. Core beliefs differed. Rather than fundamentally changing society, the women’s rights groups wanted women to have a fuller place within it. The women’s liberation groups saw them as slow and conservative.

Ways of working also differed. Women’s liberation groups aimed for consensus and tried to avoid hierarchical structures, often working without a formal leader. Women’s rights groups tended to have committees, sub-committees and a chairperson, and held meetings where motions were passed. Women’s liberation groups held street protests, ran women’s workshops, and undertook pub liberations, where groups of women took over male-only bars; women’s rights groups lobbied MPs and circulated petitions.

Over time, the differences between the groups narrowed or were less strongly felt, and they worked together on campaigns focused on women’s health and employment.

Class, race and sexuality

Differences among women soon became as important as similarities between them. The effects of class, sexuality and race were debated, sometimes fiercely. Lesbian feminists argued that lesbianism was a political as well as a sexual choice, and one that freed women from dependence on men. In the mid-1970s a split developed when some lesbians rejected working on what they saw as heterosexual issues, focusing instead on separatist projects.

Some groups collapsed because of conflict over these differences, while others developed new ways of working. Women’s refuges (which provided accommodation and support for women in violent relationships) pioneered a ‘parallel development’ model that involved sharing power between Māori and ‘tauiwi’ (all people who arrived after Māori) in decision-making, use of funds, public presentations and staffing. The organisation also started training non-Māori staff in issues relating to the Treaty of Waitangi and decolonisation.

The 1980s onwards

From its start, the women's liberation movement's influence spread beyond those actively involved. By the 1980s issues raised were being addressed (to varying effect) in homes, the workplace, businesses and government. While the hard work of making changes continued, many of the groups began to wind down.

  1. Quoted in Carmel Daly, 'Broadsheet Collective, 1972–.’ In Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand: nga ropu wahine o te motu, edited by Anne Else. Wellington: Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs; Daphne Brasell Associates, 1993, p. 100. Back

Economic and political equality

Although women’s lives were centred on home and family in the 1950s and 1960s, many women, including those with children, were in paid work.

Economic equality

Women’s liberation groups called for economic equality. They focused on employment equity, financial independence for married women, equal division of matrimonial property on divorce, and support of single mothers.

Women’s rights groups, some long established, also worked on these issues. Equal pay for men and women working for the government, for example, became law in 1960, and work towards the private-sector Equal Pay Act (passed in 1972) was well under way by the time women’s liberation groups were formed. The two wings of the women’s movement came together in the 1980s in the campaign for pay equity.

Single mothers and pay equity

The Council for the Single Mother and Her Child was set up in 1973, at a time when there was controversy about supporting solo mothers with the domestic purposes benefit. The Coalition for Equal Value Equal Pay was set up in 1986 to fight for equal pay for women doing work with the same or similar levels of responsibility, skill, effort and difficulty as higher-paid, male-dominated jobs.

All join in

When union women got a pay-equity campaign going in the mid-1980s, the National Council of Women’s 1986 conference endorsed it. Jocelyn Keith, vice-president at the time, remembered that ‘the older women realised it was an old battle that they had fought before, and they knew it for what it was worth’.1 Some of these women had been active in the fight for equal pay since the 1950s.


Politics of the traditional sort was of interest to many women’s liberation groups. Some, like the National Organisation for Women (1972–) and the Dunedin Collective for Women (1971–1982), were active across a broad range of matters. They lobbied politicians, kept members informed, held public meetings and issued press releases. Others, like the Women’s Advisory Committee (1970–75) and Women’s Council (1975–) within the New Zealand Labour Party worked within the Parliamentary system.

Women’s Electoral Lobby (1975–2004)

In 1970, despite 77 years of voting and 51 years of being able to stand for Parliament, women were only a tiny minority of national and local politicians. Only 11 had ever been elected to Parliament, and the issues that concerned women were often marginalised. The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) was formed in 1975 to encourage women’s participation in public life and help elect to public office people who would work for women’s equality. A non-partisan group, WEL included a number of women who went on to become well-known politicians in both the National and Labour parties.

Ladies a plate

When feminist Sue Kedgley wrote a thesis about women in politics, she called it ‘Ladies in the backroom’. Women’s traditional role in Parliamentary politics was as fundraisers and supporters. They were never the main players. Kedgley went on to become a member of Parliament in 1999.

Based on discussion at its national conferences, WEL publicised issues through the media, lobbied politicians and made submissions to select committees. Election years were a particularly busy time, as WEL rated candidates on their attitudes to women’s issues, held lunches with party leaders and reported on party policies.

Membership was around 2,000 in the mid-1970s, but declined in the 1980s – perhaps because WEL’s aims were being realised. More women were being elected to local and national government, and both major political parties had had their first women presidents (Sue Wood, National, from 1982, and Margaret Wilson, Labour, 1984).

  1. Quoted in Megan Cook, Just wages: history of the campaign for pay equity, 1984–1993. Wellington: Coalition for Equal Value Equal Pay, 1994, p. 44. Back

Health, fertility and education


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.

Arts and spirituality

Theatre and film

Feminist theatre groups and playwrights challenged hierarchy, rediscovered women of renown, and pulled marginalised or disreputable women into the spotlight. Ranging from street theatre performed at political events in the early 1970s to the 1993 WOPPA festival (held to celebrate the centenary of women gaining the vote), theatre was a vital aspect of the women’s movement.

Preserving women’s art

Encouraged by feminism and the flood of new work from women artists, the National Art Gallery set up a Women's Art Archive in 1979 to record existing, neglected work by women and keep track of new work. The archive expanded to include work produced by Australian and Pacific women artists. In the 1990s it was taken over by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Feminist television directors and documentary-makers produced their first work in the mid-1970s, and the first feature films came out in the mid-1980s, including Gaylene Preston’s Mr Wrong (1985) and Melanie Read’s Trial run (1984). Like theatre, film and television celebrated women of the past, and portrayed active and resourceful women of the present.

Equity Women’s Caucus

The Equity Women’s Caucus, with branches in Wellington and Auckland, was set up in 1984 by female members of Equity, the actors’ union. At the time, male actors were more than twice as likely to be employed, with most television dramas centred on male characters. The caucus sought equal opportunity with male actors, non-stereotypical roles for women, and the exchange and development of skills among women in the industry.


Writers, researchers, technicians, producers and directors in film, television and the print media formed Mediawomen in 1977. Like the Equity caucus, Mediawomen sought equal opportunity. It also tried to improve reporting on women, and offered women’s groups media-skills training.

Women’s art movement

In 1974 and 1975 women artists’ groups were formed and exhibitions were held in Christchurch, Wellington and Hamilton. The first issue of Spiral, a women’s art journal, appeared in 1976 and a women’s photography exhibition toured the country the same year. A women’s gallery opened in Wellington in 1979 and women’s art festivals were held in 1979 and 1980. Over time the focus of the women's art movement shifted from Christchurch to Wellington to Auckland.


The women’s spirituality movement was strong within New Zealand, and included a variety of Christian and pagan groups.

Influenced by feminism, Christian women examined their faith and the way in which their churches worked. Many worked towards the ordination of women as ministers. They were also concerned with the male-centred nature of scripture and theology, and of church life generally.

Some Christian women created groups within their home churches, or separately from them. From the late 1970s some of these informal groups began developing their own non-patriarchal theology and structure. Sometimes called the ‘woman-church’ movement, its members were predominantly Pākehā, middle-class and well-educated.

Small groups of feminist pagans and goddess worshippers, some identifying as witches, were active in the women’s spirituality movement. They took part in national conferences, held their own meetings and convened their own groups or covens.

Violence and pornography

Violence against women

Violence against women was one of the most important issues confronted by the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s. The three main responses to the issue were women’s refuges, rape crisis centres and the anti-pornography movement.

Before the 1970s, there was little public discussion of rape and domestic violence. Their extent was largely unknown when the first rape crisis centres and women’s refuges opened.

Women’s Refuge

Several Christchurch women’s groups set up the first women’s refuge in 1974. Although they had been intended to house homeless single women, the desperation of women and children fleeing violent partners and fathers was overwhelming.

When the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges was formed in 1981 there were 11 refuges. Another 20 opened between 1981 and 1985. In the mid-1980s refuges provided emergency accommodation, long-term support, personal visits and telephone advice to about 22,000 women and children each year. By 2009 there were 50 refuges in cities and towns around New Zealand, including 12 kaupapa Māori refuges, two Pacific refuges and one Asian refuge.

In 2010, refuges remained committed to empowering women who came into refuges. They encouraged participation in decision-making, and ran their organisation collectively – a reminder of their origins in the women’s liberation movement.

Rape Crisis

The first permanent rape crisis hotline was set up in 1978 in Auckland (funding and personnel shortages had forced earlier hotlines to close). Rape crisis work included counselling, gathering information on rape, which was rarely reported to the police, and educating women and the general public about this crime. Groups also pushed for change in police and legal procedures. With the passing of the Evidence Amendment Act 1977, a rape complainant’s past sexual history became inadmissible as evidence.

Direct action

Violence sometimes provoked militant action. One raped woman knew her attacker and the public bar he frequented. Members of the local rape crisis group went there and accused the man, at first whispering, then shouting. He left the bar. So did the women, thrown out by the furious manager.

Te Kākano o te Whānau, which represents Māori rape crisis services, was formed in 1985; the National Collective of Rape Crisis and Related Groups of Aotearoa, which represents non-Māori services, was formed in 1986. The Pacific Islands Women’s Project also provides services for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. Like the National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges, the three groups share resources on a basis that acknowledges the tangata whenua status of Māori.

Women Against Pornography

Women against Pornography (WAP) was set up in 1983. WAP argued that rather than being a harmless fantasy, pornography legitimated acts of violence against women. It was concerned with gender inequality, violence and exploitation rather than depictions of sex.

Through the group’s activities, pornography became an important feminist issue in the mid-1980s. WAP members undertook studies of pornography in New Zealand in 1986 and 1988. There were protests against dairies and video shops that stocked pornographic titles, and hotels that showed pornography or held wet T-shirt or jelly-wrestling competitions. WAP also lobbied politicians and sought alliances with other women’s groups, such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby, the Labour Women’s Council, the YWCA and the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers.

The Films, Videos and Publications Classification Act was passed in 1993. While this was done partly because existing laws and regulations were unwieldy, it was also a response to community activism, including lobbying by WAP. The new act included degrading or demeaning sexual activity, sexual violence and the sexual exploitation of children in its definition of objectionable material.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Women’s movement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 August 2022)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011