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Story: Women’s movement

‘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.

Story by Megan Cook
Main image: ‘Mother and daughter quarrelling’, by Jacqueline Fahey

Story Summary

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19th-century women’s movement

In the 19th century New Zealand women were part of an international movement fighting for women’s rights. They objected to inequalities in marriage, education, employment and politics – and to not being allowed to vote.

Temperance and the vote

Many women campaigned for temperance – limiting the sale and drinking of alcohol. They were worried about alcohol abuse and its effects on women and children.

The New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was set up in 1885. It was the first national women’s organisation, and was concerned with all issues affecting women. The WCTU led the campaign for the vote for women (women’s suffrage), fronted by Kate Sheppard. A petition was signed by more than 30,000 women. Many other groups worked on the campaign, including tailoresses’ unions around the country. In 1893 New Zealand women became the first in the world to win the vote in national elections.

Women’s groups, 1890s

Many women’s groups were set up in the 1890s. They focused on the status of women in marriage, divorce laws, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act (a law under which women suspected of prostitution could be held and forcibly treated) and employment issues. The National Council of Women, set up in 1896, was still active in 2010.

The mid-20th century

Things improved gradually for women over the 20th century. Women could stand for Parliament from 1919, and the first woman member of Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs, was elected in 1933.

Women’s liberation movement

In the 1970s the women’s liberation movement became active in New Zealand. Groups formed around the country, arguing that ‘the personal is political’. Women began to see aspects of their personal lives as political. Who did the housework or childcare, and how women were expected to dress, were no longer trivial issues.

The movement boomed, with thousands of women attending United Women’s Conventions.

Activists fought for women’s rights in:

  • economics, including equal pay, financial independence for married women, and support of single mothers through the domestic purposes benefit (DPB)
  • politics – the Women’s Electoral Lobby worked to educate male politicians and get women into Parliament
  • health, including safe, easily available contraception and abortion, better treatment from doctors, and more options for childbirth
  • education, including women’s studies courses at university and less sex-role stereotyping at school
  • the arts – women actors, filmmakers and artists created works together and advocated equality for women in the arts
  • spirituality – women challenged sexism in the church, or formed their own spiritual groups
  • physical safety – women raised awareness of domestic violence and rape, and set up women’s refuges and rape crisis centres.
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s movement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/womens-movement (accessed 15 December 2017)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011