Service organisations allowed women to make friends and network while working for various community causes. They were distinct from women’s welfare organisations established to advance a single cause. Often modelled on similar organisations for men, they were fewer in number and developed differently.
Some service organisations were essentially wives’ organisations, set up to support the parallel men’s organisation. This was the case with some early women’s lodge associations, such as the Rebekah Degree, which was formed by the wives of senior members of the Independent Order of Oddfellows in Dunedin in the late 1860s.
Others were expressly for women in the workforce – and until the 1970s that meant their members were mainly single women. This made them different in character from most women’s organisations, in which married mothers predominated. They gave single women greater opportunities to socialise with others in the same position. As more married women entered the workforce, the membership of these organisations changed.
All the service organisations were involved in community projects, and often national and international projects as well. While many benefited other women and children, they were broad in their scope. Some involved practical assistance, such as organising outings for disabled children, or running a library service for housebound readers. Others used funds raised through the business acumen of members to endow scholarships or fund research into medical conditions.
Inner Wheel clubs were established from 1936 onward for the wives and widows of members of the male-only Rotary clubs. The clubs originated in England, and as well as organising their own projects, they supported those of the associated Rotary club. In 1990 a national council was established. Inner Wheel clubs were still flourishing in the 2010s. They focus on service and fundraising directed at improving the lives of women and girls across the world and creating long lasting friendships among women.
Lionesses clubs, which began in New Zealand in 1976, were also adjunct organisations to the men-only Lions clubs. They acquired members by invitation, and met twice a month: once for discussing the business of fundraising, and once for socialising. In 1991 they were offered the option of becoming or joining Lions clubs. However, most Lionesses clubs voted to retain their women-only status.
Women’s friendly societies carried out community projects, but also had an important insurance function – the society would provide financial assistance to members if they were injured or became sick. This was a drawcard for single working women. The Linda Rebekah Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows was formed in the 1890s in Dunedin, Auckland and Wellington. Most of the members were single women in the paid workforce. By the end of the 1930s there were 84 Rebekah lodges with 5,211 members. Friendly societies faltered with the introduction of social security in the 1930s.
Soroptimists, Zonta and Altrusa
Women’s service organisations modelled on equivalent groups for men were established from the late 1930s. New Zealand Soroptimists, Zonta and Altrusa were all branches of organisations founded overseas, often decades earlier. Soroptimists and Altrusa, like similar men’s service organisations, restricted membership to a certain number of women per occupation. Membership of Zonta was by invitation only. An implicit purpose of these organisations was to provide members with a support group and contacts that could be useful for their work.
Like some men’s service clubs, women’s clubs imposed fines for such misdemeanours as arriving late at a meeting, failing to wear the club badge or having a birthday. In the Altrusa club these were called ‘Alteasers’.
These service organisations experienced a surge of growth in the 1980s as women made headway with careers. However, costs of membership and the expectation of time commitment meant that by the early 1990s some clubs were having difficulty attracting and retaining members. In 2016 there were 20 Soroptimist, 28 Zonta and 21 Altrusa clubs nationwide.
Business and Professional Women’s Clubs
The Business and Professional Women’s Clubs were different in character from Soroptimists, Zonta and Altrusa. They were established by the YWCA in the 1930s to lobby for greater participation by women in employment and public life, equal pay and pay equity. However, these clubs also provided support, encouragement and networking opportunities for members. A New Zealand federation, formed in 1939, became linked to the International Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.
By the 21st century BPW had become a major advocate for women’s work-life balance and workplace equity. It is active in promoting United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles in New Zealand and offers yearly White Camelia Awards to businesses that implement gender equality strategies in their workplaces.