Story: Women’s networks and clubs

Page 5. Identity-based organisations

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Some groups of women, because of their ethnicity, cultural identity, religion or sexuality, chose to associate with similar women.

Māori women

Māori women were usually able to join other women’s organisations, and were sometimes actively encouraged to do so. However, various factors, including insidious racism, tribal ties, location, and particular interests and concerns, led them to form their own organisations.

Sometimes these had Pākehā parallels. Māori Women’s Institutes grew out of the Country Women’s Institutes (CWI). Māori women were attracted to the home-centred philosophy of CWI and were keen to learn Pākehā crafts such as knitting and crochet. These institutes fostered Māori membership, included talks on Māori topics, and asked Māori women to share their flax-weaving skills.

In areas where there was no existing CWI branch, Māori women were invited to start their own. The first was established in 1929, and there were 42 by 1950. From then, members began leaving to join branches of the Māori Women’s Welfare League. Like the institutes, the League focused on home and family. However, it was more concerned with social and political issues, often arising from urbanisation of Māori, and in the following years became the major national forum for Māori women of all tribal groups.

Ladies, a plate

At one time, nearly all invitations to New Zealand social functions included the request ‘Ladies, a plate’. Many immigrant women recall the embarrassment of turning up with an empty plate, not understanding that the phrase meant ‘a plate of food to share’. Making this discovery was part of the process of adapting to life in New Zealand, and becoming accepted by other women.

Immigrant women

Immigrant women established groups, mainly after the Second World War, to overcome loneliness, maintain language and cultural practices and ties, and support new migrants. Social events, often featuring familiar foods, were important ways of advancing these goals. They were also a means of fundraising for welfare and social projects.

Separate women’s groups tended to be formed in immigrant cultures where there was a pattern of chain migration – when immigrant families assisted their kin to join them in New Zealand. Greek, Yugoslav, Chinese and Indian communities soon had women’s organisations for this reason. In cultures where it was common for the sexes to socialise together, for instance the Dutch and the Welsh, few separate women’s organisations were formed. Some Asian communities had no women’s groups because it was not acceptable for women to take part in activities independently from the family or mix with women to whom they were not related.

Pacific women

Pacific women’s groups are numerous, partly because of the size of the Pacific communities that grew in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and partly because women’s organisations are well-established in the Pacific islands of origin. As well as Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island, Niuean, Tokelauan and Fijian groups, there are pan-Pacific organisations, notably PACIFICA. Groups as diverse as women’s church fellowships, sports teams, craft groups, language nests and associations promoting health and welfare assist with the social and practical needs of their members, giving advice on housing, health, educational and social-welfare concerns.

War brides

British, Canadian and European war-brides of New Zealand servicemen who had gone overseas in the two world wars often formed clubs for mutual support and companionship, such as Auckland’s Cosmopolitan Club and Wellington’s Overseas Wives Club, both formed in 1946. Some clubs taught the skills of a New Zealand homemaker, such as cooking local dishes and sewing. These groups often faded away as women adjusted to life in New Zealand.

Tall women unite

The Tall Women’s Club (motto: ‘Supra cetera – above all others’) flourished briefly in Auckland and Wellington in the 1950s. Members, who were more than 5 feet 8 inches (172 centimetres) tall, met for social events and to lobby manufacturers to produce clothes for very tall women. They also imported from America The tall girls’ handbook, which gave advice on how to dress, plan a career and deal with put-downs.


Until the 1950s lesbians socialised together exclusively in informal friendship circles, rather than organisations. Hostility from others made it easier to meet in private venues where it was possible to relax without fear of abuse. Often lesbians made contact through work and friends of friends, or through other women’s organisations.

By the 1950s, when more lesbians were able to live independent lives with their own income and accommodation, options grew. Lesbians congregated in particular city coffee bars and hotel lounge bars, and the first lesbian social club, the KG Club in Auckland, opened in 1972. Drinking and smoking were important aspects of lesbian social life – these behaviours represented an overt claiming of freedoms that once only men enjoyed.

Lesbian organisations, most with a political agenda, proliferated from the 1970s, and many of these had a social dimension as well. In the 21st century local and national lesbian initiatives were often advertised through websites. High-profile social activities include the annual Auckland lesbian ball, held since 1983.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Women’s networks and clubs - Identity-based organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 15 Jul 2018