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Women’s labour organisations

by Megan Cook

Working women had to fight hard for equal pay and decent conditions. In the 1930s the plight of unemployed women was even worse – some were bullied into unpaid domestic work or expected to rely on charity. At first women were not strongly unionised, and groups like the YWCA advocated on their behalf.

Women’s unions and associations, 1878 to 1939

Women in the labour market

Before the Second World War, paid employment for girls and women was limited by age and occupation. Paid work was common before marriage but unusual afterwards. In the 19th century, domestic service, shop work, sewing, nursing and teaching were the occupations of virtually all women employed. In the 20th century increasing numbers of women worked in light manufacturing, and as clerks and bookkeepers. Whatever their occupation, women were paid less than men.

Women’s unions

Women workers were not strongly unionised. Domestic workers (the largest single female occupational group until the 1930s) were isolated in their employers’ homes, worked long hours, and in many cases had to ask permission to leave the house. It was impossible for them to form or join a trade union.

Shop and clerical workers’ unions included both men and women. Women’s short working lives limited their involvement in union activities. Many male unionists were unsympathetic to demands for equal pay and opportunities for promotion for women.

In other female-dominant occupations, women-only unions or associations were formed.


The Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union, established in 1889, was the first women’s union to be formed. Public concern about sweating in the clothing trade – working long hours in poor conditions for little money – prompted Dunedin labour leaders and prominent citizens (all men) to form a committee to negotiate with employers. When employers refused, the committee formed what became the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union. At first the union was run by men, but by 1891 its secretary was Harriet Morison, and there were 13 other women on its executive.

No picnic!


Socially as well as industrially active, the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union held picnics attended by hundreds. The events were also fundraisers, used to support the union’s wide-ranging interests. When rain reduced numbers at two picnics in 1895, it caused the union financial difficulty. Secretary Harriet Morison organised a carnival to repair the damage, but failed to keep track of funds. Accused of embezzling money, Morison resigned.


Its concerns included working conditions and wages, but also organising other women workers, promoting training, and supporting favourable legislation. The union provided money and an organiser’s time to the fledgling Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch tailoress unions.

In the 1940s the tailoresses’ unions were absorbed into mixed-gender clothing workers’ unions; despite women’s numerical dominance, men would run these unions for more than 20 years.


Persistently treated as inferior to male teachers in terms of pay, promotion and status, women teachers began to organise on a regional basis in 1901. In 1914 the New Zealand Women Teachers’ Association was formed. The association pushed for equal pay, the promotion of women, and the inclusion of women in the inspectorate. The association went into recess in 1964, after equal pay was won.


The New Zealand Nurses Association was started in 1909 with assistance from the Department of Health and doctors. The association opposed strikes and industrial action, arguing that nursing was a vocation, not a job. It had considerable influence with government, but until the 1950s was concerned with nurses’ status rather than working conditions and wages.

Women’s organisations and employment, 1878 to 1939

Women’s employment issues

From the 19th century on, many non-union women’s organisations were concerned with employment. Issues of concern included:

  • the prevention of sweating – long and poorly paid hours of work in substandard conditions, or as outworkers
  • forcing employers to pay girl apprentices during their first year of work
  • the provision of a weekly half-day holiday
  • seats at work for shop assistants
  • equal pay
  • reasonable hours of work
  • access to public-service jobs for women.

Some issues attracted widespread public support, notably the prevention of sweating. Others, like equal pay, were a standard demand of women’s groups (and women’s unions), but were not widely supported outside them.

YWCA, 1878

The first group concerned with women and employment was the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), set up in 1878. YWCA members waited on the wharf to meet young working-class women as they arrived in New Zealand to work as domestic servants or in factories. The association provided leisure activities, Christian teaching and accommodation.

Linda Rebekah Lodge


Working women formed the Linda Rebekah Lodge in 1895 to insure themselves against times of trouble and hardship – sickness, widowhood and poverty in old age. The Lodge, whose members included domestic servants and shop workers, was part of the Independent Order of Oddfellows (IOOF). Membership (which meant payment of dues) guaranteed a sickness benefit, assistance for orphans, widows and the elderly, and help with funeral expenses.


In the 1910s and 1920s local YWCAs became a central meeting place for young working women. The Auckland branch, for example, ran lunch and thrift clubs for working girls. In the inter-war period the YWCA (and some unions) began organising working women’s sport on a very large scale.

Late 19th century organising

The late 19th century saw a burst of organising. Many of those setting up groups were suffragists. In towns around New Zealand societies for the protection of women and children and women’s political leagues were formed. Groups like these included employment issues among their demands.

Some, like the Auckland Women’s Liberal League (formed in 1895), were linked with, or later absorbed by, a political party. In the 1890s it was the Liberal party; in the early 20th century it was the Labour party that attracted women concerned with employment issues.

Pester power


Emily Gibson, a member of the Auckland Women’s Political League, described women’s methods when fighting for wages for apprentices as ‘pestering Mr Seddon and all his satellites on the subject, in season and out of season, and worrying the life out of MPs’. Having given women the vote ‘it was therefore in [Seddon’s] interest to do all in his power to keep them on his side of the fence, and well he knew it.’1


National Council of Women, 1896

The National Council of Women (NCW), set up in 1896, was an umbrella group to which all New Zealand women’s groups could affiliate. At its annual conferences work-related issues such as equal pay and equality for women teachers were regular topics of debate, and called for in resolutions. Its very broad base of member organisations meant the NCW was sometimes slow to act and react, but gave its decisions weight with the government.

Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, 1939

The New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), set up by the YWCA in the 1930s, was concerned with women’s employment from its beginning. From the 1940s on the BPW became particularly concerned with equal pay, campaigning with unions and other women’s organisations.

    • Quoted in Connie Purdue, ed. Women in the labour cause: the history of the Women’s Branch of the New Zealand Labour Party, 1925–1975. Auckland: Auckland Women’s Branch New Zealand Labour Party, 1975, p. 16. Back

Women and unemployment

Unemployed women workers

From the 1920s and into the depression of the 1930s unemployment grew, among both men and women. In the 1920s unemployed women received no government assistance. Although women were required to pay unemployment tax from 1931, they were not entitled to unemployment benefits and received almost no government support.

Because few women joined unions or associations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, unemployed women workers depended on other organisations to represent them. Women’s organisations, including the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), the National Council of Women (NCW), the Girls Friendly Society, and the Society for the Protection of Women and Children (SPWC), all protested to the government about the treatment of unemployed women, but to little effect.

Mayoresses’ and Women’s Unemployment Relief committees

In 1930 and 1931 mayoresses’ relief committees were formed in cities and many large towns. In 1931 and 1932 the mayoresses’ committees were replaced by women’s unemployment relief committees. Both were government-instigated and had a similar membership of YWCA, NCW and the SPWC representatives.

A workless woman


Political activist Miriam Soljak helped set up the Auckland women’s section of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. ‘A workless woman’, she wrote, ‘cannot sleep out in parks; she must preserve a tidy appearance or lose respect; for her there is no “doss-house” or free counter lunch, few friends to “shout” a meal, and the bread of charity tastes exceedingly bitter when one is unaccustomed to the taste.’1


The mayoresses’ committees and the women’s unemployment relief committees ran employment bureaus and recreation and training centres focused on domestic work. They also provided unemployed women with small allowances.

Different interests

The sometimes different interests of the often middle-class women in the committees and those who were unemployed showed up strongly in relation to domestic service. The committee women saw unemployment as an opportunity to resolve the decades-old servant shortage. Among working women dislike for domestic service – usually poorly paid and isolated – was entrenched; factory or office work had long been preferred.

Organising the unemployed

Left-wing women, many of them members of the Labour or Communist parties, objected to the domestic-service focus of the unemployment relief committees, and the bullying of unemployed women who refused unpaid live-in work. In some towns alternative organisations were started.

Labour Party activists set up the Wellington Unemployed Women Workers’ Association in 1932. Like the relief committees, the Wellington association provided lunches and an employment service. Its room in the Trades Hall was a place where unemployed women could meet, do their washing and ironing, and get assistance with personal problems.

Down and out


Unemployed women in the 1930s were organised by others more often than they organised themselves. Activist Margaret Thorn, who helped set up Wellington’s alternative unemployed women’s group, recalled that ‘we wanted the women to do it themselves, but most were too miserable even to think’.2


Working women’s committees

Auckland activists set up women’s sections of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) from 1932. A newspaper, the Working Woman, was started in 1934. Working women’s committees were set up across the country. In Huntly West a Māori Working Women’s Committee was set up by two Pākehā women.

The committees held conferences in 1934 and 1936. The first conference set up the Working Women’s Movement, and the second set up the United Council of Working Women. The links between the working women’s committees and the NUWM were strong. Some of the working women’s committees merged with NUWM women’s branches.

Women’s unemployment organisations, whether conservative or radical, were short-lived. Rates of unemployment among women dropped in the mid-1930s, so the need lessened, and the electing of a Labour government redirected radical energies.

Women’s unemployment organisations, 1980s

When unemployment became widespread from the late 1970s to the 1990s, most of the unemployed groups set up were mixed, including women and men, Māori and Pākehā.

Exceptions were the Canterbury Women’s Employment Trust (1985) and the Ōtautahi Women’s Labour Pool (1984). The trust was set up in response to increasing unemployment among women. It provided employment and training opportunities, and promoted alternatives to full-time work, including job-sharing, flexible and part-time hours, and cooperatives.

The Ōtautahi Women’s Labour Pool existed for over a decade in Christchurch. It focused on helping women who were unemployed or on the domestic purposes benefit to become economically independent through access to better-paid, non-traditional trades like painting, carpentry and gardening. It provided training and a way in to self-employment or business.

    • Quoted in Sandra Coney, Every girl: a social history of women and the YWCA in Auckland. Auckland: Auckland YWCA, 1986, p. 200. Back
    • Margaret Thorn, Stick out keep left. Auckland: Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books, 1997, p. 66. Back

Equal pay and pay equity

Women in the labour market

The number of women in the labour market rose from approximately 169,000 to 382,000 between 1945 and 1971. Increasing numbers of women continued in, or returned to, paid employment after marriage, and more Māori women were in paid work.

A few occupations – shop and clerical work, food and clothing production, nursing and teaching – still provided most of the jobs done by women.

Women continued to be paid considerably less than men. The female minimum wage was 60% of the male minimum from 1945 and 65% from 1949. In the mid-1950s, the most a man could earn in the insurance industry was £727 per year; the most a woman could earn was £450 (61.9%).

Equal pay

Equal pay – women and men being paid the same wage for doing the same job – was first fought for in the public service in the 1950s, and then in the private sector in the 1960s and 1970s. These campaigns helped persuade the government to pass the Government Service Equal Pay Act 1960 and the private sector Equal Pay Act 1972. As a result, the gap between men and women’s hourly rates had shrunk to 22% by 1985.

Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity, 1957

Equal pay was fought for by a coalition of women and men, unions and women’s organisations. The National Council of Women (NCW), Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), Federation of University Women (FUW), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Public Service Association formed the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity (CEPO) in 1957. CEPO’s aims were ‘to bring about as soon as possible the full implementation of the principles of equal pay for equal work (or the rate for the job) and equal opportunity’.1

It campaigned effectively for equal pay within the government and private sectors from 1957 to 1960 and 1966 to 1972 respectively. CEPO was revived in the 1980s to fight for pay equity.

The council’s activities were particularly critical to the fight for private-sector equal pay. The Federation of Labour (the umbrella group for private-sector unions) was not interested in equal pay, and CEPO provided leadership and co-ordination of the union and women’s groups fighting for equity.

Ever hopeful


Many existing women’s organisations pushed for equal pay, notably the NCW. It passed its first resolution supporting equal pay in 1896, the year it was set up. By the time the private sector Equal Pay Act was passed in 1972, the NCW had passed nearly 20 such resolutions. It would go on to pass similar resolutions in support of pay equity. In 2009 equal pay was the only resolution passed at the NCW’s first conference that had not been achieved.


1967 advisory council

Equal pay activists also instigated the setting up of the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW), a government organisation supported by the Department of Labour. NACEW became part of the policy-making process.

The council was integral to the fight for private-sector equal pay. It recommended that the government set up an independent commission of inquiry, whose terms of reference should be how best to give effect to equal pay, rather than whether or not to introduce it.

Women’s liberation movement groups, 1970s

Equal pay was one of the first demands made by women’s liberation movement groups, which were set up from 1970. Groups such as the Wellington and Auckland Women’s Liberation Fronts, and the Women’s Movement for Freedom handed out leaflets at factory gates setting out the wage gap, demanded unions pay their own women workers equally, and held vigils to protest at delays in delivering equal pay.

Pay equity

Pay equity – women and men getting the same or a similar wage for doing a comparable job – was fought for in the 1980s. The skill a job required, the responsibility it carried, the effort demanded and the conditions of work all had to be assessed when comparing jobs. Because it allowed different jobs to be compared, pay equity had the potential to resolve the historic undervaluing of work typically done by women. The Employment Equity Act was passed in 1990, but repealed within months after a change of government.

Coalition for Equal Value, Equal Pay, 1986

The Coalition for Equal Value, Equal Pay (CEVEP) was set up by women’s groups and unions in 1986. The groups included those which had fought for working women’s rights in earlier decades – the FUW, BPW, NCW and YWCA. Prominent among the unions were the Clerical Workers’ Association (which funded a full-time pay-equity organiser), the Distribution Workers’ Union, and the Nurses’ Association.

CEVEP, like CEPO before it, was an effective coalition, with both women’s groups and unions contributing to its campaigns. CEVEP’s Dunedin group, for example, included people from the local clerical workers’, post office and distribution unions, the Oamaru Woollen Workers’ Union, YWCA, BPW and the Disabled Persons’ Assembly.

CEVEP went into recess in 1994.

    • Constitution of the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity, p. 1. Back

Women’s organisations after the Second World War

An effect of women’s increased workforce participation was a broadening of the issues considered by labour organisations. Along with training or retraining for re-entry to the workforce, childcare and access to flexible or part-time hours of work became matters of concern. Older organisations like the National Council of Women and the Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs continued to be very active, and were joined by new groups.

National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women, 1967

Members of the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW) were initially women’s organisations’ representatives and government officials. By the 1990s membership included the Council of Trade Unions, Business New Zealand, the State Services Commission, the Office of Youth Affairs, Te Puni Kōkiri (the Ministry of Māori Development) and the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs.

Working within government and contributing to the policy-making process, the council considered a broad range of issues to do with women and employment, including pay, choice and conditions of work, training, care of dependants, superannuation and parental leave. In 2009 NACEW’s focus was on pay equity, employment security, improving the position of Māori and Pacific Island women at work, and managing care of dependants.

To work or not to work


Working wives and mothers were a topic of heated debate in the 1950s. Some readers of the New Zealand Women’s Weekly strongly disapproved, writing letters about ‘this chirpy little sparrow who feels more secure in company’,1 motivated by greed for a new fridge or carpet, whose children soon realise whether ‘Mother works because she has to or because she likes to’.2 Despite opposition, the shift to working after marriage continued to gather momentum.


Women’s liberation movement, 1970 to 1980s

Women’s liberation movement groups demanded equal opportunity for working women. Their concerns included access to non-traditional and part-time work, the Working Women’s Charter, parental leave, retraining after time at home to care for children and prevention of sexual harassment.

Childcare, necessary for working mothers, and itself a source of work for women, was the focus of activism. Christchurch Women’s Liberation surveyed the city’s childcare centres, finding lengthy waiting lists and very low wages; Auckland-based Women for Equality held a childcare conference to discuss problems in the sector; Palmerston North Women’s Liberation set up a childcare action group to lobby the council for more centres. Feminists strongly supported the starting of the Early Childhood Workers’ Union, and a number set up their own childcare centres.

Many of the women’s liberation groups were relatively short-lived, but the women who had been in them often went on to take part in union or other organisations.

Equal Employment Opportunities Trust, 1992

The Equal Employment Opportunities Trust was set up by government in 1992 after it repealed the Employment Equity Act 1990. The trust was to address some of the issues raised by the pay-equity campaign through the promotion to employers of the business benefits of equal-employment opportunities (EEO). Its trustees were drawn from both the private and public sectors, and were predominantly women.

The trust’s focus included families, as well as disabled, older and migrant people. It developed EEO guidelines, worked with an EEO employers’ group to create versatile and successful workplaces, and funded surveys into diversity and work–life balance. A central element in the trust’s work was the voluntary nature of employer involvement.

New Horizons for Women Trust, 1992

The New Horizons for Women Trust was set up in 1992 by groups involved in campaigns around women and work. The trust provided awards to help with the cost of retraining. A number of the awards commemorated the work of labour activists, including Rita King, Ria McBride and Sonja Davies.

    • New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 28 June 1956, p. 5. Back
    • New Zealand Women’s Weekly, 5 July 1956, p 3. Back

Unions, 1970s to 2000s

Union organisation, 1970s and 1980s

A long-term effect of women’s increasing workforce participation was an increase in the number of women in unions, and unions’ interest in women’s issues. The clerical workers’ unions, the Distribution Workers’ Union, and the Nurses’ Association were all particularly active. A new union covering early childhood workers was set up in 1982. Individual unionists were also active, and by the end of the 1970s a women’s network was operating within the broader union movement.

Advisory groups

In the 1970s and 1980s women’s advisory groups and positions were set up within trade union organisations. The Wellington Trades Council’s Women’s Sub-committee (1979), and the Federation of Labour (1980), the Combined State Unions (1984) and women’s advisory councils were part of this development. The New Zealand Educational Institute, which represented primary school teachers and workers, set up a new position of women’s officer in 1988.

New Zealand Working Women’s Council, 1975

The New Zealand Working Women’s Council was set up in 1975 by labour activists with the slogan ‘Equality, Education, Action’. It held a working women’s convention in 1977, published a book on working women, and provided support for women working within unions. Promoting the Working Women’s Charter, particularly within the Labour Party and the trade union movement, was an important part of the council’s work.

Housewives Union


In the early 1970s the feminist slogan ‘all women are working women’ was taken to a logical conclusion with the formation of the Housewives Union. The new union’s concerns varied greatly from place to place: in Auckland it was family planning, in Wellington, childcare centres, in Gisborne, open drains. Other groups pushed for wages for housework. The unions had little known predecessors – housewives unions were set up from 1912 to the 1950s.


Working Women’s Charter

The Working Women’s Charter was sometimes called a ‘bill of rights’ for working women. It included the right to work, the elimination of discrimination, equal pay for work of equal value, and equal opportunity. One of the rights claimed was access to sex education, contraception and abortion. This, plus its focus on women as workers, provoked vigorous opposition from some conservative groups, including Feminists for Life, Save our Homes and the Catholic Women’s League.

Auckland Working Women’s Resource Centre, 1984

The Auckland Working Women’s Resource Centre was set up with the support of the Auckland Trades Council and its women’s sub-committee. The centre supported women unionists and workers, running courses in public speaking, showing health and safety videos in pubs, and sending community workers, local councillors and Human Rights Commission staff into workplaces to talk to women. Its staff set up information stalls around the Auckland region, publicising workplace issues.

Labour laws, 1990s

When the government passed the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA) it ended nearly a century in which New Zealand’s labour law had strongly supported unions. Compulsory unionism and national wage agreements ended. Union membership dropped by about 50% in the first year after the act was passed.

Many unions either collapsed or amalgamated. Those with a scattered workforce, such as the clerical workers’ unions, found it particularly difficult. The increased workload that resulted from many single-site or employer agreements, rather than national awards, meant that many unions could no longer prioritise women’s equity issues.

Teachers’ representatives

By the 1990s the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) – the representative organisation for primary school teachers set up in 1883 – had a majority of women members. After the ECA was passed the Education Service Paraprofessional Association, which represented support staff (many of whom were female) joined the NZEI. After the demise of the clerical workers’ unions, school clerical staff joined the NZEI. In 1994 the Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa amalgamated with the NZEI, forming NZEI Te Riu Roa.


The New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation (NZNO) was formed in 1993, when the Nurses’ Association and the private-sector Nurses’ Union (formed in 1973) amalgamated. From 1996 it included medical radiologists, technologists, scientific officers, pharmacists and dietitians. The NZNO continued to have a majority of women members – 94% in 2009.

The 2000s

In the 2006 census, women were 47% of New Zealand’s 1,986,000 paid workers, up from 30% in 1971.

By 2009 union membership was down to 18% of the employed labour force, and women were a little over half of all union members (54%). Occupational segregation had broken down to some extent. Significant numbers of women were working as lawyers, doctors and in senior positions in the public service. But many working women continued to work as nurses, teachers, shop assistants, in light manufacturing and as clerical workers.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Women’s labour organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Megan Cook, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011