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.
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 died by 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.