From the late 1960s the vigour and energy of the women’s liberation movement inspired some women and frightened others. Groups formed in 1970 in Wellington and Auckland, spreading to Dunedin, Christchurch and provincial centres over the next few years.
Women’s liberationists saw women as an oppressed group and demanded radical change. Arguing that ‘the personal is political’, women began talking about who cleaned the house, made the coffee at work, or looked after the kids. They discussed health, sexual behaviour, and how women were expected to dress. Matters that had not been seen as political were suddenly the subject of debate.
Women’s liberationists argued that women were routinely patronised and treated as less important than men, and that the movement was treated by the media in the same way. ‘Our concerns and actions, and the movement itself, were consistently ignored, trivialised and distorted,’ said Sandra Coney, editor of women’s liberation magazine Broadsheet.1
Influenced by political initiatives in the United States and Britain, the movement worked to fundamentally change the position of women. Some issues, notably abortion, attracted vehement support and opposition. Domestic violence, which had often been hidden from public view, was openly discussed.
Women’s networks and groups
The movement boomed in the 1970s, when groups attracted many members very quickly. Attendance at national women's conventions jumped from over 400 in 1972 (including 70 men) to over 2,000 in 1975 (with hundreds turned away).
Women-centred communities and ways of thinking flourished, and many aspects of society were criticised. Religion, art and the education system were challenged, communal care of children was encouraged and a range of networks and collectives were established.
Consciousness-raising – a method developed by American feminist groups in the late 1960s – was widely used by groups in New Zealand. It involved women sharing their experiences, developing an understanding of oppression in their own lives, and using that as a basis for political action.
Socialist and Marxist feminism
Some women’s liberation groups were formed by members of existing left-wing organisations. Socialist-feminist or Marxist-feminist groups included the Working Women’s Alliance and the Women’s Unions in Auckland and Wellington (set up in 1975), which argued that the women’s movement ignored the working class. These groups focused on working-class women, publicised their situation and worked with them to improve it. The strong socialist and Marxist influence on New Zealand feminist groups was similar to that in Britain.
Women’s rights groups
Women’s liberation groups conflicted with existing women’s rights groups such as the National Council of Women and the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. Core beliefs differed. Rather than fundamentally changing society, the women’s rights groups wanted women to have a fuller place within it. The women’s liberation groups saw them as slow and conservative.
Ways of working also differed. Women’s liberation groups aimed for consensus and tried to avoid hierarchical structures, often working without a formal leader. Women’s rights groups tended to have committees, sub-committees and a chairperson, and held meetings where motions were passed. Women’s liberation groups held street protests, ran women’s workshops, and undertook pub liberations, where groups of women took over male-only bars; women’s rights groups lobbied MPs and circulated petitions.
Over time, the differences between the groups narrowed or were less strongly felt, and they worked together on campaigns focused on women’s health and employment.
Class, race and sexuality
Differences among women soon became as important as similarities between them. The effects of class, sexuality and race were debated, sometimes fiercely. Lesbian feminists argued that lesbianism was a political as well as a sexual choice, and one that freed women from dependence on men. In the mid-1970s a split developed when some lesbians rejected working on what they saw as heterosexual issues, focusing instead on separatist projects.
Some groups collapsed because of conflict over these differences, while others developed new ways of working. Women’s refuges (which provided accommodation and support for women in violent relationships) pioneered a ‘parallel development’ model that involved sharing power between Māori and ‘tauiwi’ (all people who arrived after Māori) in decision-making, use of funds, public presentations and staffing. The organisation also started training non-Māori staff in issues relating to the Treaty of Waitangi and decolonisation.
The 1980s onwards
From its start, the women's liberation movement's influence spread beyond those actively involved. By the 1980s issues raised were being addressed (to varying effect) in homes, the workplace, businesses and government. While the hard work of making changes continued, many of the groups began to wind down.