Although women’s lives were centred on home and family in the 1950s and 1960s, many women, including those with children, were in paid work.
Women’s liberation groups called for economic equality. They focused on employment equity, financial independence for married women, equal division of matrimonial property on divorce, and support of single mothers.
Women’s rights groups, some long established, also worked on these issues. Equal pay for men and women working for the government, for example, became law in 1960, and work towards the private-sector Equal Pay Act (passed in 1972) was well under way by the time women’s liberation groups were formed. The two wings of the women’s movement came together in the 1980s in the campaign for pay equity.
Single mothers and pay equity
The Council for the Single Mother and Her Child was set up in 1973, at a time when there was controversy about supporting solo mothers with the domestic purposes benefit. The Coalition for Equal Value Equal Pay was set up in 1986 to fight for equal pay for women doing work with the same or similar levels of responsibility, skill, effort and difficulty as higher-paid, male-dominated jobs.
All join in
When union women got a pay-equity campaign going in the mid-1980s, the National Council of Women’s 1986 conference endorsed it. Jocelyn Keith, vice-president at the time, remembered that ‘the older women realised it was an old battle that they had fought before, and they knew it for what it was worth’.1 Some of these women had been active in the fight for equal pay since the 1950s.
Politics of the traditional sort was of interest to many women’s liberation groups. Some, like the National Organisation for Women (1972–) and the Dunedin Collective for Women (1971–1982), were active across a broad range of matters. They lobbied politicians, kept members informed, held public meetings and issued press releases. Others, like the Women’s Advisory Committee (1970–75) and Women’s Council (1975–) within the New Zealand Labour Party worked within the Parliamentary system.
Women’s Electoral Lobby (1975–2004)
In 1970, despite 77 years of voting and 51 years of being able to stand for Parliament, women were only a tiny minority of national and local politicians. Only 11 had ever been elected to Parliament, and the issues that concerned women were often marginalised. The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) was formed in 1975 to encourage women’s participation in public life and help elect to public office people who would work for women’s equality. A non-partisan group, WEL included a number of women who went on to become well-known politicians in both the National and Labour parties.
Ladies a plate
When feminist Sue Kedgley wrote a thesis about women in politics, she called it ‘Ladies in the backroom’. Women’s traditional role in Parliamentary politics was as fundraisers and supporters. They were never the main players. Kedgley went on to become a member of Parliament in 1999.
Based on discussion at its national conferences, WEL publicised issues through the media, lobbied politicians and made submissions to select committees. Election years were a particularly busy time, as WEL rated candidates on their attitudes to women’s issues, held lunches with party leaders and reported on party policies.
Membership was around 2,000 in the mid-1970s, but declined in the 1980s – perhaps because WEL’s aims were being realised. More women were being elected to local and national government, and both major political parties had had their first women presidents (Sue Wood, National, from 1982, and Margaret Wilson, Labour, 1984).