Often women’s organisations had as an aim self-improvement or self-help. Until the later 20th century women’s educational and career opportunities remained limited. Many were prevented from taking up paid work, through social convention or childcare responsibilities. Some joined old-girls’ or alumni associations (for example, the Federation of University Women) as a way of keeping in touch with fellow students and expressing their educational aspirations. Others belonged to clubs which gave them opportunities to learn various skills, including leadership and meeting procedure, in a supportive social setting. Some clubs were organised along class lines, while others were based in a particular locality.
Superior study group
As well as being socially exclusive, some early women’s clubs had lofty educational goals. Writers Blanche Baughan, Jessie Mackay and Mary Colborne-Veel set up the Canterbury Women's Club in 1913 as a place for women interested in the arts and literature to gather and have serious intellectual discussions.
Women’s clubs, which were the female equivalent of gentlemen’s clubs, emerged from the 1890s. They included the Ranfurly Club in Masterton (1899), the Pioneer Club in Wellington (1909), the Canterbury Women’s Club (1913) and the Otago Women’s Club (1914). Modelled on similar clubs in England, the US and Australia, their purpose was to provide upper-class women with social and intellectual companionship. Many set up ‘circles’ for interests such as play-reading, arts and crafts, bridge and motoring.
The clubs provided a place other than private homes for women to meet. Some had rooms where members could stay overnight, as well as dining, lounge and library facilities. Before motor transport, these were welcomed by women visiting town from country districts. A Federation of Women’s Clubs began in 1925.
Lyceum clubs, a concept imported from England, emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. The name Lyceum came from the Greek word Lykeion – a place for learning. With a similar membership and purpose to the earlier women’s clubs, Lyceum clubs also set up circles to encourage cultural activities. They, and other women’s social clubs, prospered between the wars, but membership declined from the 1950s, and in the 1960s many closed.
Women’s cooperative guilds
Working-class women made up the membership of cooperative guilds from the 1920s. These were connected with societies that set up cooperative stores, buying goods in bulk and selling them to members cheaply.
The guilds had a definite educational purpose. Speakers at monthly meetings introduced a range of social and political topics, but there were also craft demonstrations, songs and games. Competitions were popular – for example members vied to make the ‘best butter sponge’ or the ‘best item from a sugar bag’. As the stores became less financially viable, the last of the guilds disbanded in 1965.
Rural women’s organisations
In the 1920s two major rural women’s organisations emerged: in 1921 the Women’s Institutes (called Country Women’s Institutes from 1952), and in 1925 the Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union (the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, WDFF, from 1946). Both aimed to overcome the isolation of women on farms or in small towns. Lobbying on matters of mutual concern was an important purpose, but the organisations also offered educational and social opportunities that were otherwise non-existent – they were sometimes described by members as ‘life-savers’.1
The self-improvement activities emphasised homemaking skills. Women’s Institutes programmes included craft demonstrations and competitions, and sales of produce. The WDFF also taught domestic crafts, and promoted leadership and organisational skills. Both organisations continued in the early 21st century. The WDFF, now known as Rural Women New Zealand, had a greater focus on women’s agricultural work. In 2016 the New Zealand Federation of Women’s Institutes claimed to be the largest women’s organisation in New Zealand.
In 1980 Women in Agriculture (WAG), a loose coalition of individuals, groups and networks of rural women, emerged. WAG encouraged the sharing of farming skills – fencing, sheep and wool handling, and business management.
The urban counterparts of Country Women’s Institutes were the Townswomen’s Guilds, the first of which was started in Napier in 1932. Like the Country Women’s Institutes, they aimed to stimulate members with lectures and demonstrations. They also formed special-interest groups on topics ranging from floral art to, in one case, exploring. Many raised funds for a variety of causes. Members now belong to the New Zealand Federation of Women’s Institutes.
Toastmistresses, established in California in 1938 as the women’s equivalent of Toastmasters, acquired its first New Zealand club in 1966. Toastmistress clubs, which spread rapidly, allowed women to gain confidence in public speaking in a safe environment. The communication skills taught proved relevant to both voluntary and paid work. In 2018 there were 11 clubs in New Zealand, branded as POWERtalk International.