Women socialise together both in formal organisations and in informal groups of friends, acquaintances, neighbours and relatives. Some aspects of women’s social networks have changed over time, but opportunities for female friendship remains important to many women.
Nineteenth-century women often spent their spare time with female relatives. It was common for unmarried women to develop particularly strong bonds with their sisters. However, some women were distant from their families, so female friends and neighbours became vital for support. Until the later 20th century, women might be close to their brothers but did not usually have male friends – men were potential marriage partners only.
In 2003 Jane Westaway, a first-generation New Zealander, wrote of the importance of her female friends: ‘When others declare that family are always there for you, I don’t think of those on the far side of the world in whose company I spent the first lonely eighteen years of my life; I think of my family of friends. I see a circle of faces all the more dear because what they offer – affection, empathy, laughter (so much laughter), comfort, teasing, respect, kindness, advice, all kinds of support, companionship, and, from time to time, some straight talking – comes untainted by expectation of duty.’1
In the early 21st century many women still rely on female friendship networks. Friends can become substitute family, especially for immigrants, or women without partners or children. These relationships may be formed while they are students, through employment, sport, church attendance or participation in ante natal groups. Book groups or networks formed among parents with children at the same school are also important ways of getting to know other women. Women are increasingly involved in online friendships with other women.
The belief that a woman’s place was in the home was widespread from the 19th century. To venture outside the neighbourhood or go into male preserves such as pubs was socially unacceptable. After marriage, some women, especially in rural areas, rarely went out alone. Few had independent transport. Childcare often kept them at home – for example, some women did not attend church because they had to look after small children, who were unwelcome at services. Groceries were usually delivered.
Attitudes changed slowly during the first half of the 20th century as women took up walking, cycling, driving and sports, went from school to higher education, and entered the workforce in greater numbers.
The boundaries between labour and leisure were often blurred for housewives – for example, when relaxing they did domestic tasks such as sewing, mending and knitting. A woman with young children could not go out in the evening, and during the day only if they could bring their children. These constraints still affect many women.
Until the 1900s there were not many public places where women could meet. There were few tearooms until the 1890s, and going to town was difficult because of the lack of public toilets for women. In contrast with men’s organisations, hardly any women’s groups could afford to have their own clubrooms. Churches were approved meeting-places, and many women belonged to church women's guilds and associations. However, home was the venue for most women’s social activities. While limitations on when and where women can gather have disappeared, many still hold meetings or entertain friends at home.
For the upper classes, the English tradition of paying or returning formal calls on days when the lady of the house was ‘at home’ continued from the 1840s. New immigrant Charlotte Godley wrote, ‘There is as much etiquette about visiting, and so on, at Dunedin as I ever saw anywhere at home [the UK]’.2 Other women made more casual visits to the homes of female friends and family.
In the early 1900s women friends observed social proprieties. Palmerston North neighbours Helena Monro and Ethel Russell were so friendly that they shared the same birthday celebration each year. But they never called each other by their first names. It was always ‘Many happy returns of the day, Mrs Monro. And many happy returns to you, Mrs Russell.’3
Home calls and visits evolved into morning and afternoon teas (and, by the 1950s, coffee mornings), when a woman could show off her baking skills to an appreciative and knowledgeable audience. Savouries, cakes and biscuits were served on the best china with embroidered tablecloths and napkins. On these occasions talk (sometimes dismissed as ‘gossip’) was extremely important as a way of keeping up with current events in the neighbourhood or town, acquiring general knowledge and forging social networks. Uninhibited conversation remains a key part of many women’s social activities.
Although morning and afternoon teas diminished in importance after more married women entered paid work in the 1970s, fancy baking and associated entertaining have remained popular. From the 1960s American-influenced social events such as baby showers, kitchen teas, and Tupperware, lingerie and other parties were hosted at home. Serving alcohol became more acceptable when women socialised with friends.
Demonstrations of domestic arts, with a tinge of competitiveness, extended to get-togethers beyond the home. These increased as more women’s organisations were set up. While some organisations, such as the National Council of Women of New Zealand, connected women in a range of different social groups and advocated for women, children and families, others operated mainly as social support groups. As well as encouraging familiar rituals, these gatherings provided opportunities to explore novel ideas, learn new skills and push back the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
In the 19th century women looked to other women for support through the almost universal experiences of marriage, childbirth, raising a family and running a household. Often (particularly in Māori communities) these other women were kin, but many settler women had no female relatives nearby. Missionary women relied on Māori women converts to assist them in childbirth, and returned the favour. However, apparently because of cultural differences, few friendships between Pākehā and Māori women developed, and mutual dependence dwindled as more Pākehā arrived. Neighbourly support networks continued; many women, armed only with the experience of having given birth themselves, became trusted local midwives.
Being a wife and mother was often described as a ‘career’ until the late 20th century. This belief was echoed by women’s organisations of all types, but some were formed specifically to promote women’s moral influence in the home.
The Mothers’ Union of the Anglican Church, which originated in England, was one such group. The first New Zealand Mothers’ Union started in Christchurch in 1886 and more were formed in the 1890s. Members promised to uphold the sanctity of marriage and home. Meetings combined prayer, discussion of social issues, and ‘fellowship’. In 1948 Young Wives’ groups were set up.
Other churches followed suit: from 1911, the Salvation Army Home League gave ‘spiritual counsel and practical direction to women in all matters relating to the Home’.1 Weekly meetings included singing and prayers, a cup of tea and a biscuit, and an address on a domestic or religious topic. Women were allowed to mend, knit and sew at meetings.
A pan-Christian organisation, the League of Mothers, was founded by Lady Alice Fergusson, the governor-general’s wife, in 1926. It was more encompassing than other groups, allowing single women with an interest in child-rearing to join. It also had Māori women’s branches. One of the attractions of the league was that mothers could bring their children to monthly meetings. The children played while their mothers listened to a speaker, took part in a competition such as flower arranging, and enjoyed afternoon tea. This was provided by members, who were asked to ‘bring a plate’.
The best-known organisation supporting women as mothers was the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society. Founded in 1907, it aimed to combat high child mortality by teaching women about baby and child care. Later it also focused on the health of mothers. Local committees of women raised funds to establish rooms for Plunket nurses, Karitane hospitals, and education and support services.
Plunket Mothers’ Clubs were important meeting places for women between the world wars. From these evolved New Mothers’ Support Groups in the 1970s. Friendships made at these groups often lasted a lifetime.
Lesley MacGibbon was introduced to feminist ideas after joining Plunket in a small town in 1976. She remembers, ‘I was delighted to discover that, following the formal meeting, most of the women stayed to talk, eat, and drink wine … We could connect our common experiences with the structures and practices in society that disadvantaged women.’ 2 She was recruited as a women’s refuge volunteer by one of the women she met at Plunket.
Housewives’ associations and unions emerged from 1912. The more left-wing organisations were concerned with the cost of living and social issues, while conservative groups focused on prices and the quality of goods. All were united in their view that it was a woman’s job to run a household, and that the job was vital.
The role of wife was as strongly emphasised as that of mother; a wife was expected to be a ‘helpmeet’ for the breadwinner husband. As a consequence, ‘wives’ groups’ emerged among women married to men in certain occupations: surveyors and university staff to name just two. One purpose of these groups was to provide women with a ready-made social circle.
The status of women within wives’ organisations often reflected their husband’s role in the workplace. The main officeholders were usually the wives of the men in management positions. For example, the president of the university wives’ association was usually the wife of the vice-chancellor or one of the professors.
By the 1970s married women were entering the workforce in greater numbers and pursuing their own careers. Their social networks were less likely to be defined by their husband’s job and interests. The term ‘mothering’ was replaced by ‘parenting’, and childrearing increasingly involved fathers. Men also became more involved in running households. These changes affected some organisations. Church mothers’ groups often found it difficult to recruit younger members, and membership of wives’ groups declined. The Federation of New Zealand Housewives disbanded in 1978. However ante-natal and new mothers’ support groups remained popular, providing crucial support for many women at an important life stage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Service organisations allowed women to make friends and network while working for various community causes. They were distinct from women’s welfare organisations established to advance a single cause. Often modelled on similar organisations for men, they were fewer in number and developed differently.
Some service organisations were essentially wives’ organisations, set up to support the parallel men’s organisation. This was the case with some early women’s lodge associations, such as the Rebekah Degree, which was formed by the wives of senior members of the Independent Order of Oddfellows in Dunedin in the late 1860s.
Others were expressly for women in the workforce – and until the 1970s that meant their members were mainly single women. This made them different in character from most women’s organisations, in which married mothers predominated. They gave single women greater opportunities to socialise with others in the same position. As more married women entered the workforce, the membership of these organisations changed.
All the service organisations were involved in community projects, and often national and international projects as well. While many benefited other women and children, they were broad in their scope. Some involved practical assistance, such as organising outings for disabled children, or running a library service for housebound readers. Others used funds raised through the business acumen of members to endow scholarships or fund research into medical conditions.
Inner Wheel clubs were established from 1936 onward for the wives and widows of members of the male-only Rotary clubs. The clubs originated in England, and as well as organising their own projects, they supported those of the associated Rotary club. In 1990 a national council was established. Inner Wheel clubs were still flourishing in the 2010s. They focus on service and fundraising directed at improving the lives of women and girls across the world and creating long lasting friendships among women.
Lionesses clubs, which began in New Zealand in 1976, were also adjunct organisations to the men-only Lions clubs. They acquired members by invitation, and met twice a month: once for discussing the business of fundraising, and once for socialising. In 1991 they were offered the option of becoming or joining Lions clubs. However, most Lionesses clubs voted to retain their women-only status.
Women’s friendly societies carried out community projects, but also had an important insurance function – the society would provide financial assistance to members if they were injured or became sick. This was a drawcard for single working women. The Linda Rebekah Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows was formed in the 1890s in Dunedin, Auckland and Wellington. Most of the members were single women in the paid workforce. By the end of the 1930s there were 84 Rebekah lodges with 5,211 members. Friendly societies faltered with the introduction of social security in the 1930s.
Women’s service organisations modelled on equivalent groups for men were established from the late 1930s. New Zealand Soroptimists, Zonta and Altrusa were all branches of organisations founded overseas, often decades earlier. Soroptimists and Altrusa, like similar men’s service organisations, restricted membership to a certain number of women per occupation. Membership of Zonta was by invitation only. An implicit purpose of these organisations was to provide members with a support group and contacts that could be useful for their work.
Like some men’s service clubs, women’s clubs imposed fines for such misdemeanours as arriving late at a meeting, failing to wear the club badge or having a birthday. In the Altrusa club these were called ‘Alteasers’.
These service organisations experienced a surge of growth in the 1980s as women made headway with careers. However, costs of membership and the expectation of time commitment meant that by the early 1990s some clubs were having difficulty attracting and retaining members. In 2016 there were 20 Soroptimist, 28 Zonta and 21 Altrusa clubs nationwide.
The Business and Professional Women’s Clubs were different in character from Soroptimists, Zonta and Altrusa. They were established by the YWCA in the 1930s to lobby for greater participation by women in employment and public life, equal pay and pay equity. However, these clubs also provided support, encouragement and networking opportunities for members. A New Zealand federation, formed in 1939, became linked to the International Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.
By the 21st century BPW had become a major advocate for women’s work-life balance and workplace equity. It is active in promoting United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles in New Zealand and offers yearly White Camelia Awards to businesses that implement gender equality strategies in their workplaces.
Some groups of women, because of their ethnicity, cultural identity, religion or sexuality, chose to associate with similar women.
Māori women were usually able to join other women’s organisations, and were sometimes actively encouraged to do so. However, various factors, including insidious racism, tribal ties, location, and particular interests and concerns, led them to form their own organisations.
Sometimes these had Pākehā parallels. Māori Women’s Institutes grew out of the Country Women’s Institutes (CWI). Māori women were attracted to the home-centred philosophy of CWI and were keen to learn Pākehā crafts such as knitting and crochet. These institutes fostered Māori membership, included talks on Māori topics, and asked Māori women to share their flax-weaving skills.
In areas where there was no existing CWI branch, Māori women were invited to start their own. The first was established in 1929, and there were 42 by 1950. From then, members began leaving to join branches of the Māori Women’s Welfare League. Like the institutes, the League focused on home and family. However, it was more concerned with social and political issues, often arising from urbanisation of Māori, and in the following years became the major national forum for Māori women of all tribal groups.
At one time, nearly all invitations to New Zealand social functions included the request ‘Ladies, a plate’. Many immigrant women recall the embarrassment of turning up with an empty plate, not understanding that the phrase meant ‘a plate of food to share’. Making this discovery was part of the process of adapting to life in New Zealand, and becoming accepted by other women.
Immigrant women established groups, mainly after the Second World War, to overcome loneliness, maintain language and cultural practices and ties, and support new migrants. Social events, often featuring familiar foods, were important ways of advancing these goals. They were also a means of fundraising for welfare and social projects.
Separate women’s groups tended to be formed in immigrant cultures where there was a pattern of chain migration – when immigrant families assisted their kin to join them in New Zealand. Greek, Yugoslav, Chinese and Indian communities soon had women’s organisations for this reason. In cultures where it was common for the sexes to socialise together, for instance the Dutch and the Welsh, few separate women’s organisations were formed. Some Asian communities had no women’s groups because it was not acceptable for women to take part in activities independently from the family or mix with women to whom they were not related.
Pacific women’s groups are numerous, partly because of the size of the Pacific communities that grew in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and partly because women’s organisations are well-established in the Pacific islands of origin. As well as Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island, Niuean, Tokelauan and Fijian groups, there are pan-Pacific organisations, notably PACIFICA. Groups as diverse as women’s church fellowships, sports teams, craft groups, language nests and associations promoting health and welfare assist with the social and practical needs of their members, giving advice on housing, health, educational and social-welfare concerns.
British, Canadian and European war-brides of New Zealand servicemen who had gone overseas in the two world wars often formed clubs for mutual support and companionship, such as Auckland’s Cosmopolitan Club and Wellington’s Overseas Wives Club, both formed in 1946. Some clubs taught the skills of a New Zealand housewife, such as cooking local dishes and sewing. These groups often faded away as women adjusted to life in New Zealand.
The Tall Women’s Club (motto: ‘Supra cetera – above all others’) flourished briefly in Auckland and Wellington in the 1950s. Members, who were more than 5 feet 8 inches (172 centimetres) tall, met for social events and to lobby manufacturers to produce clothes for very tall women. They also imported from America The tall girls’ handbook, which gave advice on how to dress, plan a career and deal with put-downs.
Until the 1950s lesbians socialised together exclusively in informal friendship circles, rather than organisations. Hostility from others made it easier to meet in private venues where it was possible to relax without fear of abuse. Often lesbians made contact through work and friends of friends, or through other women’s organisations.
By the 1950s, when more lesbians were able to live independent lives with their own income and accommodation, options grew. Lesbians congregated in particular city coffee bars and hotel lounge bars, and the first lesbian social club, the KG Club in Auckland, opened in 1972. Drinking and smoking were important aspects of lesbian social life – these behaviours represented an overt claiming of freedoms that once only men enjoyed.
Lesbian organisations, most with a political agenda, proliferated from the 1970s, and many of these had a social dimension as well. In the 21st century local and national lesbian initiatives were often advertised through websites. High-profile social activities include the annual Auckland lesbian ball, held since 1983.
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Brookes, Barbara, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law, eds. Sites of gender: women, men and modernity in southern Dunedin, 1890–1939. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
Coney, Sandra, ed. Standing in the sunshine: a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland: Viking, 1993.
Daley, Caroline. Girls & women, men & boys: gender in Taradale, 1886–1930. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999.
Else, Anne, ed. Women together: a history of women’s organisations in New Zealand: ngā rōpū wāhine o te motu. Wellington: Historical Branch, Dept of Internal Affairs, and Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1993.
Westaway, Jane, and Tessa Copland, eds. It looks better on you: New Zealand women writers on their friendships. Dunedin: Longacre, 2003.