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The Women of New Zealand

6 — Women in Association

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Women in Association

For Some Time the women of New Zealand were too much scattered, possibly they were too busy with the first stages of home-making and management and with the rearing and, under great disadvantages, the education of their children, to look very far beyond their own doors. The problems which they had to face were mainly domestic. All too soon, however, occasion arose; and in 1863 what appears to have been the first association of women in New Zealand was formed, in Onehunga, to assist the many families of refugees who were forced to leave their homes in the districts mainly affected by the Maori wars and to seek the shelter and protection of the township. The Onehunga Ladies Benevolent Society was founded at a public meeting convened by Mrs E. George, one of the pioneer women of Auckland, whose energy and enterprise were reflected not only in her successful business activities in Onehunga, but in the force and effectiveness of her appeal on behalf of these homeless and largely page 167destitute people. Her presentation of their case won the support of all the ministers of religion in the district, and the women of their congregations threw themselves whole-heartedly into the work. In its earlier years the Society was often in difficulty— the claims upon it were so many and so great. But the work its members did aroused so much sympathy that the Society, which still exists and functions with, of course, a wider object, has for many years been in a sound financial position, with an annual revenue sufficient to meet all the demands of its work.

It is probable that similar associations, with similarly charitable ends, were formed in other parts of New Zealand before very long. In spite of our largely justified boast that we have in this country no extremes of wealth and poverty, there have been times in our history when too many people have suffered long periods of distress. Much of the resulting charitable work has been undertaken by the churches, and a great part of it has been actually carried out by the women.

Work of a different kind, and of particular interest to women since it is not only carried out by, but especially directed towards, the women and girls of New Zealand, was started as early as 1878 when the Young Women's Christian Association was founded in Dunedin, the first organisation of this now very large international body to be formed in the southern hemisphere. Within its first year, which closed with a page 168membership of 230, the Dunedin Y.W.C.A. was affiliated with the London Association. The formation of other associations followed, in Auckland in 1886, in Christchurch, after one or two more or less abortive efforts from 1883 onwards, in 1901, and in Wellington in 1906. The following year these associations united with the associations in Australia to form a combined National Movement of the Y.W.C.A. of Australia and New Zealand, an arrangement which lasted until 1926. During this period the work in both countries developed very greatly, and greatly increased its scope. In 1919 a New Zealand Dominion Committee was established, under the National Board of Australia and New Zealand, to enable the associations in this country to function more efficiently, and to permit of a greater concentration on their own local problems. As a result of the larger measure of freedom and the greater elasticity thus secured, Y.W.C.A. work in New Zealand spread to several of the smaller towns; and at a Convention held in Otago in 1926 representatives of nine associations met and constituted themselves the Y.W.C.A. of New Zealand, as a National Movement separate from that of Australia, applying for and receiving direct affiliation with the international body, the World's Committee. Not the least valuable aspect of the Association's work has been its constant emphasis on internationalism. The geographical isolation of New Zealand has made page 169direct contact with the associations in other countries difficult and rare; but no opportunity has been missed, and the girls and women who come within the influence of the Y.W.C.A. of the Dominion are never allowed to forget their sisterhood with the girls and women of all other nations and races. Several Secretaries are maintained in India, China, Burma and Malaya; and one of the immediate hopes and purposes of the Association is to bring Maori women and girls more directly within the orbit of its work.

The work was started with a definitely religious bias, and this it has of course always retained. The Association is, however, not only international but interdenominational. It is religious in no narrow sense. Its methods have changed with the changing years, and it rejects no form of activity which may bring to its members a full participation in life, offering them through its numerous clubs every opportunity by means of regular lectures and discussions of increasing their knowledge and their capacity for clear and honest thinking; while every kind of sport, many crafts, and various forms of social intercourse, find their proper place in its programme.

Another body to which the women of New Zealand owe much is the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which was founded in May 1885 and spread rapidly throughout the country. Its page 170formation was the result of a visit from a member of the original organisation in the United States of America. So ready was the response to her representations as to the work that women could perform in the community, that by the end of the year nine branches of the W.C.T.U. had been formed in New Zealand; and at the first annual meeting of the national body, in 1886, fifteen were reported, with a total membership of 528 women. The movement now (1939) consists of one hundred and fifty-nine branches, and its members number 5,417.

Instituted originally with the main object of working for the abolition of the liquor traffic, the W.C.T.U. from its inception has interested itself in every kind of social reform. It did not neglect relief and educational work; but it quickly recognised that until women should be enfranchised their power to influence legislation would be extremely limited, and this most speedy method of effecting the many reforms they desired, denied them. In the first years of its existence therefore the W.C.T.U.'s most important work may be said to have been its campaign for the Women's franchise. The story of this campaign is told in some detail in the Outlines of the Women's Franchise Movement by Mr W. S. Lovell-Smith, and cannot be retold here. It lasted for seven years, and was carried on under the extremely clear-sighted, patient and determined leadership of Mrs K. W. Sheppard, the 'Superintendent' page 171of the Union's franchise department. Actually the question of the enfranchisement of women in New Zealand had been raised many years before by Mrs Mueller, of Nelson, whose pamphlet, An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand, published in 1869, was the culmination of a series of letters and articles printed in the Nelson Examiner. But although Mrs Mueller's work won the approval of John Stuart Mill in England, and of others, men of some influence, in the colony, there was at that stage of New Zealand's settlement very little if any chance of forming any combination of women; and it was this combination which was the effective factor, since it answered the final argument of opponents of the movement, in at last carrying the day against all opposition.

This, involving so much else, is perhaps the most important work done for New Zealand women by the W.C.T.U. But the Union did not rest content with this great triumph. It regarded it indeed as only the first, essential step in its career; and a great deal of the work that lies behind the social legislation of the years since the granting of the franchise in 1893 has been initiated by the W.C.T.U. It was instrumental in securing many years ago the passing of the Infant Life Protection Act, and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts; and it did not cease to work for the raising of the age of consent, the raising of the marriage age, the appointment of women Justices page 172of the Peace, the admission of women to Parliament, universal pensions, invalid pensions, the equal rights for mothers of the guardianship of children, and the appointment of women police, until these measures were, some of them only very recently, embodied in New Zealand legislation. Itself an international organisation, one of the main planks in its platform has always from the very beginning of its existence been the settlement of international disputes by arbitration. If it has not yet succeeded in achieving this one of its objects it is not because it has lost either faith or hope; its work for it still continues.

The campaign for the franchise initiated by the W.C.T.U. gave rise to several other associations of women throughout New Zealand; and Franchise Leagues were formed in all the main centres. The members of these leagues did excellent work, both in educating women to a sense of their responsibilities, and in obtaining signatures to petitions designed to secure for them their rights. They had to fight against ignorance and indifference among members of their own sex; and although they received the support of more liberal-minded men both within and without the House, they were subjected to the most stupid ridicule by some who ought to have known better. The writer of the column entitled Search Lights in the Christchurch Press of that time for instance was allowed to make fun of them in a way that now, less than fifty years later, appears page 173simply the grossest vulgarity. If it illuminated anything at the time, it can have been only the absurd weakness of the opposition cause; to read it now, recognising the utter impossibility of any respectable paper's printing such stuff in our own day, throws a clear light on the extent to which, in spite of doubts that may arise, woman's position in the community has been strengthened.

Although the end for which the Franchise Leagues had been formed was achieved before the election of 1893, there was still plenty of work for them to do; and during the next few years their number was largely increased. In the New Zealand Liberal and Labour Associations' Directory of 1897 a list of Women's Associations is given which shows them to have been in that year at least fourteen. Some of these were apparently not very long-lived. After the first excitement of effort and achievement, enthusiasm inevitably lapsed to a certain extent. Moreover the immediate necessity was no longer so obvious. Some of these associations, however, were continued for a matter of ten years or more; others, as divergences of political opinion made themselves evident (the question of the franchise was never a party one), split up and gave birth to new associations; yet others have remained, though sometimes with a change of name, active to this day.

Much of the work performed by these various leagues and unions was educational. The Women's page 174Social and Political League of Wellington may be considered as typical. It was apparently founded in the year following the granting of the franchise; and its object was declared to be 'the promotion of knowledge amongst the women of the Colony with respect to social, political, municipal, and other questions affecting their well-being.' With this general end in view, more particular objectives were contained in its published 'platform.' These included the amendment of the laws affecting marriage, divorce, and the custody of children, to give women absolute equality with men in the control of such matters; the more equitable adjustment of women's wages and their hours of labour; the appointment of women as Inspectors of Asylums and of Industrial Schools, as managers of Labour Offices, and as members of Municipal Councils, Hospital and Charitable Aid Boards, Education Boards, School Committees, Licensing Committees, and other local bodies; and the submission to the electors of 'all great political and social questions admitting of a simple clear expression of opinion,' the decision of the majority to be final for a period of not less than three years. Finally it was resolved 'That in all political and municipal contests the support of the League shall only be given to men and women of pronounced progressive opinions, of integrity of character, and who are prepared to subscribe to the Platform of the League.'

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The keen interest of its members is proved by the fact that in the first year of the League's existence no fewer than fifty-one meetings were held, and none ever lapsed for want of a quorum. At these meetings papers were read and their subject-matter discussed; and such varied questions received attention as Socialism, Anarchism, Party Government, Rates and Taxes, Old Age Pensions, Protection and Free Trade, Domestic Servants and a State Labour Bureau, Land Tax, the Nationalisation of Music, Charitable Institutions, and Cremation. Several of the meetings were open ones, to which men were admitted. Resolutions were passed and forwarded to the Government; and as there was much correspondence between the League and similar associations in other towns, it is probable that there was an understanding among them as to which should be the measures most immediately urged. From what it has been possible to learn of these kindred leagues, it is evident that they were working for the same general ends and for many of the same particular objects. It seems reasonably certain that the unanimity they displayed, and the persistence with which they showered their resolutions upon the Government, had their effect upon the statute book. Before the end of the Wellington League's first year it had the encouragement and satisfaction of seeing the establishment, in direct response to its representations, of a Government Labour Bureau for Women.

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If in other matters it was less immediately successful, and some of its early objectives (notably the formation of a domestic servants' union, and the general use of the referendum) have not yet been reached, it will nevertheless be seen that its hopes, and the hopes of its sister associations, have in the main been realised, and that by far the larger number of the injustices it set itself to remedy have long since vanished. It is true that prejudices still exist which handicap women when they set out to claim the measure of equality won for them by the inflexible striving of these early associations. But that is largely the fault of women themselves, who in New Zealand, from whatever causes, have not been quick nor urgent enough to take advantage of the position secured.

The leagues of women in different parts of New Zealand began before long to feel a need for a closer association with one another. In 1896 representatives of eleven of these leagues met in conference in Christchurch; and at that meeting the National Council of Women of New Zealand was constituted. Its main objects were two, the first, of very wide and general application, the second, with a more particular reference. They were: (i) to unite all organised societies of women for mutual counsel and co-operation, and for the attainment of justice and freedom for women and all that makes for the good of humanity; and (ii) to encourage the formation of societies of women engaged in trades and page 177professions and in social and political work, in connection with which no organised union then existed. There was to be no interference with the work of local organisations; but it was felt that a federal society could better give expression to those wishes of the affiliated associations which concerned not local affairs but the position of the women of the colony as a whole. In 1899 the National Council was seeking an even wider association and became itself affiliated with the International Council of Women.

Conferences were held annually at one or other of the four main cities. The matters dealt with were of course those for which the constituent associations were working. They were predominantly political, but there was a ban on questions peculiar to one or other of the political parties. There can be little doubt that the Council was effective in giving expression to the women's point of view, and that it must have made itself felt in a measure that would have been impossible to the unfederated societies. When in 1902 it ceased to function, together with many of the affiliated associations which had given it birth, it was not only because of the admitted waning of political enthusiasm among the women, but also because, under the liberal administration of the Seddon government, so many of their objects had been achieved. The Council remained in abeyance until 1918. Then, perhaps owing to the further extension of the sphere of women's activities which came page 178about during the war, it was resuscitated; and having the same primary aims as the earlier Council, that is, 'to unite all organised Societies of Women for mutual counsel and co-operation, the attainment of justice and freedom for women, and all that makes for the good of humanity,' with the further object of forming 'a link with the National Councils of Women in other countries through the International Council of Women,' it has now fourteen branches in New Zealand, representing 237 societies and a membership of 145,000 women.

One of the main objects of the older National Council was, as has been said, to encourage the formation of societies of women engaged in trades and professions—of trades unions for women. Actually the only separate and specifically women's trade union in New Zealand had been formed some years before the Council or any of its constituent associations came into existence. This is the Tailoresses' Union, to which reference has already been made. It was founded in Dunedin in 1889; and the improvement in the working conditions of its members which it was able immediately to make brought home to women the value of such associations of workers. Not only this, but the scandalous revelations which led to its formation drew attention to the position of women workers generally. Unions in this particular trade were formed in all the main centres, and in July 1891 they were federated under page 179the name of the New Zealand Federated Tailoresses' Unions. There was still much work to be done before decent conditions were obtained. The fortunes of the later formed Tailoresses' Unions varied in the different centres; the fight was hardest in Auckland. But the original Union of Dunedin was most generous in its help, and at last the uphill battle was won.

Attention having been drawn to the way in which the tailoresses had been sweated, enquiries began to be made into the conditions of work in other trades in which women were employed. Gradually as the years went on, although no other separate women's unions were formed, women workers were brought within the awards governing their trades; and the Factory Acts contain clauses specially directed to their protection. The domestic servant in private employment alone remains, poor Cinderella, outside the law. That other law, of supply and demand, has no doubt worked greatly in her favour; but it is always liable to be fickle in its operation; it cannot offer the security that should be hers.

Regard being had to the fact that so many of these major improvements in the position of New Zealand women were made during the tenure of office of the liberal Seddon government, the question may be asked whether after all the women themselves, and their associations had much to do with the matter. The answer was supplied by Seddon himself a few page 180years before his death. 'In the legislation of which we boast,' he said, 'in the great social advancement we have made … I say that the women are behind it all; and I say more: that in respect of progressive measures, in respect of that which is for the good of the lives of others, women are keener and more determined than the lords of creation.'

Among the earlier, but non-political, associations of women in New Zealand were the Girls' Friendly Society and the Mothers' Union. The G.F.S. is a Church of England society, a branch of which was formed in New Zealand in the eighties, less than ten years after the foundation of the parent body in England. It was for many years of great service to young women immigrants; but was later overshadowed by the rapid spread of the Y.W.C.A., whose aims are similar, but whose doors are open to a much wider membership. The G.F.S., however, continued to exist and function for the benefit of its members; and it has in the last few years steadily regained strength, having branches in every diocese throughout the country. The attainment of its ideal of imperial and international fellowship is at present hampered by lack of a central Dominion organisation, a lack which the officers of the society hope shortly to be able to supply. The Mothers' Union is another association of women functioning within the Church of England. It too has existed in New Zealand since the eighties, has many branches and a page 181large membership in every diocese, and is directly of English derivation. The educational value of both the G.F.S. and the Mothers' Union is considerable; and both, with their high ideals of personal responsibility and of fellowship, may exercise an influence beyond their own closes. These are probably the most widely known of church associations of women; others exist, of course, and not only in the Church of England, which must be passed over with this sole brief reference.

The organisations of women in New Zealand having a later origin are so numerous that only a few can be considered, and those but shortly. Of these one of the largest consists of the Women's Institutes Movement which, founded only twenty-one years ago, now has close on nine hundred branches, representing a membership of 40,000 women. The Institute movement is unique in that it is solely, and strictly, for country women, the formation of an Institute being permitted, by the rules of the organisation, only in a place with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants. Its purpose is fundamentally educational, its general aim being 'to improve and develop conditions of rural life.' Wherever possible instruction is given to its members in domestic science, hygiene, social welfare, handicrafts, and domestic and rural economics. Work in drama, literature, and music is encouraged. The movement is strictly non-party and non-political and topics of a page 182controversial nature, likely to cause friction and division among members, are debarred. But it aims through its training to enable countrywomen to be intelligently interested in all questions, and to take their part outside the Institute in the discussion and solution of problems necessarily controversial.

The Women's Institute Movement had its origin in Canada. It has spread rapidly wherever it has been introduced, and its membership in New Zealand shows that this country has been no exception. It is obviously filling a need in the lives of country women; and it is claimed for it that already the standard of culture among them has by its agency been raised. In the more isolated and more scattered districts its influence must of necessity be slower in operation; and everywhere much depends on the members themselves. The question of how far its admirable aims are yet being achieved may perhaps best be left to the consciences of the individual Institutes.

With a similar educational object, a counterpart to the Women's Institutes exists in the Dominion Federation of Townswomen's Guilds. This is an association of very recent origin, the first Guild having been formed only in 1932; but the Federation now has at least fifteen constituent Guilds, and the total membership is calculated at something over 2,000 women. The object of these associations is to do for women in the towns what page 183the Institutes would do for country women—they are, that is, a part of the general movement towards adult education.

In some ways allied to the Institute movement is the Women's Division of the Farmers' Union. It was born less than fifteen years ago in 1925 at a meeting attended by twenty-two women, wives and daughters of farmers in conference. In 1937 its recorded membership was over 17,000, with 500 branches and 28 Provincial Executives. Its original aim was to mitigate as far as possible the isolation in which many farm women were still obliged to live, and to afford them some assistance in times of sickness and trouble. Its Housekeeper Scheme, by which a farmer's wife may, when she requires it, secure the help for a week or more of a reliable woman, was one of its early and most interesting attempts to lighten the load of the country woman; and the Division is apparently able in this way to keep some fifty or sixty women in continuous employment. Sewing women too are available through the Provincial Executives; and in some districts tutors in dressmaking hold well-attended classes. A book club was also one of the first schemes to be put into operation, and performed a genuine service to the farm women; and social functions are held, and friendships made and cultivated. During the last few years the W.D.F.U. has widened the scope of its interests, and at its annual conferences page 184remits have been introduced dealing with social and political questions affecting the country as a whole, so that the Division has begun to take over some of the functions of the earlier women's associations that have been mentioned. Resolutions regarding matters of such national moment as immigration, education, birth control, have been moved and vigorously debated, and in some instances the Government has been approached. This extension of the original purpose of the Division has been by some members resented and opposed; but it is an encouraging reversal of the usual process—women's associations in New Zealand tend to start with high aims and degenerate into tea-parties.

These are all large organisations. Perhaps the largest of all, however, is the Pan-Pacific Women's Association, of which there is a New Zealand National Committee, made up of representatives often associations of women, including the Women's Institutes and Townswomen's Guilds, the W.D.F.U., the W.C.T.U., and the Y.W.C.A., themselves all large bodies. The Pan-Pacific Women's Association had its origin in a suggestion made in 1924 by a New Zealander, though not a New Zealand woman, and held its first conference in Hawaii in 1928. Further conferences have followed in 1930, 1934 and 1937, and the fifth was to have been held in New Zealand in 1940. The stated objects of the Association are '(a) To strengthen the bonds of peace among Pacific page 185people by promoting a better understanding and friendship among the women of all Pacific countries; (b) To initiate and promote co-operation among the women of the Pacific region for the study and betterment of existing social conditions.' New Zealand's geographical position has its disadvantages as well as its advantages. Participation in conferences such as these, even if the vast majority of individual members must participate at second hand, should help to correct the parochial attitude of which New Zealanders, men and women, have been accused since the sixties. The number of women in the delegation which New Zealand is able to send to any conference overseas is not large; but the organisation of the Association is very thorough and farreaching; at the close of each conference a tentative programme for the next is drawn up, and the 'corporate' and 'associate' members of the National Committee in any country have ample opportunity to study the questions proposed. Among the topics discussed at the last Conference, held in Vancouver in 1937, were the traffic in arms; population pressures; the technique of developing public opinion; youth movements for peace; the traffic in women and children; socialized health; the adjustment of educational programmes to changing social and economic relationships; and labour standards and standards of living. The exchange of experience and views on such subjects should be of the greatest page 186possible value to all taking part. Many women's associations in New Zealand are international organisations: membership of the Pan-Pacific Women's Association enables them to recognise their internationalism, and the internationalism of their major interests, in a way that was not before possible.

Obviously there is no lack of women's organisations in New Zealand; obviously too there are many that do excellent work. It has not been possible in this brief survey to deal with more than a small part of the total number, nor to deal adequately with any. Those have been mentioned which seem to have their ramifications most widely set; but many others, such as the New Zealand Federation of University Women, and the New Zealand Women Teachers' Association, do work for women beyond the bounds that might appear to be implicit in their tides. Much has admittedly been achieved; but Seddon's words spoken in 1903 constitute not only a tribute to the New Zealand women of his own time: they are also a challenge to the New Zealand women of to-day.

'Honours thrive
When rather from our acts we them derive
Than our foregoers.'