In for the long haul, Charlotte Macdonald

The National Council of Women — A centennial history
Dorothy Page
Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books with the National Council of Women, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 154 9

The Women’s Parliament: The National Council of Women of New Zealand 1896-1920
Roberta Nicholls
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86473 299 6

Never one for sentiment, Margaret Sievwright remarked to the 1901 National Council of Women conference that lately deceased Queen Victoria had been “essentially a commonplace woman, educated by the circumstances of her life. A great woman might conceivably be a great Queen but the reign of Victoria is evidence enough that the average woman has political aptitudes”. The nature of those political aptitudes, as put to work in the largest and one of the most enduring women’s organisations in New Zealand is the subject of these two books.

Established in 1896 as a federation of organisations devoted to advancing women’s political aspirations in the post-franchise era, the NCW was in its early years the forum for some of Australasia’s most radical political and social debate. Internationally, the NCW was looked to as a model of the kind of political body possible once women were enfranchised. When it affiliated to the International Council of Women in 1899 it was their jewel — the one member-state in which women had won the prize of the vote.

The more recent history of the NCW would not readily bring to mind such a radical political profile. Even by the 1920s women here were lagging behind their British sisters in getting women into political office and in apparently innocuous equal rights of citizenship such as jury service. One of the intrigues of these histories lies in their attempts to explain how an organisation, the origins of which lie in the heady campaigns for women’s suffrage and radical debate, came to be characterised (fairly or otherwise) by social conservatism and political caution.

In our political history few organisations rival the NCW as a lobby. In recent years it has claimed to represent 250,000 women, presented an average of around 100 submissions annually and have a history of advocacy on behalf of women extending over a century with only a short break between 1906-18. In its early incarnation the NCW was known to contemporaries as “the women’s parliament”. Having the right to vote but not to stand as candidates in general elections between 1893 and 1919, women were only partially enfranchised. NCW was a forum for elected delegates to debate issues of the day and pass resolutions in the absence of a fully representative parliament. Its early years were contemporaneous with Te Kotahitanga, the Maori Parliament (1892-1902). Maori can also be seen as only partially enfranchised at this time. Adult Maori had a vote in general elections but were represented in only four seats in the House of Representatives.

Since 1919, when women won the right to stand as candidates, the NCW has served as an encompassing mantle through which organisationally active women could articulate their political aspirations and positions. As the largest and longest-serving organisation claiming to voice the interests of a very large portion of the population, the NCW’s history provides a case study of both the power and frustrations of sectional representation. Like its Maori counterparts, the NCW has struggled to perform a task of broad representation for a section of the population greatly under-represented in formal offices and institutions of power. In recent decades the NCW and established national Maori groups have been superseded as the primary voice of the political ambitions of those sectional groups.


Three questions have dominated historical enquiries of women’s political aspirations in the post-suffrage era. What were women able to achieve once enfranchised and how much of the Liberal reform programme — the much vaunted “social laboratory” — can be attributed to the impact of the women’s vote? Why did the NCW, which began as such a radical forum, apparently fade from its initial blaze of activity so quickly and completely? How did the character of the suffrage campaign determine the use made of the vote after 1893? Or, put another way: if women had had to fight for the vote for longer and more militantly, would they have used their vote more radically and with more potency than appears to have been the case?

Nicholls’ history suggests an affirmative answer to the third question, is generally positive about the achievements of the NCW in influencing the legislative programme of the Liberals, especially up to 1900, and confirms what can be thought of as an older interpretation of the decline of the women’s movement in the early years of the twentieth century: the feminist flame faded as the campaign leaders grew ill, died and lost popular support by being too radical and failing to recruit a wide base of support.

Page’s account, in which the early years of the NCW constitutes only the first chapters in a more comprehensive history, offers a different set of answers. She is a little less optimistic about the degree to which the NCW’s deliberations were taken up by the Seddon government and is more alive to the Liberal administration’s smug condescension once assured that the women’s vote was unlikely to threaten its political ascendancy.

Page’s explanation of the demise of the NCW rehearses some of the same reasons as Nicholls but also sees greater continuities in the years leading up to World War I. Rather than lapsing into inactivity, women sustained a raft of campaigns: temperance, attacks on the double standard of morality, greater legal protection for women and children. There was a diffusion of political energy rather than a simple demise. In groups such as the newly formed Housewives Union (1912) Page sees a flickering of new political activism which was eclipsed by the demands of patriotic work once war broke out in 1914.

Because Page’s history continues beyond 1918 she  is able to explore questions posed by the ebb and flow of “women’s issue” politics. She goes well beyond the formulaic “wave” accounts of feminist activism (first 1890s, second 1970s, with a trough in between). In her discussion the NCW which flourished in the immediate postwar period was not simply a conservative shadow of its former self but an organisation different in structure and operating in a markedly changed social and political environment. Instead of affiliating directly to the national body, organisations affiliated to branches. The multi-tiered system of representation — from organisations through to branches then through to the national level — brought greater democracy but was more cumbersome. The new leaders were more likely to be in the model of Auckland lawyer and city councillor Ellen Melville. In this way the transition has parallels with the fading of the tribally-led Kotahitanga and the rise of the Young Maori Party, led by an educated elite.

NCW conferences in the 1920s and 30s were brief and prosaic rather than lengthy and eloquent. Questions addressed were more often about specific issues — film censorship, maternal mortality, St Helens hospitals, independent nationality for married women — and how to best deal with these rather than about major issues of principle. Most important, the NCW in the interwar years was an organisation operating in a very different political context. Politically active women on the left were more likely to be members of the Labour party (from 1916) or members of organisations affiliated to the Labour party which later went on to form women’s branches in the 1920s. While strictly non-sectarian and non-party political, the NCW was more likely to attract a conservatively inclined membership through the middle decades of the century.

During the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s the NCW provided organisationally active women with an elaborate forum in which to work, to enjoy the status and exercise the responsibility of office — activities that could be demanding and time-consuming. This was the heyday of memberships of groups such as the Country Women’s Institute, the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, the League of Mothers and a plethora of church and welfare organisations. Voluntary office-holding and local fund-raising were very much at the centre of life. But as a platform for articulating contemporary views it was increasingly falling behind the directions in which younger women’s lives were heading. Only in the early 1960s could the organisation resolve to endorse the use of birth control within marriage — 30 years after the Sex Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society first made the case and 10 years after the first family planning clinic opened (itself very late by international standards). There was a sense that the organisation’s direction had faltered and rejuvenation was needed. In Page’s history the key modernising figure is Mavis Tiller.

Taking up the presidency in 1966, Tiller told conference delegates the council had been through three major stages in its history. The first, from 1896-1906, had been dedicated to “women’s rights”. In the decades following the revival of 1918 it had been an organisation focused on social welfare. In the present and for the future it was an organisation primarily concerned with “community involvement”. What Tiller meant by community involvement bore no relation to the current Prime Minister’s social vision invoking “community”. In the mid-1960s, when consensus rather than conflict characterised institutional politics and when the NCW’s general membership was heavily slanted toward the socially conservative, “community involvement” was a call to turn the organisation’s attention back to political work.

The parliamentary watch committee became the driving force within the NCW’s work as a national body. The extent to which women’s voices were absent from public life at this time is easy to underestimate. Page reminds us that when Tiller was appointed to the Royal Commission on Social Security in 1969 she was not just the sole woman on the commission but the first woman to sit on a royal commission for 30 years. In 1971 Miriam Dell served as the only woman on the Equal Pay Commission.


What emerge clearly from Page’s history are the risks of sectional politics.

The organisation acted as an important lobby in the campaign for equal pay in the 1950s and again in the 1960s. On issues such as this when party political interests were divided (and not largely motivated to begin with) the weight of numbers behind NCW actions could be important.

But an organisation that encompassed groups “from Altrusa to Zonta, from the Abortion Law Reform Association to the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child” had considerable difficulty finding common ground. By the 1970s the defining issues of liberation feminism were abortion and contraception, subjects which deeply divided the socially liberal and religiously conservative wings within NCW. Unable to come to a resolution, the NCW was literally shut out of the 1979 Hamilton United Women’s Convention (the closest to a women’s parliament in the modern feminist movement). While strength of numbers gave NCW a strong claim to represent women’s views, its ability to represent ever larger numbers has been in almost directly inverse proportion to the dynamism and clarity of that representation.

Judgments should not be made too quickly. Page’s careful discussion reveals all manner of complexities. Neither in the 1970s and 1980s nor in the 1890s and early 1900s were there simple divisions between “radicals” and “moderates”. At the very peak of the abortion debate Baptist Vivienne Boyd occupied the presidency from 1978 to 1982 and chaired the Abortion Supervisory Committee, while Laurie Salas, a national secretary, gained national profile in the anti-nuclear movement. Current discussion of superannuation options for women has brought Angela Foulkes and Jenny Shipley together on the same speaking platform — frequently at meetings sponsored by the NCW.

The history is a reminder that some campaigns are very long-term. Again there is a parellel with Te Kotahitanga. The central issue for the Maori Parliament in the 1890s was recognition of the treaty — as it is for the Maori Congress in the 1990s. In the 1890s as in the 1980s and 1990s NCW has debated equal pay, educational reform, peace, equal property rights for husbands and wives and measures to combat violence against women (in the nineteenth century it was known as “protection”). Social justice is a long-term project which takes the hard graft of committee work and the glacial shove of broad, moderate alliances as well as the sensational attacks of more short-lived political assaults. As the published face of liberation feminism Broadsheet magazine goes out of existence in 1997 it is useful to reflect on the value of women’s enduring political institutions.

Both histories were assisted with grants from the Suffrage Centennial Trust which can be proud of two contrasting and finely produced books. Nicholls’ is told more through the personalities of the early years. Anna Stout emerges as a major figure, clearly Nicholls’ favourite subject. With ear trumpet aloft, she championed a Wellington secessionist movement against the powerful Christchurch enclave — dramatic, but her prominence here is somewhat surprising, given Stout’s spiky and largely arm’s-length relationship with the early NCW.

Dorothy Page’s history is larger in scope and more probing in argument. The NCW and its causes are more clearly embedded in the social and political context of New Zealand and the international circle of women’s organisations. It is a central work for any study of women’s history or politics. The rich materials provided in the text and in the loaded appendices provide numerous launching points for studies of political structures and processes of social change.


Charlotte Macdonald is a Wellington historian whose latest work, with Frances Porter, is ‘My hand will write what my heart dictates’: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. 

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
Search the archive
Search by category