Three years after the vote was won in 1893, a convention of representatives of 11 women’s groups from throughout New Zealand resolved itself into the National Council of Women (NCW). Its aim was to ‘unite all organised Societies of Women for mutual counsel and co-operation, and in the attainment of justice and freedom for women, and for all that makes for the good of humanity’. More than a century later, the NCW still works in the interests of women, but it is a very different organisation from that established in the 1890s.
When the leaders of New Zealand’s women’s movement gathered in Christchurch on 13 April 1896 it was a world first – a national meeting of women who could vote in parliamentary elections.
Leaders of the women’s suffrage campaign who attended the first meeting of the NCW in 1896 included:
They had exercised that right in the 1893 general election; now it was time to consider ways to bring about further equality between women and men.
These women – we now call them ‘first-wave feminists’ to distinguish them from the 20th-century women’s movement – demanded equal rights for women and the moral reform of society. They believed that women had an innate morality and that their ‘maternal instincts’ could overhaul politics and bring about a better world.
Resolutions passed at the first meetings of the NCW reflected these beliefs. The council demanded legal equality for men and women in areas such as marriage and employment. It called for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, which enabled police to require the medical inspection of women suspected of being ‘common prostitutes’ in case they had venereal disease, but took no action against men. It urged that women be eligible for election to Parliament, appointment to the police and service on juries. It wanted the age of consent to sexual intercourse raised from 14 to 21, the teaching of ‘scientific temperance’ in schools, the establishment of homes for alcoholics and more rigorous enforcement of the liquor laws.
The NCW called for free and longer education for children and better care and training of those who were orphaned or neglected; it advocated universal old age pensions, prison reform and the abolition of capital punishment.
Amey Daldy, a delegate at the 1896 convention, summed it up when she demanded:
That all disabilities be removed which at present hinder women from sitting as members of either House of the Legislature, or from being elected or appointed to any public office or position in the colony which men may hold, and with regard to all powers, rights, duties and privileges of citizens, to declare absolute equality to be the law of the land for both men and women.
Some of the NCW’s aims took many years to be realised: women could not stand for Parliament until 1919, the Contagious Diseases Act was not repealed until 1910, and equal pay was enshrined in law in 1972. The early NCW had several wins, though, and believed its campaigns influenced government policy: the Criminal Code Amendment Act 1896 raised the age of consent from 14 to 16, the Female Law Practitioners Act 1896 enabled women to become lawyers, and the Divorce Act 1898 made conditions of divorce equal for men and women. Importantly, the NCW provided women with strong networks and opportunities for public speaking and political action that they may not otherwise have had.
By 1900, though, there were splits in the ranks. The NCW’s support for New Zealand’s involvement in the South African War (1899–1902) upset members with pacifist views; others disagreed with goals such as women becoming Members of Parliament; some more radical members upset others with calls for the economic independence of married women; younger women thought some of the leaders were too old and politically naïve.
As the country became more prosperous, grounding demands for change in the innate morality of women seemed silly or radical; the council’s members came to be seen as cranks or eccentrics. Most women, including some in the NCW, appeared satisfied with the progress that had been made; the goals of the women’s movement had, it seemed, nearly all been achieved. The changing climate took its toll; the NCW went into recess in 1906.
Women prominent in the early days of the NCW were also influential in its revival after the First World War. At the urging of women such as Kate Sheppard, Jessie Mackay and Christina Henderson, representatives from various groups met in April 1918. The first full conference of the new NCW occurred in the following year.
Why did the council regroup? The First World War contributed. Women were concerned at the apparent moral decline of the country’s youth; action was needed to counter this. Levels of venereal disease were rising, and although the Contagious Diseases Act had been repealed, women worried about what measures could be taken to halt the spread of sexually-transmitted disease. On a more positive note, the enormous amount of patriotic work done by women during the war had given them important administrative and organisational skills which some wanted to continue to utilise.
Post-war New Zealand was a very different place from that of 1896. Expanding towns had created new opportunities for women, particularly younger women. Although ideals of family life remained central, there was greater choice in education and employment. Women had become politically active in new ways. In 1913 lawyer Ellen Melville won an important victory for women by becoming Auckland City’s first female councillor, a position she would hold for 33 years.
The leaders of the suffrage campaign contributed to the revived NCW, but this was the end of one era and the beginning of another. Kate Sheppard, elected president of the NCW in 1918, resigned the following year; her place was taken by Ellen Melville. The council had moved beyond suffrage.