Blog, Women's History

The New Zealand Experience – Renaming, Rebuilding and Social Development

Margaret Wilson Photo: supplied by Margaret Wilson
Margaret Wilson
Photo: supplied by Margaret Wilson

Part 1

WHN Administrator

In Australia, thoughtful speakers acknowledge the indigenous owners of the land. New Zealand’s then Attorney General, Margaret Wilson, acknowledged the tengata whenau of Nunagwal Land in her speech in Canberra at the National Labor [1]Women’s Conference, ‘Setting The Agenda’. The following is an edited version of that speech. [2]


Margaret Wilson

…As a feminist who was schooled in the debates surrounding socialist feminism, I still believe that economic independence is the precondition to addressing the inequality experienced by women…I do not apologise for reviewing the past at some length because I believe we learn much from our previous experiences…

May I first congratulate the organizers of the conference for celebrating 100years of women’s suffrage and 40 years of Aboriginal women’s suffrage. Too often we dwell on the obstacles that confront us, when we deserve to take time out to celebrate and reflect on our achievements, because often they provide for us the way forward. The organizing theme of the conference “Women Setting the Agenda” sets a positive direction for the future.

…Legislation giving New Zealand women, both European/Pakeha and Maori, suffrage was passed in 1893, making us the first country to give women the right to vote. In 1993 I was one of a group of women who organized a conference: “Putting Women’s Issues back on the Agenda”. My paper reflected on the political agendas of women in the past to enable us to identify women’s persistent and consistent goals, while at the same time recognising different issues have their own moment of prominence, and that attitudes towards some issues had changed over the past 120 years. My comments reflected the experience of Pakeha women only.

From the beginning of colonisation a group of women in New Zealand had worked to advance the interests of women generally. Early feminists’ clear goal was women’s economic, social, and political equality. This general goal was expressed in specific issues such as equal pay and employment opportunity, equal educational opportunity, the same rights and status of men within marriage, freedom from violence, whatever form it may take, the right to express their own sexuality, and the right to make decisions that affected their live, wherever those decisions were made.

Over time those issues were expressed differently as women’s roles slowly changed. For example, the right to vote became the right to stand for Parliament, which has become the right to have women comprising at least 50% of the members…

The right to equal pay became the right to equal employment opportunity, and then became the right to employment equity. With increasing understanding and experience of the nature of the discrimination against women, the issue was reconstructed to address the new insight. Part of each reconstruction was an analysis of the role of the state in the perpetration of discrimination against women. It is impossible to ignore the role of the state, because it has the authority to distribute the resources of the society, and through the legal system has the legitimacy to assign status, rights and obligations amongst the members of the society. Law is used to reflect and create economic, social and political status.

This is why the early feminists, and feminists since then, have had to confront the opposition of the law when attempting to advance women’s interests. The law is the legitimate way in which the state expresses and enforces its power. In order to challenge the way in which the state used or abused its power, it is necessary to confront the legal system, or to try and avoid it. For example, the law had to be changed for women to get the vote. Although this change did not have a direct and immediate effect on women, it provided another path down which to travel. It is interesting to speculate if greater immediate change for women would have come if women had had the right to stand for Parliament when they got the vote. I suspect it would have made a difference to have those early feminists in Parliament. That women had to wait until 1919 to get that right, is illustrative of the fact that women did not control the timing of events, because they did not have political influence, let alone political power. This is why feminists had to be political opportunists and somewhat pragmatic when they entered the world of public policy and politics.

Early New Zealand feminists’ work was followed by a lull in activity until the 1920s and 1930s. This was a period of economic hardship and political instability…Women were involved in a variety of issues such as mothers’ rights to safe childbirth, greater access to birth control and to receive a paid allowance; the right to equal pay and conditions, including the unemployment benefit; reform of the divorce laws; rationalization of housework; and international questions of peace and justice. It was also a time when women became political activists, especially in forming the Labour Party. It was no accident that the first women entered Parliament during this period. Elizabeth McCombs was not only a political wife, she was a political activist in her own right. Much of the first Labour Government’s social security legislation resulted from the work of political women who, over time, had developed the policy and elected the men to implement it.

Unfortunately, women continued to take a secondary role in public policy formation and politics during the 1940s and 1950s. However, an increasing number of women entered paid employment. It is no surprise then that employment issues dominated this period with the focus being equal pay. This campaign eventually produced the Government Service Equal Pay Act in 1960…As Charlotte Macdonald points out in her book The Vote The Pill and the Demon Drink. “In many ways sociological and psychological concepts and ideas held more appeal for people coming to adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s than did political theories or positions.”…

The 1960s set the scene for the arrival of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. Women’s liberation groups formed in 1970 and the first National Women Liberation Conference was held in 1972. A new agenda was in the process of being formed, incorporating old issues, but renaming them. Although issues of equal pay, childcare, the status of women, and girls’ education were on the agenda, so was the status of Maori and Pacific women, abortion, bisexuality, the exploitation of women, and the need for a women’s movement. The National Women’s Liberation Conference was followed in 1973 by the United Women’s Convention which attracted a large number of women from throughout New Zealand/Aotearoa. This convention acted as a catalyst for a number of activities, the fruits of which were seen a decade later. The matters discussed by women at the Convention provided the basis for submissions to the first government driven enquiry into the status and role of women in New Zealand.

This inquiry reported in 1975, International Women’s Year, and its recommendations set the first public policy agenda relating to women. Although not all of the matters in the recommendation were implemented, attempts were made to address many of them. For example, The Human Rights Commission, The Matrimonial Property Act, The Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act, the need for policies relating to sexist language, the gender biased education curricula, the inadequacy of the health services to meet the needs of women , including contraception and abortion, the prioritising of childcare, and the raising of awareness of the few women in public positions were amongst the many matters raised in the Report and subsequently some action was undertaken. Violence was the only issue not raised as a major concern. It was not until the 1980s that women in New Zealand felt confidence, or desperate enough, to name and acknowledge the violence women are subjected to within their relationships.

Also there is little reference to the experience of Maori women. It was the feminist movement in New Zealand that first supported and accepted the challenge from Maori women, that until there was an acknowledgment and acceptance of the Treaty of Waitangi as the foundation constitutional document, Maori women would remain unequal.

The First United Women’s Convention in 1973 set the basis for the formalization of the women’s agenda and highlighted the real differences amongst the participants. The most obvious difference was over abortion. Also, radical and reformist women differed fundamentally on how to address the same issues. Some wanted to root out patriarchy through creating an entirely new system; others saw the need to work within the existing system. Differences between lesbian and heterosexual women emerged not only on matters relating to sexuality, but politically, with separatism as a political strategy associated with lesbian women. Differences between Maori and Pakeha women also emerged from the beginning. The need for Maori women to have separate forums in which to determine their own policies remains today.

All these differences became more apparent throughout the 1970s until the last Convention in 1979 when it became apparent to everyone, that it was no longer possible for women to come together in one forum. During this period Labour women were also organizing within the Labour Party.


Part 2 follows the development of women’s feminist political activity within the New Zealand Labour Party. 


[1] Note that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) omits the ‘u’ included in the title of the British and New Zealand Labour parties. The federal ALP was formed in 1901 when the first federal parliament met, and from1912 has used the title Labor rather than Labour (WHN Administrator).

[2] Margaret Wilson, ‘The New Zealand Experience – Renaming, Rebuilding and Social Development’, April, 2002.


April in Canberra, site of the National Labor Women’s Conference, 2002.
Photos: Robin Joyce

trees and clouds



April in Canberra Photo: supplied by Robin joyce




Professor Margaret Wilson, DCNZM,  was Attorney General in the Helen Clarke Labour Government when she gave this speech. She was the founding Dean of Waikato Law School from 1990 to 1994 and remained on the teaching staff until 1999, returning to Te Piringa – Faculty of Law in 2009 as a Professor of Law and Public Policy. Professor Wilson has worked in private practice and has had an extensive career in public service including roles as founding member and Vice President of Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association and Member of the Advisory Committee to establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs. From 1985 to 1989 she was Director of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, from 1988 to 1989 as New Zealand Law Commissioner and in 1988 was Convenor of a Government Working Party on Equal Pay and Equal Opportunities. From 1999 to 2005 she was Minister of the Crown with positions including Attorney-General, Minister of Labour, Minister Responsible for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations, Minister of Commerce, Minister for Courts and Associate Minister of Justice. In 1999 she was elected a List Member of Parliament and 2005 to 2008 she was Speaker of Parliament. Professor Wilson was awarded the first Visiting Professorship to the UK, taking up the position in October 2010.



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