The National Council of Women

The National Council of Women, formed in 1896 and striving for gender equality ever since

The National Council of Women, formed in 1896 and striving for gender equality ever since

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1896 – 1906:

The National Council of Women New Zealand (most commonly know as the NCW) was formed on  13 April 1896, as a result of the International Council of Women’s (ICW) proposal for the establishment of a New Zealand branch of the organisation. The council’s first meeting took place in Ōtautahi (Christchurch) and was organised by founding members Kate Sheppard, Marion Hatton and Ada Wells. It gathered around 25 representatives from 11 women’s groups[1] across New Zealand and soon elected Sheppard as its president.

The minutes from the first NCW meeting outline its  mission: ‘[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.[2] This mission would set the basis for what the NCW would do for the next  10 years.

The NCW quickly became an active part of New Zealand society, conducting campaigns it thought would introduce a more moral way of life. Some of  its first initiatives focused on:

  • increasing the legal age for a woman’s consent to sexual intercourse to 21
  • including women on boards and councils
  • strictly enforcing laws concerning liquor
  • establishing homes for alcoholics

The council was also particularly interested in education, asking for schools to provide free and longer education, to support those who were disadvantaged, and to provide knowledge on the effect of alcoholic consumption on the body. A large number of council members were teachers which also encouraged acknowledgement of the NCW and its efforts to reduce the gender wage gap.

The council’s values were largely based around family and the power of women’s domesticity. As recorded by H.K Lovell Smith[3], the NCW desired:  ‘to bring the woman spirit and the home atmosphere into the affairs as well of the State as of the parish.’[4] The NCW  was able to gain society’s approval through its family values, as they fit society’s ideals of moralistic femininity.

Image 2 of Kate Sheppard: International Women’s Day, 8 March – Kate Sheppard. (2021). Retrieved 1 August 2021, from

But when the council turned these values into actions, people began to develop a more critical opinion of the group. For example, the NCW fought for gender equality in marriage. It campaigned for equal rights in divorce for both sexes, abolishing the ‘doctrine of ‘possession’, establishing the economic independence of married women through ‘a law attaching a just share of her husband’s earnings or income for her separate use’, and making the conditions of divorce for men and women equal.’[5] These suggestions were seen as controversial and received a negative reaction from the public.

Although the NCW sought to create a society where women were equal,  its membership did not conform to these ideals. The NCW could be considered Classist in the way it maintained a significant middle-class membership. It was not inclusive of all women, yet it claimed to represent all women and ‘the moral good’.

As a result of the council’s exclusive, unjust attitude and misrepresentation of its cause, member Anna Stout decided to resign from the council in 1897. Stout held strong connections to government circles and her absence contributed to the decline in the success of the NCW’s activism and its consequent loss of support. This, as well as the public dislike for its discussion of radical topics, greatly contributed to the council’s going into recess in 1906.


World War I saw an increase of women in the workforce and related issues that members of the NCW thought should be addressed. This inspired efforts to revive the council by Kate Sheppard, writer Jessie Mackay, and NCW secretary Christina Henderson, who set up an NCW reconvention in 1918.

In 1919, a meeting was held. It outlined the general goals of the reformed council in a  keynote address prepared by Sheppard and presented to  10 delegates of the NCW by lawyer Ellen Melville. This was publicised through print and widely distributed, and the NCW was once again active in New Zealand. Some of the revived council’s initial achievements included the establishment of a Wellington Intelligence Committee and the demand for the appointment of women as Justices of the Peace, jurors, and police.

By 1956, during the second wave of feminism, NCW members were keen debaters on the topic of family planning and young people’s access to contraceptives outside of marriage. The council actively participated in initiatives for equal pay, fair employment opportunities, and the Government Service Equal Pay Act of 1960 and the Equal Pay Act of 1972.

By the 1990s, during the third wave of feminism, the NCW began to develop more initiatives on women’s health, supporting women who had come out of a de facto relationship and addressing violence in society. The 1990s brought about a change in the way young girls were educated in schools: The NCW  was previously supportive of teaching girls domestic subjects but began pushing the idea that girls should be taught male-dominated subjects such as science and mathematics, as well as teaching domestic subjects to both genders alike. The NCW stepping away from the idea that women were inherently moral and domestic, as previous councils had thought.

Vanisa Dhiru. (2021). Retrieved 1 August 2021, from

The NCW is still an active part of New Zealand society and is run with six representatives of a board and a current president, being Suzanne Manning, elected June 2021.

Although it has been working toward equal rights since its beginnings in 1896, the council now represents modern thought, a more feminist kind of activism and is inclusive of many more groups and ideas. Today the council focuses on four key areas: safety and health, economic independence, education, and influence and decision-making. Recently, Lisa Lawrence (Ngati Kahungunu) became the council’s first ever Maori president and was elected in 2020. 

These values and displays of diversity  are a contrast from the largely family orientated and selective council that the NCW  once was.“[We want to make] sure that any person of any race, any class or creed doesn’t have anything against them in terms of being female or male…New Zealand needs to wake up to the fact that it doesn’t matter what you look like, you can do and be what you want to be.”[6]  said Vanisa Dhiru, a former president of the NCW.

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Izzy France
Izzy France

Hi I’m Izzy! I am a student and feminist enthusiastic about changing society for the better by creating a more inclusive and equal New Zealand. I have a passion for the past and working with WHNZ has given me the opportunity to pursue my interest in New Zealand women’s history and share it with others! – Izzy


Image Reference

  1. Image 1 of the first NCW meeting: File: National Council of Women (13587153825).jpg – Wikimedia Commons. (2014). Retrieved 1 August 2021, from
  1. Image 2 of Kate Sheppard: International Women’s Day, 8 March – Kate Sheppard. (2021). Retrieved 1 August 2021, from
  1. Image 3 of Vanisa Dhuru on ‘gender equal’ campaign: Vanisa Dhiru. (2021). Retrieved 1 August 2021, from


[1] Statistics from

[2] (2021). Retrieved 28 July 2021, from

[3] The National Council of the Women of New Zealand, 1901, Wanganui, 1901, p.28, 1902. Gisborne, 1902, p.26, H.K.. Lovell-Smith Papers, 1376/3, 4. WTU.

[4] )2021). Retrieved 28 July 2021, from

[5] National Council of Women of New Zealand | NZHistory, New Zealand history online. (1896). Retrieved 28 July 2021, from

[6] Vanisa Dhiru. (2021). Retrieved 1 August 2021, from