The Wrong Sisterhood: Forgotten Lessons of the 1984 Women’s Forums


IT WAS ONE of the Fourth Labour Government’s more progressive initiatives, and its most productive outcome, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, endures to this day. It was, however, an initiative that also ended up spinning out of control in ways that its instigators neither anticipated nor appreciated. Indeed, so aggrieved were Labour’s feminists at the outcome of their well-meaning experiment in “participatory democracy” that its most important political lessons remain unacknowledged and, for the most part, forgotten.

The election of the David Lange-led Labour Government in July 1984 provided the first opportunity for Second Wave Feminism to show what it could do with the full resources of the state at its back. Labour’s women MPs: Anne Hercus, Margaret Shields, Helen Clark, Fran Wilde, Anne Fraser, Annette King, Margaret Austin and Judy Keall, along with the party’s president, Margaret Wilson, were determined to make rapid progress for women after nearly a decade of government by, of and for Rob Muldoon’s “ordinary blokes”.

Pushing them forward was the Labour Women’s Council – a body which had grown rapidly, both in size and influence, since the late 1970s. The consciousness-raising effects of the violent misogyny experienced by women during the 1981 Springbok Tour further strengthened the feminist impulse within Labour’s ranks.

Significantly, these new recruits (many of them from women’s groups active on the nation’s campuses) brought with them the non-hierarchical, loosely-structured and “facilitative” political praxis of feminism’s second wave. Born out of the New Left’s embrace of “participatory democracy” in the 1960s, this welcoming political style was founded on the optimistic assumption that, subject only to their consciousness of patriarchal oppression being raised by their feminist sisters, all women were natural allies.

That this assumption was far too optimistic had been demonstrated decisively in the United States by the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. What had, at first, looked like a slam-dunk victory for second wave American feminism had been stopped in its tracks, and then turned around, by the aggressive counter-attack of conservative women led by constitutional lawyer and right-wing activist, Phyllis Schlafly.

The sheer scale of the conservative backlash against American feminism should have been taken as a warning by Labour’s feminist MPs. It wasn’t. The Women’s Council simply refused to believe that New Zealand was prey to anything like the reactionary forces that plagued the United States.

In the context of the burgeoning strength of the feminist, anti-apartheid, Maori Sovereignty and anti-nuclear movements, the notion that New Zealand women might prove susceptible to Schlafly’s conservative arguments seemed preposterous. David Lange’s easy victory over Muldoon likewise appeared to confirm that the country was moving left – not right.

TDB Recommends

Buoyed by these convictions, the new Labour government, guided by its women MPs, was persuaded to set in motion a series of “Women’s Forums”. Open to all citizens, these consultative assemblies were intended to set the priorities for and structure the agenda of the new Ministry of Women’s Affairs foreshadowed in Labour’s 1984 Manifesto.

The first forums appeared to bear out the most optimistic assumptions of the Labour Women’s Council. Representatives from women’s NGOs like the YWCA and the National Council of Women, backed by women trade union delegates, eagerly advanced the stalled reform agenda of New Zealand feminism. A radical edge to the ongoing discussion and debate was contributed by the activism of Maori and lesbian women.

And then things began to go very seriously wrong.

In the words of gay and lesbian rights campaigner, Alison Laurie:

“Now, the election of the fourth Labour Government in 1984, which is when Fran Wilde comes to Parliament, brought about the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. And prior to setting up this new ministry, the government had held women’s forums throughout the country which lesbians attended, and many women were alarmed by the presence of busloads of Christian fundamentalist women who carried Bibles and copies of the National Anthem, and who voted against abortion, lesbian rights and also against ratifying the United Nations Convention on the elimination of the discrimination against women.”

On one issue, however, radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians found themselves in perfect sororal agreement: pornography. They both wanted it banned.

It wasn’t enough. Participatory democracy, far from demonstrating that all women were sisters under the skin, had proved the opposite. Outside the funky enclaves of progressive inner-city activism; beyond the purview well-educated, Broadsheet-reading career women; there lay a vast hinterland of deeply-entrenched and easily-activated prejudice. Nor were these unsuspected masses of conservative women restricted to the rural and provincial bastions of the National Party. Feminists were just as few-and-far-between in the suburbs. Certainly, there appeared to be many more churches in these localities than consciousness-raising circles.

Shocked to the core, and fearful that if the forums were allowed to continue the progressive feminist agenda might end up being rejected by, of all people, conservative women, the Labour government hastily shut them down. Yes, progressive women had found themselves surrounded by a noisy and single-minded sisterhood. Unfortunately, it was the wrong sisterhood.

Between 1984 and 1990 the progressive feminist agenda was advanced. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs became a useful and productive reality. LGBTQI New Zealanders were liberated from their legislative shackles. Pay Equity (briefly) became a reality. But never again were the preferences of ordinary New Zealand women so openly and democratically solicited.

Sisterhood is, indeed, powerful – but only when your sisters can be relied upon to vote the right way.


  1. So what’s the point of this post, Chris? A new Ministry (MoWA) had its agenda set by a series of consultative meetings amongst its constituents (women). Once the Ministry was up and running, the open meetings ceased. Shock, horror! Do you believe they should still be occurring?

    The MoWA still regularly consults with organisations like the NCW and MWWL. These groups represent a full range of women – from deep blue to bright red in political hue. We don’t agree on all things (hardly a surprise – indeed it would be a bit sad if we did), but actually there’s a hell of a lot of common ground on core women’s issues. Not many younger women but that’s a different issue, dealing with a generation that has different forms of social engagement and political mobilisation.

    I seem to recall a series of meetings about employment called by the Key government. The major outcome seemed to be the proposal for a national cycleway (later downgraded to a series of smaller cycleways). These meetings are not still happening. So what?

  2. BWT, a comment about your system for placing advertisements – I notice that when I choose to read this story, I’m prompted to consider buying a new summer blouse. When I look at the Keith Lock posting about Greg O’Connor, it’s assumed I’m more likely to be interested in a new motorhome. Back to this part of the site and the slim young women from tidebuy are still trying to convince me that I need a new blouse. Could it be that there’s a set of assumptions at work here about who’s interested in (anti)feminist issues and what else we might be interested in? Somewhat patronising, mates.

    • Why does TDB have to resort to that near-pornographic clickbait that slater’s got on his site? Has the same feel as the daily mail.

      • – People have to eat. We’re not all in here trying to create Potemkin villages –

        I note that where there was once towns, meat works and railways is now littered with graffiti and old shops get handy gib boards over the windows like a blank canvas.

        Unlike other kiwis blogs you will find on TDB no small amounts of truth and how the world actually works rather than all out debates which ask the wrong questions leading to winners advocating violence, and violence is a natural course when you pit one group against the other. When you have predetermined resources and ideas its difficult to ask questions which lead onto other topics and broadens understanding of consequences. – I think Napoleon Bonaparte is a good example of being stuck in a conceptual trap. For any one with even a cursory knowledge of the history of Napoleon his military genius is with out question, he is recorded as an excellent chess player, with all resources and perimetres predetermined Napoleon could not be fooled, but in battle he was fooled.

    • I don’t see the ads because I use an excellent piece of free software (free as in speech *and* as in beer) called Adblock Plus to block them. But I’m pretty sure its an automated algorith (possibly Google Adsense or something similar) that decides which ads get shown to who, not anyone involved with TDB. However, I’m almost impressed at how creative you can at coming up with reasons to accuse TDB of being “(anti)feminist”.

      BTW I agree with Bill Hicks’ suggestion to anyone involved with marketing or advertising. But if we want free-to-read media, we need to put up with ads, and somebody needs to view and click on them. If we want ad-free media we need to pay subscriptions. If you have any financial models to suggest that would allow us to have our cake and eat it too, I’m keen to hear about them.

      • I’m not aware of any model that makes money out of investing in people, even though thoughs are the types of investments we’ve been talking about. As an example my own family mess up all the time, speeding tickets, not providing school lunches and station ect. I dont expect a return and/or not even a little bit confident any or all will be successful in life. I simply provid an arena outside the routines of life. It’s not insurance or charity. It’s my fundamental right to live with as diverse a life as possible.

        For a breif period of my life I was constantly hounded for money, not food or stationary supplies, just money, so I cleansed my self of aesthetically pleasing visions of wealth, tittles, accreditation, holiday/car pics ect. Now people come to me with specific requests instead of vague notions of money.

  3. Thank you, Chris: an interesting perspective. (Just to counter the vapidity of most of the comments above.) I believe you are right as history goes, but are once again getting hostility from those who don’t like all that history confronts them with.

  4. good gracious wth are you doing chris giving space to at least 2 of the most corrupt neos from that era king and wild.. both have done more to corrupt nz than most others combined

    • Lloyd, I hardly think that is Chris’s fault that two Neo-Libs are in the photo. What do you expect, Orwellian-style erasure of un-persons? Come on, be fair!

      As for the rest of Chris’s piece, he makes a fairly interesting point about latent conservatism in western society. Even good ole unzud isn’t immune to ingrained conservativism.

  5. So you’re saying some women are total bastards and have different ideas from one another..almost as if…they were human beings….just like men……

    • I look at it as kind of aggressive take over of failing masculine identity models. I know for a fact feminine products get marked up, but it warms my hart to see shanxoxo (youtuber) finally figure out she could sell make up at half the price of store bought stuff. Now she is an amazing sensation and a credit to her generation. You should probably go and see what apps young people are using right now to see what they are upto

  6. Maybe the point is, you set up the fora. If you don’t like what they tell you, you accept their findings and just go on arguing your case.

    If the majority want a Trump (although I’m not arguing that they do), that doesn’t mean it’s time to break out the pitchforks of revolution, it means it’s time to work harder on your outreach and refine your arguments.

    The demise of the ascendancy of the Women’s Movement was flagged by the hubris which associated it with all sorts of, then, unacceptable social causes.

    2017 conservative New Zealand has finally abandoned the field of battle over same-sex marriage, for instance, but the 1974 equivalent had to, slowly but surely, modify their world view until “come the moment, come the movement.”

    There is a tide in the affairs of men that, taken at its zenith leads on to saying “there is a tide in the affairs of State” but all public policy is slippery, and none of us have all the answers, believe it or not.

    We just have to keep arguing our corner and hope that ultimately it’s enough and that we are right.

  7. Ahhh. Bless. The March sisters outgunned by Cinderella’s nearest and dearest.

    Chris said “beyond the purview well-educated, Broadsheet-reading career women; there lay a vast hinterland of deeply-entrenched and easily-activated prejudice.”

    The word ‘beyond’ is best replaced by ‘within’. If you weren’t ‘within’ you didn’t ‘belong’. A savage crew they were, and remain so.

  8. modern feminism is now just wealthy white women screaming misogyny
    today’s feminists are like a man turning up in Vietnam to fight today
    wars over but now there’s no actual danger they’re super brave and ready for action

    • One can certainly find examples of “wealthy white women screaming misogyny”, like Hilary Clinton and her cronies. But I think it’s fair to say that such people have no deep interest in feminism, it’s just another movement they can hijack when it suits their interests to use grassroots feminists and pro-feminist men as their shock troops. Real feminism has gender equality as its goal, and there are plenty of people out there working towards that goal in principled and respectful ways. Because of “if it bleeds, it leads” media habits though – in social media as much as in the corporate media – we don’t often get to hear about them.

Comments are closed.