Contributed by Elspeth Preddey, on behalf of WEL New Zealand for inclusion in the Report of the Second Congress of the Global Network of Women in Politics held in Manila, Philippines, 28-30 August 1998.
The story of the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) began in the days when a man could and did say:
"Women are our largest exploited group…they’re not even curious about the chains that bind them…"
How could women achieve a fairer balance of power with men in all aspects of our lives?
How could women be where the decisions affecting them were made?
Feminists in Australia and New Zealand turned their anger about "the chains that bind them" into action and developed a strategy to work for women through a political pressure group they called the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL). In Australia WEL began in 1972, an election year. The idea caught the imagination of "the women next door" in New Zealand, where WEL started up in 1975, again, in an election year.
Within ten years of forming the WEL pressure group in New Zealand there were more women in elected and appointed positions than there had ever been before. By 1998 New Zealand had a woman leading Government as Prime Minister, another woman was leading the principal opposition party, one third of all members of Parliament and elected local government representatives were women and many other decision-making groups in business, government and local communities were led by women.
The pressure exerted by the members of WEL was one factor in raising the status of women in decision-making positions in New Zealand so dramatically within a period of 25 years. The following points about WEL's experience of lobbying for equality for women in New Zealand are made in the sincere hope that they may encourage women in other countries to work together for the goals they hold dear for their own societies.
Principle of the Women's Electoral Lobby
WEL is committed to achieve social, legal, economic, educational and political equality for women.
WEL is feminist.
Members believe women have been and are discriminated against because they are women. All people, irrespective of gender, should have the same opportunities and rights.
WEL is strictly non-party political.
All political views may be found within the membership. However no woman can hold an executive position in WEL at the same time that she holds an executive position in a political party even at branch level. This principle has ensured that no single political party holds undue influence over the policy programme advocated by WEL. Another advantage of having a political pressure group that members of all political parties can take part in is that women apply pressure to the political parties they are members of, to adopt policies and practices for the benefit of women.
WEL is a political lobby group.
WEL wants all political parties to accept and put into effect our policies on the needs and rights of women. WEL tries to influence politicians, their parties and others in positions of power.
WEL was formed by and for individual women.
WEL gave women opportunities to speak out on their own behalf.
WEL began with a bang in 1975. There was tremendous shock value in women speaking up and challenging male politicians in an election year. Such so-called "uppitiness" from women had not happened for 100 years in New Zealand. At that time suffragettes fought for the right to vote. They won that right in 1893, making New Zealand the first independent state in the world to have universal franchise. But by 1975 it was patently obvious there were very few women in any decision-making positions.
All over New Zealand, half a dozen or so women gathered together, and invited one of the leaders of the movement to come and talk over how they could work together as a local branch of WEL. Inevitably, another WEL group was up and began lobbying local politicians.
WEL membership grew rapidly. Women wanted to change so many public policies, practices and attitudes. WEL consulted with women in their local communities on what women most wanted to change in society. Study groups set out to research local issues – childcare, reproductive issues, employment practices, matrimonial property rights among the most common. Public meetings were held, locally and regionally. Policies on feminist issues were hammered out and adopted as WEL New Zealand policy statements at annual national conferences. WEL policies were published and disseminated.
Publicity proved a two-headed monster: politicians ran scared of "uppity" women, but so did many members of the public. The surprise value of women lobbying about issues that had been ignored for so long meant that they could no longer be ignored. However, the threat that WEL women posed by exposing the extent that sexual discrimination riddled society was more than many members of the public could cope with. WEL women who did take on leadership roles needed courage and support as well as the strength of their convictions.
Supporting women who offer themselves for elected office emerged as a distinctive role for WEL. Support is provided in practical ways, from training and information as well as moral support and fundraising. At least one internationally prominent New Zealand feminist looks back on her first venture into politics and recalls with gratitude how WEL funds allowed her the luxury of buying a new dress to wear for her first public meeting of candidates for election.
WEL Tactics – the Once Only Ones
The tactics that worked to start the movement were brilliantly successful:
WEL worked the media
WEL made headlines
WEL surveyed political parties on their priorities for women
WEL surveyed the views of individual political candidates on their attitudes to and support for women's issues. The resulting scores ranged from plus nine (+9) to minus two (-2).
Tactics - Ongoing
WEL set out WEL policy priorities for women
WEL encouraged women to be on the electoral rolls
WEL encouraged women to vote
WEL encouraged women to be active within political parties
WEL encouraged women to stand for political office
In New Zealand by 1980, the WEL strategy was widely known. The idea of women taking on the same responsibilities as men became generally accepted as mainstream public policy. That is not to say it happened easily or without resentment or that all women who took on new roles met the very high expectations New Zealand women had of them. Among the women who took on new roles were WEL women. When they became political leaders, appointed leaders, business and public sector leaders they gave time, money and expertise to encourage other women.
Members of the WEL political pressure group continues to support women to be decision-makers in their local communities. WEL members have kept up local groups in several areas for over 20 years. Groups submit WEL views on all manner of topics to parliament, local government and other organisations. Members of WEL keep feminist issues in front of all major political parties through a highly regarded, well researched quarterly newsletter.
WEL activists in New Zealand remain entirely voluntary. WEL members are accountable to each other at an annual meeting. WEL seeks to be as open and democratic in its own practices as it wishes all decision-makers to be. These simple safeguards have helped to maintain WEL's credibility and integrity with all political parties.
Much remains to be done to improve the lives of many women in New Zealand. Having women in power does not necessarily of itself improve the status of all women. Many New Zealand women had cause to rue the policies of New Zealand's first female Minister of Finance.
WEL women continue to work for women, networking with other womens' groups.
WEL looks forward to the time when women enjoy an equal partnership with men in New Zealand society. By then, WEL will have achieved its objectives and will no longer be needed.
Women’s Electoral Lobby – Australia New Zealand 1972-1985 ISBN 0-9597762-0-6
Walking Backwards into the Future ISBN 0-47701674X
Women in the House – Members of Parliament in New Zealand ISBN 0-908561-41-5
Status of Women in New Zealand – 1998 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Report ISBN 0-478-04094-6
WEL (NZ) Newsletter Editor, PO Box 11-285, Wellington 6001, New Zealand
WEL (Australia) National Co-ordinator, 3 Lobelia Street, O’Connor, ACT 2601, Australia
Ministry of Women’s Affairs, PO Box 10 049, Wellington 6001, New Zealand