Book review: ‘Women Will Rise! – Recalling the Working Women’s Charter’, edited by Gay Simpkin & Marie Russell

The Working Women’s Charter was a manifesto which united feminists in Aotearoa to achieve major victories in the 1970s and early 1980s. 

Although it was just 17 sentences long, the campaign to have it adopted as policy in 1980 by the Federation of Labour (predecessor of today’s Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi), and then by the Labour Party, changed the course of our history. 

Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library.
Reference: 1/2-162446-F

In March 2022, after a very long gestation, a book finally appeared which documents this struggle and analyses its impacts today. 

Women Will Rise! – Recalling the Working Women’s Charter doesn’t really need a book review from me. It already contains within its pages an afterword by Grace Millar – activist, feminist, trade unionist and historian – summarising it and reflecting on its significance in a way which is hard to top. 

Grace explains clearly why the Charter still matters. “The work done by Charter proponents within the union movement built structures to support future struggles. Despite the sustained attacks on the union movement in the last thirty years, unions remain the most effective way for working women to organise.”

“The Charter was important not just because it became Federation of Labour policy, but because the fight to get it passed changed the union movement and union members.”

Not only did the Charter campaign change the unions, however. It also changed feminism. “One of the reasons this book is so important”, says Grace, “is that it makes visible the role of trade unions in the women’s liberation movement.”

Yet a theme running through the book, and echoed in the afterword, is the transience of historical memory. As knowledge of past struggles starts to fade, later generations of activists lose vital sources of inspiration. Old mistakes are repeated and painful lessons have to be re-learned. “Knowledge of the women’s liberation movement and the struggle for the vote have become popular understandings of New Zealand’s past”, writes Grace. “But… even such a big piece of feminist history as the Working Women’s Charter is not widely known.”

The stories which do get transmitted about successful working class struggles, like the campaign for the Working Women’s Charter, usually downplay the ferocity of resistance by centrist and mainstream figures. Moderate voices within the struggle are celebrated (and thereby rendered even more innocuous), while radical activists who led the fight are forgotten. In this way, class conflict is sanitised and mystified for future generations, transformed into an unfortunate disagreement among decent folk who reached agreement in the end. The subtext of these accounts for people today is that we should temper our demands and have faith in our rulers. 

Women Will Rise! is not that type of story. It contains strong radical voices alongside the moderates, and it pulls no punches in its descriptions of conflict, written by active participants in the struggle. In the hope that some readers might be encouraged to pick up the book, uncover (or rediscover) this “big piece of feminist history” and carry forward its lessons in the ongoing fight for gender equality, I draw on the insights in the afterword to offer this book review. 

Official histories of successful working class struggles downplay mainstream resistance: Socialists picketed Helen Clark’s electorate office in June 2000, in support of the Alliance Party’s plan to achieve the Charter goal of paid parental leave. Today, parental leave is commonly associated with the Labour Party. Few people remember that the Labour Prime Minister initially said 12 weeks parental leave would happen “over my dead body.”

The core of the book consists of updated contributions from presenters who took part in two seminars on the Working Women’s Charter in 2009 and 2010. With nine chapters, all by different authors, it’s inevitable that there will be some variety in their tone and unevenness in quality. 

The opening chapter, by legal academic and former Labour Party politician Margaret Wilson, is unfortunately marred by a surprising, unsubstantiated attack on her fellow women’s rights campaigners in the Green Party. “The enactment of the Employment Contracts Act 1991 by the National government systematically diminished the ability of unions to negotiate on behalf of workers”, she says – adding that, “Although the Labour-led governments of the 2000s attempted to redress the balance, any progress gained in that period was systematically removed by National, ACT and Māori Party coalition governments of 2008 and 2011, with support on some issues from the Green Party.” 

Speaking as a nurse, I am in no doubt that today it is the Labour government who are diminishing the ability of our union to negotiate for us. The lengths the Health Minister went to, to undermine the union in the eyes of its members, were truly shocking. And it is the Labour government putting up stiff resistance to pay equity for our female dominated profession. Wilson’s sectarianism towards the Greens – who for many years have been stronger advocates for working women than the Labour Party – is especially surprising given the inclusion of a chapter by Sue Kedgley, a life-long supporter of working women and four-term Green MP. 

But the opening chapter is sectarian in more subtle ways, as well. It introduces an idea – repeated elsewhere in the book – that, “The Working Women’s Charter was brought to New Zealand by [Labour Party activist] Sonja Davies, who attended a working women’s conference in Sydney in 1976.” 

Women know what it’s like to be made invisible when history is written. Second wave feminists, like Gerda Lerner, fought to expose the blind spots of patriarchal historiography and to fill in the gaps. So it is disappointing to find new blind spots appearing in this chapter. The socialist feminists who independently introduced the Charter to Aotearoa in 1976, who drew on decades of previous Charter activism by communist women (documented in chapter two) and who co-led the Charter campaign, are simply airbrushed out of history in Wilson’s Labour-centric account. 

But the dry, academic tone of the opening chapter, reflecting the author’s own lack of connection to the grassroots union campaign for the Charter, is blown away in the chapter by Therese O’Connell – the strongest in the book. “This is an activist’s account”, begins chapter three, “not a historian’s or an academic’s”. And for me, this chapter was a revelation. 

Unlike the author of chapter two, Hazel Armstrong, I already knew about the early history of Charter activism in Aotearoa. For Hazel, “It was not until I was researching for this book that I came across details of the activist women in the Communist Party of New Zealand in the 1930s and 1940s.” I count myself incredibly lucky for the education I received as a young, full-time worker for the socialist movement in the late 1990s. Based in the Auckland office set up by the Communist Party in years past, I mingled with older comrades who remembered some of these women. I would browse through the dozens of filing cabinets and thousands of books and periodicals documenting the history of the labour movement. Yet despite this education, I knew nothing about the activism of Wellington-based socialist feminists in the 1970s that Therese documents in chapter three. 

“The Working Women’s Charter”, says Therese, “came originally from socialist feminist women in England and was permeating the airwaves in the mid-1970s. Both Sonja Davies and I separately sourced the Working Women’s Charter from the Australian trade union movement in 1976.” The major players in the campaign to have it adopted here were the Working Women’s Council and the New Zealand Shop Employees Association, led by Sonja Davies, and the Working Women’s Alliance, the clerical workers’ union, and the burgeoning women’s committees of the district trades councils. 

“The Working Women’s Alliance was an organisation created by socialist women”, she says. “The Working Women’s Council was an entirely different model; set up by Sonja Davies with a large amount of money given by the Labour government, modelled on the women’s council of the Israeli workers’ organisation the Histadrut, and largely echoing Labour Party policy.” 

Therese relates an incident at the Working Women’s Convention in 1977 to illustrate “some of the differences between the Working Women’s Alliance and the Working Women’s Council.” The WWA had taken up the issue of working conditions for women at a clothing factory in New Plymouth. A WWA account of their grievances, based on whistle-blower reports, was circulated at the Convention. The man at the head of the female-dominated Wellington and Taranaki Clothing Workers Union (a man who was also a prominent figure in the Labour Party and a strong opponent of the Charter) angrily denied there was any issue. He backed his union rep in the factory, a woman who happened to be married to a company executive, and attacked the WWA for making “unfounded allegations”. There was a walkout from the Convention. The Working Women’s Council stayed on the sidelines and did not back the whistle-blowers at the clothing factory. 

Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference:

Despite the differences, which meant that the socialist women had to maintain their own independent organisation, Therese stresses that, “The Working Women’s Charter allowed us to develop a broad front, uniting as many people as possible under a campaign enabling a sense of belonging for all.” 

The greatest strength of this chapter is its rich descriptions of exactly how the Working Women’s Alliance went about building support for the Charter inside the unions – the tactics they used, the leaflets and newspapers they produced, the educational seminars they ran, the meetings they attended, the lobbying they did and the motions they put to the vote along the path to eventual success. Today, laptops may have replaced photocopiers as tools of the struggle. But aside from this, chapter three could almost be a textbook for the current generation of radical union activists. 

The chapters which may be of greatest interest to members of my union, however, could be chapter six and chapter eight. These each examine one particular issue addressed by the Charter, and consider to what extent it is still a problem today. 

Martha Coleman – human rights lawyer, public servant, co-founder of the Coalition for Equal Value Equal Pay (CEVEP) and former organiser for the Wellington Clerical Workers Union – takes the hot topic of pay equity. CEVEP’s Linda Hill, meanwhile, tackles the intersection of gender, race and class in the oppression of workers who are wāhine Māori and fafine Pasifika. 

Martha’s chapter on equal pay recounts the battles firstly to win equal pay for men and women who were doing the same job, and then to establish the principle of “equal pay for work of equal value” – the basis of today’s pay equity claims for equality between occupations that might be different, but are equally important. 

Linda’s chapter updates a 2018 paper submitted to the Waitangi Tribunal by lawyers acting for claimants in the WAI 2700 Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry. “The labour market has a wage hierarchy that is socially structured by race and gender, as well as class,” she writes. “Indeed, in Aotearoa New Zealand class works through race and gender. Colonisation and racism have taken a form that is structural, rather than just personal discrimination in the way an individual boss treats an individual employee.” 

In paragraph after paragraph, page after page, Linda pores over what seems like every labour market statistic published in the last 50 years to illustrate the many, many ways that this structural racism is manifested for women. 

When I picked up this book, I thought I knew how “class works through race and gender.” But after 26 years in something of a bubble in the highly unionised public sector, where the gender pay gap has been narrowing and where we now have the Kia Toipoto Action Plans to end ethnic and gender-based pay disparities, I confess I still had some things to learn. 

Linda shows how the pay gaps across the wider labour market are due to a multitude of factors, including not only the undervaluation of work in “female-dominated occupations” – now recognised in the amended Equal Pay Amendment Act 2020 – but also the extent of occupational segregation, casualisation, precarity and unemployment by gender and ethnicity, the average length of job tenure and more. And these factors are persisting for Māori and Pasifika women, particularly outside the unionised public sector, more stubbornly than I realised. Chapter eight makes a compelling case for renewing the struggle to realise the aims of the Working Women’s Charter. 

But as great as this book is – and its best chapters are very good indeed – Women Will Rise! isn’t going to fix the initial problem from the afterword, above. A book like this won’t make the Working Women’s Charter “widely known” again, like it was in 1980. It can’t make it part of today’s “popular understandings of New Zealand’s past.” This is because a society’s buried historical memories of struggle are brought back into popular consciousness not by a specialist work of non-fiction, but by social movements which echo those of our tūpuna. So, as Grace asks in the afterword, “what are the next steps?” 

Such social movements cannot simply be magicked into existence. They require the convergence of particular conditions – or in Therese’s words, certain things “permeating the airwaves”. One thing that can be done in the meantime, however, is to rebuild an organisation of socialist activists. 

“The historical memory of the bourgeoisie lies in its traditions of rule, in institutions, the law of the land and in accumulated skills of statesmanship”, wrote Leon Trotsky, a hundred years ago. “The memory of the working class is in its [socialist] party.” Even a small socialist cadre can preserve and pass on the memory, inspiration and lessons of past radical struggles – just as the Charter activism of women in the 1930s and 1940s was preserved by a small socialist group, for me. 

As we rebuild these groups, we should learn from the Working Women’s Alliance – remain independent, but seek to work as part of “a broad front, uniting as many people as possible under a campaign enabling a sense of belonging for all.” Or again as Trotsky put it, “No common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together!” 

Seeking to rebuild a socialist organisation is suggested by Women Will Rise! for other reasons, too. “After the Charter was adopted in 1980”, writes Therese at the end of her chapter, “… both the Working Women’s Alliance and Working Women’s Council started to fade as the individuals involved had exhausted themselves and now spent all their time in their union roles.” 

The Working Women’s Charter reminds us that campaigns are inherently time-limited – even the best of them, which serve as springboards for future campaigns, as this one did. Eventually any campaign will come to an end, either in success or failure, and the networks and resources which came together for that issue will disperse once more. A political organisation of socialist activists, on the other hand, can survive over the longer term by pivoting from a campaign which has faded to new ones emerging, keeping issues alive by linking them to common underlying systemic causes. 

There’s one final way that Women Will Rise! supports a rebuilding of socialist organisation. In chapter six, Martha does more than recount the battles to win equal pay for the same job, and then “equal pay for work of equal value”. She also hints at the real root of the problem, the underlying reason for the subordination of women in many areas of life. The hint, oddly enough, comes in an order made by the Arbitration Court in 1922. In those days, this specialist labour court (no longer in existence) had the power to issue a “general wage order”, setting wages for the whole country. In his 1922 order, Justice Frazer ruled that adult males should be paid more than females. An excerpt from his decision, quoted in chapter six, says: 

“Very few would assert that the average man can live a normal and complete life without marriage… Therefore, the material requisites of normal life, for the average male, includes provision for his family… Consequently, he has the right to obtain such livelihood on reasonable terms from the bounty of the earth. In the case of the wage earner, this right can be effectuated only through wages; therefore the adult male labourer has the right to a family living wage.” 

It is worth pausing to unpack and consider what is meant by this statement. It asserts firstly that a man is only “normal and complete” if he is in a heterosexual, monogamous relationship. It assumes the sanctity of “his family” – the patriarchal nuclear family with the father at the head, through which the costs of raising and refreshing tomorrow’s workforce are privatised and hidden as unpaid (mainly female) labour, and through which the inheritance of wealth and privilege (or poverty and deprivation) is ensured from one generation to the next. 

The ruling goes on to express the extractivist mindset which has led our planet to the brink of ecological crisis – the idea that “man” stands above and outside of nature and “has the right” to plunder the earth. And it concludes by justifying, and entrenching, the pay gap between “the adult male” and everyone else. 

There is a footnote in the book to this excerpt from Justice Frazer’s decision. “This pronouncement is also an almost verbatim quotation from John A. Ryan, Distributive Justice: The right and wrong of our present distribution of wealth, MacMillan 1916.” This heavyweight tract of American political philosophy from the middle of World War One is a polemic against socialism, defending private ownership of land and industry, giving moral justification for the profit-making of “the business man” and arguing that industrial unionism goes against “human nature”.

In other words, the judge was not just making a decision about wages. He was defending a whole social system. And that system – the one which locks women into a subordinate position, in every nation – has a name. The struggle to realise the aims of the Working Women’s Charter is ultimately a struggle against capitalism. 

Published by grantbrookes

Kia ora! I’m Grant Brookes, a Nurse, Trade Unionist and NZNO past President now living in Pōneke Wellington, New Zealand with my partner and two children. Since graduating in 1996, I’ve practised nursing in five cities in three countries. I’ve belonged to four nursing unions – and been a rep in three of them. This is my personal blog. There’s more about me and my time as President at

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