The decision to set up a Ministry of Women’s Affairs (now called Ministry for Women) arose from developments in the women’s liberation movement in New Zealand and the related increasing political power of women.
In 1970 the women’s liberation movement surfaced demanding equal access to education and employment opportunities, equal pay, free childcare, and free contraception and abortion on demand. The first significant event in the ‘second wave’ phase of the women’s liberation movement was the setting up of the Society for Research on Women (SROW).
During the 1970s a series of United Women’s Conventions were held. There was increased activity on issues of violence to women and issues around women’s health, with a intense debate over abortion law reform in 1976-78. The Women’s Electoral Lobby was formed in 1975 to increase the participation of women in politics.
In 1973 the Labour Government set up a select committee on women’s rights, and following the United Nations declaration of 1975 as International Women’s Year, established a ‘Committee on Women’. This continued under the National Government, until it was replaced in 1981 by a smaller Advisory Committee on Women’s Affairs - (ACWA).
These bodies represent the first official attempts to have a channel for women’s views to influence policy making. They consisted of a group of women appointed by the government of the day to meet periodically. By the 1980s the National government clearly felt that the political strength of the women’s movement was such that they needed a formal voice for women at Cabinet level. The Minister of Justice was therefore appointed spokesperson for women and AWCA reported to him.
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is the only public sector organisation set up specifically to address the needs of New Zealand women. The Ministry was established by Cabinet of the Labour Government in November 1984 and legislation defining it as a separate department was passed in March 1985.
The Ministry was the first stand-alone policy advice agency. Its focus was on developing policy highlighting gendered social differences between men and women in New Zealand, and being in touch with, and responsive to, women in the community.
The purpose of the Ministry was to achieve greater equality of access to power and resources, and to open up choices for women in all areas.
The Ministry recognises Māori women as tangata whenua, and the rights of Māori women under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Ministry was the first policy agency to include a Māori-specific unit, with policy advisers to the government on issues regarding Māori women.
By 1990 women’s participation in governance – in the parliamentary, public and private sectors – was a well-resourced division of the services of Ministry. The Women’s Appointment File was originally a database of curricula vitae of women who put their names forward for appointment to statutory boards and committees. This has now developed into a very successful nominations service for women interested in being nominated for state sector boards and committees.
In December 2014 the Minister for Women, Hon Louise Upston, announced that the Ministry's name had changed to Ministry for Women.
From its early beginnings to today the Ministry has provided policy advice to improve outcomes for women in New Zealand and make a positive difference to women, their families, and their communities.