Hero photograph
The photograph shows the Auckland PWMU Executive of 1916.
Photo by Credit Presbyterian Research Centre (Archives)

Celebrating Presbyterian Women

Rachel Hurd, Archivist, Presbyterian Research Centre (Archives) —

On the evening of Thursday 28 September 2023, Rt. Rev. Rose Luxford, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, led a farewell devotion to celebrate the work of Presbyterian Women Aotearoa New Zealand, (PWANZ) and to acknowledge its role within the life and history of the Church.

Earlier in the day the General Assembly formally passed a resolution acknowledging the winding up of PWANZ after 118 years.

As part of this celebration the Archives produced a short visual presentation to provide a snapshot of the history of PWANZ from its first beginnings as the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PWMU) in 1905. Our images began in the early years of the 20th century with the foundation of the PWMU emerging from the flourishing of first wave feminism which led to women’s suffrage and organisations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). These women in their long dresses, their hair pinned into buns or hidden beneath elegant hats gaze at the camera with an earnestness and strength of purpose.

The focus of these women was the work of foreign missions and they raised vast sums to support the work of Presbyterian missionaries in faraway lands – in India, China and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and among Māori missions in New Zealand.

In the 1920s and 1930s the hem lines rise but the hats remain. The women pose in formal portraits outside churches and halls, often with small children in tow. This new younger generation of women wanted to pursue a wider sphere of interest, with emphasis on social issues at home as well as foreign missions abroad. Many of them formed themselves into a new organization, the Women’s Fellowship.

Meanwhile, change was taking place in the role of women within the Church. In 1955 women gained the right to become elders and so to become involved in the governance of the Church, at both a local and national level. Then in 1965 Rev. Margaret Reid Martin became the first woman to be ordained as a minister of word and sacrament in the New Zealand Presbyterian Church. Around the same time the PWMU and Women’s Fellowship merged to form a new organization, the Association of Presbyterian Women (APW).

With the 1970s came second wave feminism and along with their traditional focus came a new interest in equity and gender justice. There was also increasing diversity, with a rising Pasifika membership.

The 2000s brought an international role when the APW gained special consultative status at the United Nations. However, by this time the organisation was declining as its membership aged and younger women played different roles within church and society. In 2014 the organization remodeled itself in an attempt to attract these younger women, and became PWANZ, but earlier this year the difficult decision was made to wind up.

The final words of farewell were given by a woman, occupying the highest role within the Presbyterian Church, something those first members staring earnestly into the camera could barely have imagined.