National Council of Women members Sharynne Fordyce, left, Halina Kania, and Lynette Stutz. PHOTO/EMILY NORMAN
Exactly 50 years ago this week, the first meeting was held for the Wairarapa branch of the National Council of women.
Sixty women attended, representing 20 organisations in the region.
Masterton’s Halina Kania, a life member, hopes the legacy left by the strong women of yesterday will influence the younger generation of women in Wairarapa.
As a former president of the Wairarapa branch of the National Council of Women (NCW), she was instrumental in drawing in new members in throughout the latter half of the 1980s, and introduced much needed projects to Wairarapa like the zebra crossing on Dixon St outside the swimming pool, and the Kuripuni toilets.
But Mrs Kania said at first, she had been reluctant to even join the organisation, what with her responsibilities for her young family, and her involvement in schools, kindergartens, and the Catholic Women’s League.
“It was a time when the debate about abortion was raging,” she said.
“Being a Catholic I could see this issue from both sides, from the woman’s side and from the religious side as well, so I was in the middle with a foot in each camp, more or less.
“But the wonderful thing about the National Council of Women, which drew me in eventually was a statement made by one of the National president at that time when she came to visit Masterton.
“On the stage walks this very ordinary middle-aged lady with sensible lisle stockings and flat shoes.
“When she opened her mouth and started talking, I was a gonner. I was in, boots and all.
“The first thing she said was, ladies, you don’t have to agree with each other, but you have to listen to each other. I signed up there and then.”
She then went on to be NCW Wairarapa’s vice president in 1986, and president from 1987 – 1989.
Mrs Kania, originally from Poland, has a story of survival which brings her to where she is today.
She was one of a group of children and caregivers who came to Pahiatua during the second World War in 1944 after former New Zealand prime minister Peter Fraser extended welcoming arms to them.
“When the war broke out, we were all deported to Siberia where we spent about 18 months.
“Hundreds of thousands of people died, but we survived.”
Mrs Kania said, amid negotiations between the Polish government and Russia, an armada of ships had been arranged “to take everybody who could walk crawl or anything to get to a coast where we were transported to Persia”.
Orphaned children and their caregivers were then brought to New Zealand thanks to the behind-the-scenes work of two women in power.
“The wife of the Polish ambassador to New Zealand and Australia, Countess Maria Wodzicka became very friendly with Janet Fraser, Peter Fraser’s wife.
“She told Janet about the problems, and Janet said she would have a word with her husband and see if he could suggest that some of these people could come – as a form of sanctuary.
“We didn’t come as refugees in that sense, we always looked at ourselves as ‘the invited’.”
Among the 700 people or so that arrived in Pahiatua was Mrs Kania, her sister, and her mother who was a teacher and caregiver.”
Mrs Kania said this story highlighted the importance of women in power to bring about the humanitarian change which led to her survival.
NCW member Sharynne Fordyce said in her time with NCW she had heard many other stories of survival and bravery from New Zealand women.
“The thing that unites all of them is a passion to make sure women’s voices are heard and that we have equality.”
NCW member Lynette Stutz who has filled secretary and presidential roles for years in the Wairarapa branch said she had seen a change in attitudes over the past few decades, but “we still have a long way to go” to reach equality in New Zealand.
“Certainly in my lifetime we had to have a male sign off on a credit card, and you couldn’t have a mortgage in your own right.
“NCW has been responsible for many women standing up and feeling more confident.”
A celebration of 50 years since Wairarapa’s first branch meeting of NCW will be held this month, but details are yet to be confirmed.