Story: Forde, Flora McMillan

Page 1 - Forde, Flora McMillan

Forde, Flora McMillan

1883–1958

Political activist, feminist, welfare worker

This biography was written by Dorothy Page and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Flora McMillan Ive was born at her parents’ farm near Wyndham, Southland, on 9 June 1883, the daughter of Catherine Stalker and her husband, Henry Ive, who later became a baker and master butcher. Little is known of her early life, but she went to school in Wyndham and Invercargill. On 5 November 1902, at Wyndham, she married Michael Joseph Forde, a railway clerk. The couple settled in Invercargill, and were to have two daughters and a son. Mick Forde left the railways in July 1903 and joined the Southland Times as a journalist, eventually becoming its chief reporter.

Around 1910 Flora Forde embarked on what would be a lifetime of voluntary service to women and the labour movement. She became secretary to the Sixpenny Clothing Club (whose members contributed sixpence a month and material to make clothes for impoverished families), the Invercargill Housewives’ Union and, until 1913, the Southland Trades and Labour Council. In 1915 she helped set up a branch of the WEA in Southland, and during the First World War she was on the executive of the Southland War Funds Association.

In late 1917 the Fordes moved to Wellington. Mick rejoined the railways, where he worked until his retirement in 1954, and Flora joined the local branch of the WEA and the Wellington Housewives’ Union. She began her long association with the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW) as the housewives’ union delegate to its Wellington branch. When a small group of young, enthusiastic women founded the Wellington women’s branch of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1920, Forde was elected president. Education was another of her interests. For two years she was an honorary welfare officer for the Wellington Education Board in connection with retarded children, and she also served on the Terrace School Committee for nine years, representing it on the Wellington School Committees’ Association.

Early in the 1930s Flora Forde joined the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children (later the Society for the Protection of Home and Family), which helped families in violent and distressed situations. An active committee member, she served as vice president, treasurer (for 17 years) and ultimately president of the branch, representing it on the Wellington branch of the NCW until her death. In 1932 she was appointed a government nominee on the Wellington Women’s Unemployment Committee, and acted as its honorary secretary until the Women’s Unemployment Bureau closed in 1939. In 1924–25 she had served as dominion secretary of the NCW, and she served a second term from 1934 to 1937. During the Second World War she was a government nominee on the Wellington district committee of the Women’s War Service Auxiliary, and in 1942 she became a justice of the peace.

Forde was elected president of the NCW in 1948 and for six years played a key role in a strong, expansionist phase of the organisation, during which new branches were founded and nationally organised societies gained representation at conference. In 1950 she presided over the golden jubilee conference in Christchurch, which had been deferred from 1946. By this time the council linked 160 women’s organisations, with a total of 408 affiliations; 17 branches and 15 societies participated in the jubilee conference.

Innovations during Forde’s term as president included twice-yearly three-day residential meetings of presidents of branches and nationally organised societies. Prominent speakers at these gatherings included the prime minister, the director of broadcasting and the minister of social security. Membership of the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association and a Pacific study programme throughout the branches heightened awareness of Pacific affairs. A new periodical, New Zealand Women in Council , facilitated communication within the NCW, and relations with the International Council of Women were strengthened by the first visit to New Zealand of its president.

Slight, fair, reticent in manner and not given to speech-making, Flora Forde was nevertheless a gently persuasive activist. During her presidency the NCW increased its political activity. It sent deputations to the minister of health on such issues as the teaching of obstetrics and gynaecology, child welfare clinics, hygienic handling of foodstuffs, and overseas bursaries for psychiatric study, and warned about over-centralising hospital administration. It protested to the minister of education about violent comics and to the minister of justice on the inadequacies of the penal system. It canvassed branch opinion on equal pay and sent its findings to all MPs. It urged the government, if and when television should come to New Zealand, to control all programming, and keep advertising to a minimum.

Forde represented the NCW on the council of the New Zealand Standards Institute for 12 fruitful years from 1947 until her death, aiming always to establish standards for household commodities which would benefit women and children by providing the best value for money. She also served on five sub-committees of the council, developing common standards for consumer goods.

Flora Forde was made an OBE in 1952, and two years later the NCW honoured her with life membership. She died in Wellington on 13 December 1958, survived by her husband, Mick, and two daughters.