Women in the RNZN

In 1977, a working party was set up by the Ministry of Defence to analyse the policy of employing women in the Armed Forces as a result of the Human Rights Act which was passed into law that year. Read about the history of women in the RNZN.


That women were not allowed to serve as sailors on board RNZN ships until 1986? The Navy Museum’s archive collection holds rich commentary on changes in naval culture. Prior to 1986 a woman on board ship was a welcome change as these two excerpts from the Report of Proceedings for the frigate HMNZS Taranaki for October 1966 show.

The ship was opened to visitors Saturday, 8th and Sunday 9th October, to conform with the Royal Australian Navy Ship, Saturday being Navy Day. Miss Dinah Lee, the expatriate New Zealand pop singer, and her secretary were entertained onboard by the Ship’s Company and took lunch with the sailors. I was a little taken aback by Miss Lee’s bell-bottomed trousered grey flannel suit and her secretary’s “Mai Farrow” haircut both proved pleasant, sensible girls and all concerned enjoyed the visit.

Later on in October Taranaki hosted another woman onboard:

Miss Margaret Wood, a young announcer with Radio Australia, who apparently played requests for the Ship’s Company during the last commission, was entertained onboard. She took lunch with the sailors, taped interviews and posed for publicity photographs. Her gold suede dress was indeed an eye opener appreciated by all.

In 1977, a working party was set up by the Ministry of Defence to analyse the policy of employing women in the Armed Forces as a result of the Human Rights Act which was passed into law that year. Based on the recommendations of the working party, the Ministry instructed the RNZN, RNZAF and Army to take the necessary steps to implement the new policy, which, it had been decided, should exclude women from combat roles. The Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) at the time, Rear Admiral J.S. McKenzie, CB, CBE in a personal message to the Navy, stated that the new policy was ‘an essential step in helping to overcome our chronic manpower shortages.’ On 29 July 1977 the WRNZNS was officially disbanded.

Two years later in September 1979 the first intake of integrated Basic Common Trainees (BCTs) into the RNZN comprised 18 women and 51 men. This was the first group of women to train with men under the policy on integration of women into the RNZN.

In October 1981, four years after the integration of women into the RNZN, a paper was written by naval staff on the employment of women at sea. Recommendations included provision for women to serve about the HMNZS Tui and Monowai. By 1981, women constituted 8.3 percent of the RNZN.  They were mostly in the Supply and Secretariat Branch and the Radio Specialisation of the Communications Branch.  It was argued that they could therefore be potential sailors in the non-combatant ships.

HMNZS Monowai had suitable accommodation for women of all ranks.  Separate heads and bathrooms could be made available for the exclusive use of female officers and junior ranks and minor extensions were necessary to provide a separate head for female senior ranks. HMNZS Tui enabled women to use one or two berth senior ranks cabins and the two, three or four berth junior ranks cabins.  Some changes were necessary to provide them with separate heads and bathrooms.

In 1986 a Defence Council Order 2/86 authorised the CNS to offer “temporary sea-going postings…. in non combatant ships”. Accordingly in December 1986 13 female ratings and one officer joined the survey ship Monowai for the ‘Women at Sea Pilot Study’ (WAPS), this was designed to run for three years. Nine of the ratings had a brief acquaint period in the ship late in October 1986 on the ship’s passage from Auckland to Lyttelton.

That year Lieutenant Suzanne Butcher (now Dean) became the first female officer posted into a compliment billet in an RNZN ship as Supply Officer on HMNZS Monowai. Although some administrative aspects of employing women at sea needed further analysis, the practical aspects of the trial proved successful and the employment of women at sea in non-combatant vessels with suitable facilities continued.

Two other firsts in 1986 included Able Writer Vicki Ryan, the first woman to do Shore Patrol duties and Lieutenant Commander Sue Taylor, the first woman to complete RNZAF Staff College. In 1989 women already in the RNZN were given the opportunity to elect either sea service or to remain non seagoing. Navy Order 35/1989 authorised the permanent employment of women at sea in the RNZN. All women entering the RNZN from January 1989 intake would be required to serve at sea except those in a limited number of shore only trades.

HMNZS Wellington in 1995 was the first RNZN frigate to take women into a combat zone, in the Persian Gulf, as part of the Multi-national Interception Force. Three years later Lieutenant Bronwyn Jones was the first female Officer in Charge of an Inshore Patrol Craft.