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doing it for themselves
doing it for themselves
he Well Women’s Centre
opened in April 1988,
the idea of Greymouth
nurse Pic Neilson. She
wanted a health and
resource centre that
helped people before they got sick. The
timing was, she says, just right.
A public meeting was called upstairs at
the Regent Theatre and 72 women —
and one man, a doctor — turned up.
The first premises were tucked away in
Tainui Street, a “ little cottage no one else
wanted,” foundation member Barbara
Holland says. Its location, slightly off the
centre of town, was perfect as it afforded
It was a different era; domestic violence
was talked about far less. Most GPs were
men, and many worked from their own
home. The Consumer Code of Rights
was still more than a decade away, as was
the office of the Health and Disability
Soon after the Well Women’s Centre
opened the door, the second 1988
flood struck, coming to within half a
centimetre of the front door.
“ We were a little island, I always
thought it was a good omen,” Barbara
They opened on a Monday, and on the
Wednesday held their first workshop
with a dietician. The new centre had one
table and one chair, and so many turned
up for the workshop it was standing
Many of the women involved have
now moved on — Jane Wells, former
hotelier from Blackball, Mary Gordon
(current executive director of nursing for
the Canterbury District Health Board),
dietician Margaret Weston, careers
adviser Marianne Kelly, and public
health nurse Anne Fowler.
They had a feminist philosophy and
some men told their wives “not to go to
Some of the women involved said
assumptions were made about their
sexuality. In fact, most were married with
They backed equal pay for equal hours,
and fought against the health cuts of the
early 1990s, when people were made to
part-pay for outpatient appointments at
They soon realised that women were
hungry for information, so the women’s
centre set up a free resource library, and
visiting experts would give talks.
The very first woman through the door
asked about cer vical smears, in the days
before screening programmes — a
ser vice they still offer to this day.
Those first women also asked about
the drugs they had been prescribed —
HRT and Prozac (take it for life, the
women had been told, even though no
one knew how to get patients off it).
Barbara wrote the first funding
application, and ever since then Lotto
has continued its financial support.
Semi-retired medical practitioner Dr
Christine Robertson was involved from
the start. Back then she was doing family
planning clinics while employed by the
Department of Health.
Her main involvement was getting
West Coast women access to abortion
ser vices. Until then, women had to pay
to go to Christchurch or Auckland.
Christine stood for a seat on the West
Coast Hospital Board and got on (she
modestly attributes this to her doctor
title), but at her very first meeting
she lost a motion which would have
improved access for abortions.
At a meeting with the general manager
and chairman of the board she was told
money had been made available, should
they take it?
“ I said, ‘if women go to Christchurch,
the chances are they will stay and have it
(abortion) done. If we have counselling
ser vices on the West Coast, some women
will (have space to think) and end up
continuing with the pregnancy.’”
About this time, Robyn Edwards was
new to the West Coast. She was living
in a caravan and building a house. She
turned to the centre for support with a
The help was invaluable and she stayed,
joining the Well Women’s Centre. Still
today she talks warmly of the family
Their successes are too numerous to
list, but include an arrangement with a
GP, Dr Buchanan, which meant women
struggling to pay consultation fees could
afford their prescriptions, and in 1991
when senior psychiatric nurse Maxine
Fraser trained as a counsellor, they
moved into counselling ser vices.
In the end, the government contracts
were changed and they had to let the
funding go. However, they continued
to pay for people to access counselling
when they were not eligible for free
In the early 1990s, when the benefit
was cut by $27 overnight, they set up a
budgeting ser vice.
Robyn says alcohol and domestic abuse
prompted many women to reach out for
help. They also offered counselling after
disasters, and even the closure of the
second Strongman Mine.
“There was a significant underbelly
of family violence,” Barbara says. “ We
took numerous people off the Coast to
These women often put their heads
above the parapet, saying “these
are issues we all have to face as a
Always, they walked the walk. They had
a trained nurse on a Saturday morning,
made sweets to sell at markets (another
opportunity to get face to face with
women), and one year they talked to 28
They even did ‘suitcase clinics’, in the
Farmers’ wives would come to a home
and they would do ‘wellness’ talks,
or monitor blood-sugar levels. They
travelled far and wide, from Karamea to
It was a bigger picture approach to
health — a ‘wrap around’ ser vice long
before anyone talked of ‘integrated
family health centres’.
The women’s centre later moved next
door in Tainui Street and then, in 2002,
to a larger house in Alexander Street.
“ We work as a big family,” Robyn says.
Spanning different ages and
experiences, they attract a wide clientele,
and they refer affectionately to retired
nurse Jean Knipe as ‘grandmother’.
Women are referred to other ser vices,
some offered a cuppa, others a medical
But funding has become harder to
secure. Finally, unable to cover the rent
they made the decision to close the doors
early next month.
“ I worry about smear clinics we have
continued free of charge for women
who can’t afford to go to the GP nurse,”
“ I worry most of all for the people
who ask for counselling support for
themselves and their children, and can’t
The closure also leaves no one doing
bone density checks.
Yet, the women are agreed - it has been
quite a 27-year journey.
“ It ’s something we should be proud of,”
The women’s centre will close, but the
incorporated society will live on, and
will continue to advocate on behalf of
There is a tinkle at the door, as
someone else steps inside.
“There were 10 yesterday,” Barbara
says. And off they go, back to the job of
running the Well Women’s Centre.
PICTURE: Paul McBride
Well Women’s Centre stalwarts Barbara McQuarrie, left, Jean Knipe, Marg Moroney, Dyan Hansen, Dr Christine Robertson,
Pic Neilson, Robyn Edwards and Barbara Holland outside the Alexander Street premises.
In the days when family violence was swept under the carpet and when
most GPs were male, a group of Greymouth women set up the Well
Women’s Centre. Twenty-seven years on, it is closing its doors. Those
‘pioneering’ women told their story to LAURA MILLS.
Women’s Affairs Minister Margaret Shields, left, at the
official opening of the Well Women’s Centre with Pic
Neilson, October 1988.
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