The decision to set up a Ministry of Women’s Affairs (now Manatū Wāhine Ministry for Women) arose from developments in the women’s liberation movement in New Zealand and the increasing political power of women.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the women’s liberation movement demanded equal access to education and employment opportunities, equal pay, free childcare, free contraception, and safe access to abortion services. 

In 1966 the first significant event in the ‘second wave’ of the women’s liberation movement was the setting up of the Society for Research on Women (SROW). During the 1970s, a series of United Women’s Conventions were held. There was increased activity on issues such as violence against women and women’s health. The Women’s Electoral Lobby was formed in 1975 to increase the participation of women in politics.

The Government set up a select committee on women’s rights in 1973 and, following the United Nations declaring 1975 to be ‘International Women’s Year’, established a ‘Committee on Women’. It was replaced in 1981 by a smaller Advisory Committee on Women’s Affairs (ACWA). These bodies were the first official attempts to have a channel for women’s views to influence policy making.

By the 1980s, the Government decided that the women’s movement needed a formal voice for women at Cabinet level. The Minister of Justice was appointed spokesperson for women and ACWA reported to this Minister.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs was established by Cabinet in November 1984, and legislation defining it as a separate department was passed in March 1985. The purpose of the Ministry was to achieve greater equality of access to power and resources, open and expand choices for women in all areas, develop policies and advice, and be responsive to women in the community. It is the only public sector organisation set up to address the needs of women in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

The Ministry was the first policy agency to include a Māori-specific unit, Te Ohu Whakatupu, with policy advisers to the government on issues regarding wāhine Māori. Te Ohu Whakatupu was dissolved in 2003.

By 1990, women’s participation in governance – in the parliamentary, public, and private sectors – became a priority for the Ministry. The Women’s Appointment File was originally a database of CVs of women who put their names forward for appointment to statutory boards and committees. This has now developed into our successful Nominations Service for women interested in being nominated for public sector boards and committees.

In December 2014, the Ministry's name changed to Ministry for Women.

In December 2018, the Wai 2700 – Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry was established to hear claims which allege prejudice to wāhine Māori resulting from breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi by the Crown. These claims are both historical and contemporary and extend across many fields of Crown policy and practice. In late 2019, the Joint Roopū with Te Puni Kōkiri was formed. The Roopū is responsible for coordinating the Crown's response to the Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry at the Waitangi Tribunal.

In 2020, the Ministry's name changed again to Manatū Wāhine Ministry for Women.

From its early beginnings to today, Manatū Wāhine Ministry for Women and its predecessors have provided policy advice to improve outcomes for women in Aotearoa New Zealand and make a positive difference to women, their families, and their communities.