Alice May Palmer was born on 6 August 1886 at Gordon, near Gore, New Zealand, the eldest of three children of Alice Shepard and her husband, Walter Henry Palmer, a clerk of court. In 1900 May boarded in Invercargill and began attending Southland Girls' High School with an education board scholarship. She was dux there in 1903 and in 1904 was dux at Southland Boys' High School where, in accordance with school board policy at the time, she spent her final year.
She passed the junior civil service examination in January 1905 and was placed second for New Zealand; later, she passed the senior civil service examination. In June 1905 she was appointed a clerical cadet by George Hogben, secretary for education. Very few permanent heads of department selected young women from the examination lists but he was an exception. From 1906 to 1911, while working full time in Wellington, she studied at Victoria College and in 1912 gained her BA.
In 1912 the Public Service Act sought to create a service free of political influence with a clear career structure and promotion by merit. However, in 1913 Commissioner Donald Robertson introduced new disadvantages for women. He barred them from the Public Service Entrance Examination (until wartime exigency forced him to revoke his decision in 1916), and made them resign on marriage unless he issued a special certificate. In 1914 he brought in a new regulation fixing maximum salaries for women employees below those of men.
In response, the New Zealand Public Service Association conference in July 1914 passed a remit that 'female employees of equal competence with male employees and doing similar work receive equal treatment as to pay and privileges'. The conference also created special representation for women on its national executive and May Palmer, because of her strong leadership and organisational abilities, was elected to one of these two positions. At the conference dinner she said that women 'were content to be judged on the merit of the work they performed and asked only to be remunerated accordingly, and not to be kept on the bottom rungs of the ladder simply on account of their sex'.
In October 1914 she was part of a delegation to Robertson and his assistant commissioners, Andrew Thomson and Robert Triggs, protesting against the reduced maximum salaries for women. She pointed out that many women – like many men – had dependants to keep, and that it was inequitable that women were being paid a maximum of £220 per annum for work men were paid £260 for. With one five-year break May Palmer held her position until 1934. In that year she was elected the first woman executive vice president of the PSA. Not until 1978 would the next woman be elected to senior office.
Given the handicaps placed on women in the public service May Palmer had a surprisingly successful career. In 1916 she moved from the basic grade, class seven, to a newly created position of statistical clerk in class six. In 1924, 'by reason of the singular ability displayed in certain articles she submitted', she was transferred from the clerical to the professional division to become sub-editor of the New Zealand School Journal. In 1937 she was appointed acting editor of the School Journal and of the New Zealand Education Gazette. She maintained a consistently high standard and was quietly efficient and self-contained. Despite her competence, however, because of a reluctance in the public service to place women in positions of control over men, she remained 'acting' until she retired in October 1940 after 35 years' service.
May Palmer lived in her own house at Eastbourne until the mid 1960s, when she moved to a flat in her niece's Karori home. She never married, and during her 36-year retirement entertained friends, read, played bridge and attended the Pioneer and the Wellington Lyceum clubs. She spent her last years as a patient at Silverstream Hospital, where she died aged 90 on 26 June 1977. C. E. Beeby, a former director of education, later commented that her promotion from the clerical division to a professional post had been a rare achievement in those days. Palmer is recognised as a pioneer in two respects; as one of the early women career public servants and as the first woman to hold high office in the PSA.