Page 1: Biography
Anderson, Mary Patricia
Teacher, boarding-house keeper, community leader, politician
This biography, written by Neill Atkinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Mary Patricia Anderson was born on 17 March 1887 at Moonlight, an isolated goldmining settlement near Atarau in Westland's Grey River valley. One of at least eight children of Irish-born Catherine Flaherty and her Swedish husband, Anton Anderson, a miner, she spent her first years with her family in a two-roomed shack beside her father's water-race. After attending the local school, then Greymouth District High School, Mary taught at Upper Moonlight and Granville schools from 1902 to 1907; she also served as the local postmistress. She then moved with her family to Greymouth and in 1910 opened a boarding house in Puketahi Street, which she was to manage until 1942.
Spurred by the socialist ferment of early twentieth century Westland, Mary Anderson became interested in politics; she later said, 'as we were always working people, my politics were for those who toiled'. During the 1908 Blackball coalminers' strike she became friendly with Paddy Webb and other militant unionists. Several years later she heard socialist orators Harry Scott Bennett and W. T. Mills speak in Greymouth, and during the First World War she supported the local labour movement's agitation against military conscription. Two of Mary's younger brothers emigrated to the United States around 1914, and were to achieve distinction in American politics: Eric was a Democratic Party member of the Washington state legislature; Anton, a railway engineer, became mayor of Anchorage, Alaska.
A founding member of the Greymouth branch of the New Zealand Labour Party in March 1917, Mary Anderson was elected to its executive committee a year later, and in November 1918 became secretary, a position she was to hold for nearly 38 years. In March 1919 she became a branch delegate on the Grey District (later Westland) Labour Representation Committee, serving for much of the next four decades. During the 1920s, a period of tension between Labour Party supporters and militant coalminers' delegates, she occasionally chaired LRC meetings. Anderson also managed Greymouth's Lyceum Hall, which housed the branch, LRC and most of the town's trade unions, and served on the board of the local Labour newspaper, the Grey River Argus. As 'Aunt Flora' she edited the children's page for two years and organised popular picnics during the depressed 1930s.
Women played a prominent role in Greymouth's close-knit, moderate and predominantly Irish labour community. The Labour Party's branch executive at times included Mary's sister Kathleen (Kate) Anderson, her lifelong friend Kate Spencer, and a number of other women. She was also a close friend of West Coast Labour politicians such as Jim O'Brien, Harry Holland and Mark Fagan, and often hosted visiting party leaders. Active in the Plunket Society and other local welfare organisations, Anderson was appointed a justice of the peace in August 1943, and in June 1945 became reputedly the first woman in New Zealand to sit on a Magistrate's Court bench.
In January 1946, just over four years after women had gained the right to sit in the Legislative Council, the Labour government appointed Anderson and Mary Dreaver as its first women members; both served until its abolition in December 1950. A somewhat reluctant pioneer, Anderson declared in her maiden speech, 'I do not look upon myself purely as a woman in this Chamber…I claim to represent the people.' Nevertheless, she took a keen interest in issues of concern to women, such as the work of the Child Welfare Division of the Department of Education and women police officers. In 1948 she became the first woman to chair a New Zealand parliamentary committee.
An ardent supporter of Labour's welfare state, Mary Anderson described her political beliefs as 'Christian democracy'. She advocated state regulation of gambling, horse-racing and alcohol, but did not condemn those who enjoyed them. In 1950 she sat on a parliamentary committee to consider the reintroduction of capital punishment, which she denounced as 'out-moded, out-dated, and barbarous'. She was also vocal on issues of local importance, including forest preservation, soil erosion and the development of Westland's tourist potential.
In November 1950 Anderson was elected to the Grey Hospital Board, on which she served for the next 12 years. She retired as secretary-treasurer of the Greymouth branch of the Labour Party in 1956, but remained active in its affairs – as an honorary vice president – for much of the following decade. She never married, and died at her Greymouth home on 18 February 1966. A handsome, dignified woman, widely admired for her determination, generosity and integrity, Mary Anderson had served the Labour Party and the community of Greymouth for half a century.