Page 1: Biography
McNab, Dorothy Pauline
Women’s military administrator, political organiser, community leader
This biography, written by Charlotte Macdonald, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Dorothy Pauline Lamason was born in Napier on 8 December 1921, the daughter of Violet Lloyd Curtis and her husband, William John Lamason, a draughtsman. Her parents had strong principles and the family attended the local Brethren assembly. Like all Napier households the Lamasons were deeply affected by the devastating 1931 earthquake. The children spent almost a year living in Taranaki while their father, a building inspector with the Public Works Department, worked on the reconstruction of the city. When he was killed in a motor accident in 1936, Dot’s prospects of further education were cut short by the need to help her family. She left Napier Girls’ High School in 1937 and found clerical positions in various offices in Napier.
Keen to contribute during the Second World War, Dot Lamason volunteered for service with the New Zealand Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in September 1942. In 1944 she was part of a small group selected for overseas service as clerical workers with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Egypt and Italy. Although younger than most of her colleagues, Lamason was appointed officer in charge of the group. Unlike nurses or welfare (social club) servicewomen, the clerical WAACs replaced men in office positions and many lived in Maadi Camp. They had to cope with a degree of hostility and scepticism from troops and senior officers, who feared that women doing men’s work would downgrade its status, and also resented the unsettling effect of a group of women living amongst them.
The WAAC clerical division’s success under Lamason’s command led to a rapid expansion of the scheme, and to her own promotion (to junior commander) and a mention in dispatches. She won the admiration and confidence of her seniors and the enduring respect of those who served under her, demonstrating clear thinking, practical and efficient organisation, high personal standards and a strong sense of loyalty. She also learned the demands, as well as the rewards, of working within a long-established male hierarchy.
While visiting an Italian hospital Dot renewed an acquaintance with a young officer, Thomas Gordon McNab, whom she had first met on a troop ship in the Mediterranean. She returned to New Zealand at the end of June 1946, her commission having been extended to assist in organising the departure of British and European women who had married New Zealand soldiers. Tom McNab and Dot Lamason married at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Napier, on 28 June 1947. Moving to live on the McNab family farm near Owaka in South Otago was not an easy transition for Dot, and some sections of the highly traditional, closely knit community regarded her as a person with too much worldly experience.
Between the birth of her two sons, in 1949 and 1951, Dot McNab joined the New Zealand National Party. In the mid 1950s she was elected secretary-treasurer of the Owaka District High School Committee. Providing rural children with as good an education as city children and securing medical services for families in the country were pressing concerns. She also campaigned for new buildings, library books, better lunches for children, and improved roads, bridges and school transport. Realising that action on such matters required political decisions, McNab became active in the National Party’s Clutha branch. She was influential in securing the selection of J. B. (Peter) Gordon as the National candidate in 1960, and moved on to national prominence in the party. In 1966 she became a dominion councillor, a position she would occupy for 17 years.
Dot McNab represented the centrist conservatism of many post-war New Zealanders, for whom National was the natural party of government. She was a confidante to local MPs, prime ministers (especially Keith Holyoake) and many others who sought an independent and considered view from ‘middle New Zealand’. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s she was one of the most influential figures in the party.
McNab was appointed a member of the board of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation in 1970. She was chairman of the board’s New Zealand Listener committee at the time of editor Alexander MacLeod’s controversial dismissal in July 1972. Allegations of political interference in broadcasting were made in the heated atmosphere of the run-up to the 1972 general election. Although a commission of inquiry exonerated board members of any suggestion of wrongful conduct, they came under intense public scrutiny.
When the National Party regrouped after its landslide defeat that year, McNab was an eager reformer. She encouraged more women to take part in policy debate, the drafting of remits, and representation at all levels. Under her impetus the old auxiliary positions of North and South Island women’s vice presidents were replaced by a single new office – women’s vice president – with equivalent status to other party vice presidents, a budget and national responsibilities. Dot McNab was not in the feminist vanguard, but she saw no reason why women’s talents should lie buried beneath the tea trollies and sponge cakes of community or political gatherings. Although a family loyalist herself, she defended the domestic purposes benefit, matrimonial property reform and access to abortion against less tolerant views in party circles.
From 1976 to 1979 McNab chaired the Otago–Southland division of the National Party, the first woman to hold such a position. Politics in the late 1970s were highly volatile, and the party organisation (as opposed to its parliamentary wing) was taking a more active public and policy-development role. McNab had the personal authority and acumen to deal with these demands, and was also able to control large and rowdy public meetings. Intensely interested in politics, she also had a great sense of humour, being known to call meetings to order with her farmer’s whistle and a beaming grin. Although no one questioned her ability to go further, ill health, family ties and her husband’s parallel involvement in farming politics restricted Dot McNab’s prospects for higher political office. In the 1980s she served on the New Zealand Lottery Board and supported younger women in the National Party, taking great satisfaction in Sue Wood’s election as president in 1982.
Dot McNab’s community work was recognised by the award of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal (1977), appointment as an OBE (1979) and a New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal (1993). In later years she struggled with political policies that saw government services withdrawn from rural communities. She and Tom retired to Balclutha in 1981, and she died there on 8 August 1995, survived by Tom and their sons.