Page 6: Parliament and retirement
Davies, Sonja Margaret Loveday
Nurse, labour activist, women’s rights activist, politician, peace campaigner
This biography, written by Anne Else, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Far from retiring, in November 1987 Sonja Davies entered Parliament as member for Pencarrow. She had owned a home in the electorate since 1985, due to a gift from former nurse Con Foot (née Thomson), who died in 1986. Another close friend, Mary Sinclair, became her parliamentary secretary. Davies greatly enjoyed her electorate work and worked with other women MPs to achieve her 25-year goal of better funding, staffing and training for early childhood education. She also made a useful contribution through international meetings in promoting peace.
Davies found it frustrating being an MP at a time when the party was split by division between the free-marketeers, led by Roger Douglas, and their opponents. Her attempts to join forces with Prime Minister David Lange were unsuccessful. In 1989, Davies was one of several Labour MPs who rushed back from overseas just in time to prevent his being deposed, but six weeks later he resigned.
In the anti-Labour landslide of 1990, Davies narrowly held her seat. She was horrified when the National government’s first act was to rescind the hard-won Employment Equity Act. This act, passed in July 1990, was designed to ensure women received equal pay for work of equal value, and equal employment opportunities.
Bread and roses
Davies became even better known when Bread and roses, a film by Gaylene Preston, based on Davies’s 1984 autobiography, was launched in 1992. The stream of invitations to speak at Labour Party and other meetings opposing the new government’s policies became a flood in 1993, the centenary of women’s suffrage, but the pressure brought on serious bouts of illness.
In 1994 her daughter, Penny, diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1990, died.
By then Davies was living permanently at Rangiiti, a property near Masterton. Her health was rapidly failing, and in 2003 she moved back to Wellington, where her friend Charles Chauvel and his partner, Dave Hollander, played a major part in caring for her. One of her last public appearances was at the presentation of the first Sonja Davies Peace Award, set up by friends and supporters on her 80th birthday as a memorial to her life and work. She died in the Alexandra Rest Home, Wellington, on 12 June 2005.
Together with what she accomplished for women and children, unions, and the peace movement, Sonja Davies had enormous significance as a trailblazer for women in public life. Her outspokenness may have hampered her political career, but her warmth and courage won her support and affection from a very broad range of New Zealanders. In 2006 she was honoured by the planting of a kōwhai tree and placing of a plaque in Parliament grounds, and the Labour Caucus Room bears her name.