Nina Agatha Rosamond Greensill was born in Picton on 9 August 1879, the youngest of seven surviving children of Selina Rebecca Downes and her husband, John Abraham Roberts Greensill. Her mother died in 1883 and Nina was brought up by her father, assisted by a housekeeper and a maid. His second wife, Rose Conolly, who bore two children, died in 1890 after only two years’ marriage. A former sheepfarmer and public servant, John Greensill had gone into business selling the products of local farmers and whalers. His interest in sport, his religious commitment (as an Anglican lay reader), and his involvement in public affairs, including a period as mayor of Picton, were significant influences on his daughter. Having received most of her primary education at small private schools in Picton, Nina Greensill boarded privately in Wellington and attended Wellington Girls’ High School from 1894. She went on to graduate MA with first-class honours in natural science at Canterbury College in 1902.
She spent 1902 as an assistant teacher at Hukarere Native Girls’ School in Napier and was then appointed scholastic head mistress at Queen Victoria School for Maori Girls in Parnell, which opened in May 1903. Here her desire to offer an academic education suitable for future leaders conflicted with the prevailing view that practical domestic skills were more suitable for the school’s pupils. On 16 November 1904 in Picton she married Thomas Robert Barrer, an engineer. The couple lived in Wellington for the next few years before moving to Wairarapa, where Thomas became a sheepfarmer at Te Wharau. They also had a house in Masterton, which they lived in when not at the farm.
Nina Barrer spent the rest of her life in Wairarapa, and became involved in many organisations, often holding local or national office. These included the WEA, the Red Cross, the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, CORSO, and the United Nations Association of New Zealand. In 1923, having helped to establish Wairarapa High School, she was elected as a parents’ representative on the board of governors. She subsequently served on the Wairarapa Secondary Education Board, which controlled both the High School and Masterton Technical School from 1926. Barrer was one of the first women in New Zealand to hold such a position and was selected to chair the board in 1931. Having forcefully promoted the controversial proposal to amalgamate the two schools, she was not re-elected in 1932, but a year later she was appointed by the governor general for another term. In 1935 she represented the New Zealand Women Teachers’ Association at the World Federation of Education Associations conference in Oxford.
Barrer was the president of the Masterton branch of the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union (1927–30) and served as a dominion vice president and a member of the advisory board (1925–47). She edited the division’s magazine, New Zealand Countrywoman, from 1933 to 1935 and in 1934 represented the organisation at the Pan Pacific Women’s Association conference in Honolulu. Influenced by her education in science and her farming experience, Barrer became convinced by eugenicist arguments that the ‘purity of our national stock’ was being undermined. During the 1930s she lobbied for legislation to prohibit the ‘mentally deficient’ from marrying and to allow for their sterilisation. Initially, the Women’s Division supported this campaign, commissioning Barrer’s 1933 pamphlet, The problem of mental deficiency in New Zealand. However, increasing opposition within the organisation led to a decision not to be involved in such contentious and divisive issues.
As a member of the co-ordinating committee of the Women’s Division and the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Women’s Institutes, established in 1937, Barrer was appointed to the new Council of Adult Education in 1938 and served until 1947. On her suggestion, the council made annual grants for tutors to run courses in rural areas in activities such as drama, dressmaking, gardening and food preserving. Barrer was co-editor and a major contributor to the national centennial publication of the Women’s Division, Brave days: pioneer women of New Zealand (1939).
After being associated with the Reform Party, Barrer became a prominent member of the New Zealand National Party, holding several positions including dominion councillor (1942–43) and women’s vice president for the North Island (1944–45). She insisted that women in the party take an interest in all areas of policy – not just traditional women’s concerns – and should seek other offices besides those reserved for women. She also campaigned within the party for the promotion of able women.
Through addresses, correspondence and magazine articles, Nina Barrer promoted a series of causes with vigour and ability, often in the face of strong opposition. She was particularly concerned with education and women’s issues, but also maintained a lifelong enthusiasm for drama and tennis. In 1959 she was made an MBE for her services to education. Widowed in November 1951, she died in Masterton on 17 September 1965, survived by three sons and a daughter.