Elizabeth May Seddon was born on 24 March 1880 at Kumara, Westland, the seventh of eleven children of Louisa Jane Spotswood and her husband, Richard John Seddon, later to be premier of New Zealand from 1893 to 1906. Hers was a family of strong personalities and May, like her father, had prodigious energy, a formidable intelligence and the ability to get things done.
She attended Kumara School and from 1895 to 1898 Wellington Girls’ High School. She had hoped to enter the civil service but instead took courses in typing and shorthand at Wellington Technical College in 1902 and became a private secretary to her father. Her familiarity with politics at work was reinforced at home, where many prominent people called to see her father or were invited to dine.
May was a member of the New Zealand Young Ladies’ Contingent, which organised fund-raising for the South African War, and she visited New Zealand troops in South Africa with her parents. She also assisted in raising money for Mother Mary Joseph Aubert’s Our Lady’s Home of Compassion and later the Wellington City Mission’s Men’s Shelter. On 3 July 1907 at Wellington she married Knox Gilmer, a dentist. They were to have two daughters. While she was on her honeymoon in Sydney, the Bulletin commented that May ‘is just as liable to board a car wearing a cotton blouse, a utilitarian skirt and her brother’s cap, as she is to say exactly what she thinks of things in a voice remarkably reminiscent’ of her father’s. Knox died in 1921, after a brief illness, and as her daughters grew so did May’s involvement in public activities.
By the 1930s she was involved in a staggering array of welfare and women’s organisations and local body activities. May Gilmer was vice president of the Wellington branch of the Plunket Society, president of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Crippled Children Society, a board member of the YWCA, and president of the Wellington Social Club for the Blind. She was associated with the Wellington Unemployed Women Workers’ Association during the depression and was an honorary vice president of the Wellington Children’s Health Camp Association. A member of the Wellington branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, she represented her country at the International Council of Women conference in Switzerland in 1949; she became a life member of the Victoria League. She was a justice of the peace and a member of the Wellington College board of governors (1934–56). A member of the Wellington Hospital Board from 1938 to 1953, she pushed for improved conditions for the nurses, public telephones for patients and visitors and improvements to the grounds and recreation rooms of Silverstream Hospital. As a Wellington city councillor from 1941 to 1953, she chaired the libraries and the parks and reserves committees.
Conservation and horticulture were her abiding interests. She was an executive member or patron of several local and national organisations and a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society, London. The reinstatement of tree-planting on Arbor Day in 1934 was largely due to her lobbying government. In 1936 she won the Bledisloe Challenge Trophy for her garden and in 1938 the Loder Cup for reviving Arbor Day and encouraging schools and societies to observe it. She often wore a gentian bloom pinned to her lapel.
Her work with women’s organisations led May Gilmer to believe that independent rather than party-aligned women were needed in Parliament. In 1935 and 1938 she ran for office, first as an independent and then as a liberal. Although unsuccessful, during the Second World War she established a reputation for political effectiveness. She served on the central executive of the Women’s War Service Auxiliary and was a member of the war loans and national savings committees. From 1948 to 1960 she was on the allocation committee of housing for the State Advances Corporation of New Zealand. A skilled and persuasive orator noted for her quick wit and sharp repartee, she was a formidable and not always generous opponent, who did not suffer fools gladly. Difficulties and differences with others were often the price she paid for her zeal and decisive action.
For her indefatigable community work and local government service she was made an OBE in 1946 and DBE in 1951. She was awarded a Greek Red Cross and also the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935, and the Coronation Medal in 1953. She once commented, ‘I was brought up by parents whose whole object was service, and have tried to follow that upbringing’. When she died at Wellington on 29 February 1960 the Evening Post noted that ‘Dame Elizabeth, but for her sex, might well have surpassed her parent’.