In 150 years, women in New Zealand moved from political insignificance to a position of legal equality with men. In the mid-19th century, women could not vote, stand for election, serve on a jury, sit as a judge, or keep their New Zealand nationality if married to a foreign national. In the late 19th century women won the vote; in the 20th century they won the right to stand for Parliament, to retain their own nationality after marriage, to serve on a jury, and to sit as justices of the peace and judges. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established in 1986. In the 21st century women still lagged behind in practice, but the possibility of equality was real.
Prime ministers and party leaders
In the early 21st century New Zealand led the world in terms of women holding leading political positions. There have been three women prime ministers: Jenny Shipley (1997–99), who led the National Party from 1997 to 2001; Helen Clark (1999–2008), the first woman to become prime minister following an election, who was leader of the Labour Party from 1993 to 2008; and Jacinda Ardern (2017–23}, who became leader of the Labour Party in August 2017 and prime minister less than three months later.
In 2023 both Te Pāti Māori and the Green Party had Māori women, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Marama Davidson respectively, as co-leaders.
The campaign for women’s suffrage – the right to vote in national elections – was led by the first wave of women activists in the 1880s and 1890s, working through national organisations that predated political parties. Their campaign succeeded in 1893.
Running schools, hospitals and pubs
In the decades before women could vote in national elections, they took part in electing local bodies and school committees, and liquor licensing, hospital and charitable-aid boards. Although some hesitated to take on a public position, others jumped at the opportunity. In the first school committee elections, in the late 1870s, a Mrs Walker became chair of the Selwyn district committee. Other women followed.
Members of Parliament
The legal ban that prevented women standing for Parliament reflected strong disapproval of, and disbelief in, women’s suitability for positions of public authority. The law was changed more easily than custom. Although women could stand for election from 1919 – 26 years after winning the right to vote – it was not until the 1980s that they were more than a tiny proportion of members of Parliament.
In 1933 Elizabeth McCombs (Labour) became the first female MP when she won the Lyttelton seat left vacant by her husband’s death. Iriaka Rātana (Labour) also succeeded her husband to become the first Māori woman MP, winning Western Māori in 1949. Mabel Howard, another Labour MP, was the first woman to become a cabinet minister, in 1947. Until 1960 only one woman had ever entered Parliament in a general election, rather than at a by-election.
By 1970 many women had sought selection and election, but only 11 (seven Labour and four National) had ever become MPs. At the end of the 1970s women had never held more than 6.3% of the seats in the House, and only four had ever served in cabinet.
Yet in 1993 women held 21% of seats, an exceptionally good result for a first-past-the-post electoral system. A jump to 29% followed the change to proportional representation in 1996; the figure rose to almost 34% in 2008 before stabilising at around 30%. The 46 women MPs returned in 2017 made up 38% of Parliament, then the highest proportion ever. In 2018 New Zealand ranked 19th out of nearly 120 countries for female representation in Parliament. In 2022 there were 61 women MPs, 51% of Parliament. In 2023, for the first time, there were equal numbers of men and women in cabinet, and a majority of all ministers were women.
Causes of change
Women’s increasing representation in Parliament was the result of organised pressure by women during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as electoral change. Women’s political-party and non-party organisations (such as the Labour Women’s Council and the Women’s Electoral Lobby) worked hard to get more women recruited as candidates and moved up the party ranks. New Zealand’s shift to a mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system, in which about 40% of MPs are elected on party lists, also worked in favour of women (and other previously marginalised groups).
Local government has a big impact on women’s everyday lives. Women who paid rates on properties were able to vote and stand for election to local bodies from 1867. Elizabeth Yates was elected mayor of Onehunga in 1893, becoming the first woman mayor in the British Empire.
By 1979 women held around 20% of elected local authority positions. The peak year for women’s representation on city, district and regional councils was 1998, when 31% of councillors and 25% of mayors were women. These proportions declined as local government reorganisation reduced the number of elected positions from over 5,000 to around 1,700, narrowing an important path into politics for women. In the 2022 local body elections, 39% of those elected and 32% of mayors were women.
‘Women’s issues’ in politics
From the 1980s women began to achieve a much more significant presence in national politics and in other important political arenas, such as the union movement. The government began to pay more attention to issues such as domestic and sexual violence, and the competing demands of paid and unpaid work.
The approach of women MPs to ‘women’s issues’ has usually depended on their political stance. This was evident in the swing to ‘New Right’ policies between 1984 and 1998, which cut back the welfare state and had a severe impact on low-income women. During the early 1990s, when some of these reforms were being implemented, the ministers of finance, social welfare and women’s affairs were women.