• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

NZ's Women in Power: Where are they now?

The original cover

In 1989, North & South senior writer Rosemary McLeod profiled 31 women “shaping our lives and the country’s future”, at a time when the reins of power were still largely held by men. Three decades on, Joanna Wane reviews their legacy.

Five were union leaders – now that’s a sign of the shifting times. In a world without Helen Kelly, how many unionists would make a “power list” today? Nine were politicians, including Dame Cath Tizard, the first woman elected as Auckland mayor, although New Zealand was yet to have a woman prime minister, a woman governor-general or a woman High Court judge (let alone a woman chief justice).

When North & South senior writer Rosemary McLeod compiled her 1989 cover story Women in Power, she didn’t include artists, actors or athletes; there were no bloggers or social-media stars. But the women she chose – from contenders on the rise to those already at the top table – were “high on causes” and among the key influencers of their day.

“Suddenly, they’re everywhere,” she wrote. “They sit on boards that matter, committees that don’t, commissions that get things done: nobody would dare leave them out… These are the woman who are shaping your world. They’re no longer tokens. They’re the real thing.”

Thirty years on, one of the women profiled describes McLeod’s power list as “prescient”. The youngest of the women were then in their 30s; the oldest was 64. They were stroppy, smart, passionate and committed to their causes. Some have retired (three have died), but many remain powerbrokers in their field. Remarkably, there are a dozen Dames – and that doesn’t count former Labour prime minister Helen Clark and her attorney-general Margaret Wilson, who both turned the title down.

McLeod recalls the aim was to identify women who would “influence the world in a different way”, at a time when men could not be relied upon to help them rise. “Calling yourself a feminist then was quite a defiant thing to say, and you could expect a hostile or teasing reaction,” she says. “It wasn’t a fact you could state without expecting to have to defend yourself. Now it’s not unusual for men to be at home with the children, and [in the October local-body elections] there were a remarkable number of women on local boards and councils, and voted in as mayor.”

New Zealand society has certainly become far more diverse in the past three decades; in our original story, only a handful of Māori featured among a field dominated by Pākehā. Today, a young activist like Pania Newton, who’s led the land protests at Ihumātao, might make the cut; or The Project’s outspoken presenter Kanoa Lloyd. So might Hong Kong-born Eat My Lunch founder Lisa King, or technology entrepreneur Frances Valintine, the “education futurist” behind Auckland’s Mind Lab.

Here, we’ve retraced the careers of all 31 women on the 1989 power list, finding one who’s walked away from it all, and catching up with three still at the top of their game.

Suzanne Snively. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

Suzanne Snively

THEN: Economic strategist/commentator, 39

Snively is in her “walking office” – talking on her mobile phone while hoofing it between a Reserve Bank meeting and the Stock Exchange, where she’s gathering with a group of independent directors to discuss corporate governance. “Some days, I see two to three public-sector CEOs and two to three parliamentarians,” she says. “You can do that in Wellington.”

Born in the US, Snively came to New Zealand in 1972 as a Fulbright Scholar and never really left. A member of the 1985 Budget Task Force, she recalls being pleasantly surprised to find herself on North & South’s power list, but McLeod considered her an obvious choice: “Very articulate and very smart.”

Back in 1989, Snively was an economic consultant to the Housing Corporation and a director of the Reserve Bank. Now she’s back in familiar territory with her recent appointment as chair of the Independent Expert Advisory Panel reviewing the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Act. She believes New Zealand would have better weathered the global financial crisis if the existing legislation had included oversight of finance companies. “And I’ve never been comfortable with the idea you give the bank a target of low inflation in isolation from what’s happening in the economy. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Snively's original North & South photo

Snively, who’s married to former broadcaster Ian Fraser, already had three young children when the North & South article was published. Instead of taking on projects that would have consumed weekends with her family, she made a conscious decision to stay engaged professionally through leadership roles and the exchange of ideas.

“I believed women had a lot to give, and I wanted to demonstrate that by doing things as opposed to going out and burning my bra,” she says, pausing for a moment as a fire engine screams past on the street. “We needed to be there, fronting up at the table with the men, showing them we were part of the team, too.”

It was then-finance minister Roger Douglas who offered Snively the Reserve Bank directorship, when her son Daniel was only six weeks old. In the 80s, she was part of the Talavera Group, an informal economic think-tank that tossed around ideas with Douglas, although he and Snively parted ways decisively when he embraced neoliberalism.

Named Wellingtonian of the Year in 2013 – sweeping aside contenders such as basketballer Steven Adams and filmmaker Jane Campion – Snively has led studies into the economic cost of child abuse and domestic violence (between $4 billion and $7 billion a year, according to her 2014 report), and was a partner at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) for 17 years.

Her raft of current positions includes a directorship on the NZ Army Leadership Board, but closest to her heart is her role as chair of Transparency International NZ, part of an independent global initiative fighting corruption. On the organisation’s annual index, New Zealand consistently ranks alongside Denmark as one of the least-corrupt countries in the world, an “incredible asset” that’s under-utilised, believes Snively. “In a globally committed economy, reputation is increasingly the driver of your brand and your ability to engage.”

Despite a significant, positive power shift in the past 30 years, she says women remain curiously excluded in some ways. “Whether it’s the automatic assumption that a man is a safer pair of hands, because they haven’t seen enough women in authority to see how safe our hands are, or whether being part of a boys’ network means they hear about [opportunities] before we do, so the deal has already been struck before we even find out about it… It’s very elusive.”

And teeing off on the golf course isn’t the only place where she suspects discussions play out in the absence of women. “It could even be the men’s toilets – they’re much more conducive to having conversations, for a start!”

Adrienne von Tunzelmann. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

Adrienne von Tunzelmann

THEN: Public policy worker, 42

Fresh out of Canterbury University in the late 60s with a first-class honours degree in economics, von Tunzelmann applied for an opening at one of the major banks. On her father’s advice, she used her initials rather than her first name, to neutralise her gender.

Perhaps that made all the difference, because she was flown to Wellington for an interview and then told the job was hers – but with a “second-class offer”, at a lower salary scale reserved for women employees. Von Tunzelmann accepted a position in the Treasury instead. By then, the public service had equal pay.

So began a lifelong engagement with public policy; she and her husband, Peter McKinlay, now have a private consultancy based in Tauranga. Career paths that followed a single trajectory were typical among women of her era, notes von Tunzelmann, who flirted with the idea of retraining as an architect in her 40s, but was told the best she could hope for was to find work as a “draughtsman”.

“Our generation followed the kind of defined path considered ‘successful’ for men. Even though women covered a huge range of occupations and fields of work, it was still within a conventional idea of where you needed to be,” she says.

“Young women now have much wider choices and don’t necessarily define success in those terms. I envy them in a way, and admire how they’re grabbing these opportunities and thinking much more laterally about what kind of working lives they want and how they align with their personal values.”

Apart from a year out as a consultant to the New Zealand Planning Council, von Tunzelmann worked at Parliament and Treasury till 1990 (knocking off a master’s degree in public policy along the way, graduating top of her class), then spent five years as a group manager at the Department of Justice, where she oversaw the department’s work on an overhaul of New Zealand’s company and securities law.

Adrienne von Tunzelmann at her desk in the Treasury, 1989.

When she and McKinlay moved to Tauranga in 2001, friends and colleagues thought they were mad to leave the heady environment of policy and government in Wellington for the cultural desert of the provinces. Von Tunzelmann, who’s taken up stand-up paddleboarding, says the pluses far outweight the negatives, and it’s created opportunities that may not have otherwise come her way.

The “most precious” of these, among a swag of board and committee appointments, has been 14 years on the governing body of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, a Ngāti Awa initiative fostering tertiary education for Māori in the eastern Bay of Plenty, with programmes running on marae nationwide.

It’s been a huge learning curve for von Tunzelmann, who’d never worked in a Māori organisation before. “When you’re Pākehā and blonde and female, you stick out a bit, but I’ve never been made to feel out of place.” Now an external adviser to the council, she describes the approach as strongly whānau based, with a focus on the importance of education as a way for students to give back to their communities and help them advance.

As the board chair of Bone Health New Zealand, she’s also taken a frontline role raising awareness around the importance of building strong bones to help prevent osteoporosis, which costs the health system $300 million a year. The condition crippled her mother, and von Tunzelmann was shocked when a bone scan in her late 40s showed her bone density was low, too. Lifestyle changes, and a course of medication, have brought her back within normal range.

In 1985, von Tunzelmann was the first woman to become Deputy Clerk of the House. Now, diversity isn’t just about gender, she says, but diversity of perspective, thought and experience. “I hope we’re running out of firsts. When women stop being the first one in any particular field, then we’ve kind of made it.”

Joanne Morris surrounded by bolts of fabric in her Kilbirnie sewing shop. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

Joanne Morris

THEN: Victoria University law lecturer, 34

Ego and power are symbiotic by nature; one tends to lead to the other. So eyebrows were raised when Morris stepped down after 25 years on the Waitangi Tribunal and disappeared into relative obscurity, reappearing behind the counter of a Kilbirnie sewing shop.

“Oh my god, you used to be a decent lawyer!” exclaimed Sir Geoffrey Palmer, on hearing the news. “As if I’d gone to the other side,” laughs Morris, who’d popped into the Wellington Sewing Centre one day to buy some wool to knit her son a jumper and discovered the business was on the market.

She was 60 when she bought the shop, with the help of some money left by her parents when they died, which was fitting, really; her mother had taught her to knit as a child. “It’s fun and creative, and it’s nice to have a pretty and happy work environment like this,” she says. “If my mother was alive, she’d love it here.”

Throughout her career, Morris’ work has taken her to some dark and ugly places. She had nightmares about the sexual torture she saw as chair of the Commission of Inquiry into Pornography, which reported to the Government in 1988 – the year before McLeod’s “power list” was published. “The inhumanity of what was on those videos… and those were the days when censorship was possible. We could never have predicted the internet.”

Joanne Morris at Victoria University in 1989.

Morris developed a pioneer course in feminist legal theory at Victoria University, and spearheaded projects at the Law Commission on mental health and women’s access to justice, raising challenges to the status quo that were not always well received by the establishment. A key milestone at the Waitangi Tribunal was her role chairing an inquiry into discrimination in social-services funding for urban Māori, who were disconnected from their iwi; the finding, released in 1998, “completely changed the approach of government agencies”.

The tribunal does important work, although progress is slow, says Morris, who enjoyed being on marae but ended up spending most of her time cloistered away writing reports. “I’m much more of a front-of-house person. And you’re dealing with intergenerational poverty for many people; that was hard.”

Does she recognise herself in that idealistic young woman of 30 years ago? “I did think [then] that law was good and true and just. Now, I’m very pragmatic and see it’s not kept up to date; I saw that more and more as I got older. I realised the law was based on the values, to a large extent, of white powerful men. The rule of evidence, in criminal law, is heavily weighted in favour of the ruling class. I was only just cottoning onto that in my early 30s. It was a bit of a disillusioning thing.”

In her time at university, only 20% of law students were women. Now, it’s more than half, but the drop-out rate from the legal profession remains extremely high. “They get burnt out and a lot of them just say, ‘Bugger it.’ They’ve got other opportunities and don’t have the ego that keeps them there,” says Morris.

“We were at the cutting edge, my generation, thinking we were changing the world for women, but I’m not too sure we made enough difference. Or not yet. I don’t know what it takes for a society to shift radically. There’s a new awareness of gender and [young people] are far more accepting of things today, which is fantastic. But it seems to me they’re still grappling with all the same problems we were.”

Jenny Gill. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

Jenny Gill

THEN: Charity worker, 37

When Gill walked into meetings as the new head of Foundation North, a philanthropic trust with an investment portfolio valued at $1.4 billion, people would look past her expectantly, waiting for her boss to arrive. “There was the assumption only a man could run a big foundation,” she says.

This August, she stepped down after 15 years as CEO, and is now self-employed as a strategic consultant in Auckland – her latest step in a professional career that began in 1989 when she became New Zealand’s first full-time paid employee working in philanthropy.

If power can be judged by the ability to make a tangible difference to people’s lives, Gill has remained a serious player. The founder of Philanthropy NZ, she spent her early years working for aid agency Corso and had three children before joining the Roy McKenzie Foundation, where she rose to executive director; later, she ran Fulbright NZ for 10 years.

One of New Zealand’s wealthiest men, McKenzie had “extraordinary sympathy for the underdog”, and taught her the importance of identifying a leader able to carry a project through. A great example of that, Gill says, is Raewyn Tipene’s work with Māori boys at the He Puna Marama Trust in Whangārei, which is supported by Foundation North and has significantly lifted NCEA pass rates.

At the Roy McKenzie Foundation, eight out of 10 applicants had to be turned away. “Now, the equity divide makes [philanthropy] even more important, but it also means the call on the dollar is just huge.”

She says cutbacks to government funding are now so entrenched it’s simply assumed others will make up the shortfall. “The conundrum is, should philanthropy step in where the government is funding inadequately? I made myself unpopular by saying no, we wouldn’t back-fill local or central government.”

Jenny Gill at the Roy McKenzie Foundation in 1989.

Under Gill’s leadership, Foundation North (formerly the ASB Community Trust) established the Centre for Social Impact in 2014 to support investing for social change. It also initiated the Gulf Innovation Fund Together (GIFT), committing $5 million over five years to improve the environmental health of the Hauraki Gulf, and is a key backer of the Healthy Homes Tai Tokerau insulation programme, which has retro-fitted more than 10,000 Northland homes.

Today, her various board roles include a recent appointment to Water Safety NZ, and she heads the advisory board to the Diana Unwin Chair of Restorative Justice at Victoria University. A grandmother of four, she feels pessimistic about climate change – “increasingly so” – yet optimistic about humanity, whether it’s the way the country responded to the Christchurch mosque attacks or the healthy public conversations being had over confiscated land at Ihumātao.

The former Onslow College head girl remembers her time at university in the 70s as “transformative”, with lecturers often joining students to protest against the Vietnam War or campaign for abortion law reform and nuclear disarmament. “That feeling you didn’t have to just do what the generations before you had done – coming to realise there were injustices and that New Zealand had a part to play in it. A lot of the causes we were involved in, we were on the right side of history. We felt we could make a difference. The hard thing for my children’s generation is that I think they feel a lot more powerless than we did.”

New Zealanders are generous by nature, ranking third on the 2018 Charity World Giving Index. A key shift Gill has seen in the philanthropy sector is that you no longer “deliver to” communities but find ways to work alongside them. It’s controversial territory, she admits, but there’s little international evidence to show drug education programmes make any long-term difference to the decisions young people make, while suicide prevention initiatives are often ineffective or can even do harm.

“You can’t just parachute programmes in. It’s hard and deeply intensive, but if you get in at the grassroots and wrap enough support around families in high-need communities, I’m still optimistic you can help them and meet their children’s needs.”

Dame Margaret Bazley. Photo/Wikimedia

The Honours List

Dame Margaret Bazley

THEN: Secretary for Transport, 51

A “rattler of finely balanced teacups”, the NZ Herald called Bazley when she stepped down in 2001 after 45 years of public service spanning health, transport, social welfare and governance. Almost two decades on, and now in her early 80s, she’s still the government’s go-to troubleshooter. Having previously delved into murky waters as head of a Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct, last year she led an external review into allegations of sexual misconduct at law firm Russell McVeagh, releasing a report Law Society president Kathryn Beck called an “important milestone in shining light into the dark corners of our profession”. Bazley was made a Dame in 1999.

Dame Silvia Cartwright

THEN: Chief District Court Judge, 45

The previous year, Cartwright had emerged as a household name for what has gone down in history as “the Cartwright Inquiry” into the treatment of cervical cancer at Auckland’s National Women’s Hospital. By the end of 1989, she’d been made a Dame; in 1993, she became the first female judge appointed to the High Court. New Zealand’s governor-general from 2001 to 2006, Cartwright was an international judge on the Cambodia war crimes tribunal, which tried senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge for genocide, and is currently heading a public inquiry into the Earthquake Commission (EQC) over its handling of the Christchurch earthquakes.

Ruth Chapman

THEN: President of the Post-Primary Teachers Association, 38

Tomorrow’s Schools was the new kid on the block, and Chapman was presiding over union negotiations in its shadow on behalf of her 13,000 members. Today, the PPTA and sister union NZEI retain some political muscle, with strikes this year leading to a pay deal from the government worth $1.5 billion. One of the Labour Party faithful since the early 80s, Chapman is now convenor of Southern Labour, which represents the five southern electorate seats, as well as the Te Tai Tonga Māori electorate.

Helen Clark

THEN: Minister of Health/Housing, 39

“In terms of universal respect, Helen Clark leads the other women in cabinet by a yard,” wrote McLeod, who put the MP for Mt Albert at the head of The Top Table in her power rankings. We all know the story of what happened next: first woman to be elected as Prime Minister of New Zealand (and a three-termer at that); administrator of the United Nations Development Programme; named by Forbes magazine as the 22nd most powerful woman in the world in 2016 (one behind Oprah Winfrey); and now patron of the Helen Clark Foundation, an independent think-tank that saw her speak out most recently in favour of legalising cannabis.


Dame Miriam Dell

THEN: Women’s rights advocate, 64

“Holds sway in the conservative feminist establishment,” noted McLeod of Dell, a former botanist and secondary-school teacher who became the first New Zealander elected as president of the International Council of Women, and became a Dame in 1980. Now 95, she remains patron of the New Zealand Association for Women in the Sciences, which in 2013 launched the Miriam Dell Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring, a biennial prize for outstanding efforts to retain women and girls in science, maths or technology.

Ruth Dyson

THEN: Labour Party president, 31

The youngest person to hold that position, and a key figure alongside Fran Wilde in driving homosexual law reform. An MP since 1993, the feminist/activist and champion of disability rights was firmly on the anti-Rogernomics side of Labour’s 1980s schism, and is now Assistant Speaker. Widely popular in her Port Hills electorate, Dyson is stepping down at next year’s election, in what right-wing political blogger David Farrar calls a “big loss” to Labour as one of their most politically competent MPs. “Her politics aren’t mine, but in my dealings with her I’ve found her very professional and effective.”

Dame Sian Ellis

Dame Sian Elias

THEN: QC, 40

Made a High Court judge in 1995, Elias served as Chief Justice (the most senior member of the judiciary) for 20 years before stepping down in March, when tributes were paid to her advocacy for Māori in the courts and before the Waitangi Tribunal. Elias, who had graduated from Auckland Law School by the time she was 21, was made a Dame in 1999 and later stirred controversy by criticising prison overcrowding and the “punitive and knee-jerk” attitude of politicians towards the criminal justice system. “It’s impossible to explain why justice matters to people,” she said in her farewell speech as Chief Justice. “It’s a concept that’s essential to the human spirit, but it is fragile.”

Angela Foulkes

THEN: Vice president, Council of Trade Unions, 40

UK-born Foulkes was first unionised when she took a job here in the 70s with ANZ, where she was on the negotiating team that won maternity leave for bank officers. After an extensive career in the government sector, last year she was appointed as chair of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Advisory Panel, reporting directly to the prime minister “to ensure the Inspector-General’s office is able to meet its responsibilities for independent oversight of the Government Communications Security Bureau and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service”.

Dame Barbara Goodman

THEN: Voluntary worker, 56

The St Cuthbert’s College old girl may have been born with a silver spoon, but she championed gritty causes: abortion rights, homosexual law reform, drug rehabilitation, support for sexual abuse survivors. Mayoress of Auckland in the late 60s and 70 on the arm of her uncle Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, Goodman was a Citizens & Ratepayers city councillor for 12 years, and was made a Dame in 1989. She died in 2013 after developing Parkinson’s disease.

Dame Annette King

THEN: Labour MP for Horowhenua, 41

“A life in politics is not what I want,” the former dental nurse told McLeod in 1989. “I haven’t got a big plan to make the world a better place. I think that I’m competent and articulate, and this is the best job I’ve ever had.” By the time she finally retired in 2017 – after 30 years in parliament and two stints as deputy leader – King had been dubbed “the mother of the Labour Party” and was our longest-serving female MP. Made a Dame last year, she’s now based in Canberra as New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Australia.

Susan Lojkine (now Wakefield)

THEN: Chair of the Commerce Commission, 46

A tax expert who also holds a doctorate in Russian, Wakefield’s power was said to come from being “immaculately well-informed”. A former deputy chair of the BNZ, she was the founding chair of the University of Canterbury Foundation and, in 2000, was on the panel of a ministerial inquiry into the design, regulation and governance of the electricity sector; its recommendations eventually led to the Electricity Industry Act 2010 and a new regulatory framework.

Ros Noonan

THEN: National secretary of the New Zealand Educational Institute, 42

A unionist and Labour Party member from her youth, Noonan (“reported to have privately a sense of humour”, according to McLeod) spent another seven years at teaching union NZEI before moving to Brussels as human rights coordinator for an international teachers’ organisation. Back home, she became the Human Rights Commissioner (2001-2011), and last year headed a damning review of the Family Court, which found it not fit for purpose, with National’s radical reforms in 2014 having delivered few of the promised benefits.

Hekia Parata

Hekia Parata

THEN: Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Department, 30

A descendant of Sir Apirana Ngata, Parata was “believed to influence the Prime Minister’s views on social policy” during David Lange’s Labour government, but it was as a National MP that she became Minister of Education in 2011. Her two terms in the role were bedevilled by controversy, from the Novopay debacle and the introduction of charter schools to internal friction among her staff, with eyebrows raised over high turnover and at least one personal grievance claim. She retired from politics at the 2017 election.

Sue Piper

THEN: President of the Public Service Association, 37

The following year saw the introduction of the Employment Contracts Bill, which led to heated debate within the union movement over whether all workers or only union members should have the protection of employment laws. Piper’s progressive advocacy of the former won support from the PSA, a position then adopted by the NZ Council of Unions. A Wellington city councillor for nine years, she was chair of Sport Wellington before being appointed to the Local Government Commission in September, after a previous stint there from 2005 to 2011.

Karen Poutasi

THEN: General manager of special health issues, Department of Health, 40

After a string of senior management roles, the former Director General of Health flipped to the education sector in 2006 when she was appointed chief executive of NZQA (the New Zealand Qualifications Authority). Occasionally Poutasi returns to her old stamping ground, though: in 2016, she was on the government inquiry into Havelock North’s contaminated water supply, and this May was appointed commissioner for the Waikato DHB after Health Minister David Clark sacked the board, citing its “deteriorating financial position, lack of strong governance and ongoing performance issues”.

Ruth Richardson

THEN: Opposition Spokesperson on Finance, 38

Not popular, but hard-working and much respected, according to McLeod, who said Richardson “unrelentingly harries and savages weaker colleagues”, and that only a perceived lack of warmth and accessibility stood in the way of her rise to the top. A year later, she was in government as National’s Minister of Finance (1990-93), unleashing her “Mother of all Budgets” and sweeping economic reforms dubbed “Ruthanasia” by the media. Sidelined by PM Jim Bolger after National barely scraped back in for a second term, she never did ascend to the leadership – later getting in behind Act Party co-founder Roger Douglas (Labour’s former Minister of Finance). She’s since held a string of directorships and operates out of Christchurch as an international economics consultant.

Erihana Ryan

THEN: Psychiatrist, 37

The daughter of a freezing worker, Ryan was one of the few Māori on the power list, and is the only woman featured to have settled offshore – most recently working in private practice in Australia. A member of the commission that produced the 1988 Mason Report on psychiatric care for mentally ill offenders – “I remember going to Paremoremo and feeling as though my soul had been destroyed by what I saw,” she told McLeod – Ryan worked as an adviser in Māori mental health and later spent time on the Waitangi Tribunal. She also chaired the Ngāi Tahu Development Corporation.

Dame Margaret Shields

THEN: Labour cabinet minister, 47

Media headlines paid tribute to the former Kāpiti MP and Minister of Women’s Affairs as a “women’s champion” after her death in 2013 at the age of 71. Co-founder of the Society for Research on Women, Shields, who was made a Dame in 2009, worked for the United Nations after leaving parliament and later became the first woman elected to chair the Greater Wellington Regional Council. Labour leader David Shearer remembered her as a woman of conviction who lived a life of leadership and service. “She stood up for what she believed in, and fought to build a fairer and more just world.”

Dame Jenny Shipley

THEN: National MP for Ashburton, 37

In her debut term at Parliament, Shipley was already tipped to become New Zealand’s first female prime minister. Nicknamed “the perfumed steamroller”, she toppled Jim Bolger in a 1997 leadership coup, and remains the only woman to have led the National Party. Post-politics, she became a Dame in 2009, moved in business circles and served on several boards – most infamously for construction company Mainzeal. In February, a High Court judge found Shipley and three other directors liable for damages over the company’s collapse, and she was ordered to pay creditors up to $6 million. Her current gig is as co-chair of the controversial Tuia 250 commemorations.

Dame Mira Szászy

THEN: Founder of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, 68

The first Māori woman to graduate from the University of Auckland and one of the first Māori social workers, Szászy described the lack of speaking rights on the marae for women as a symbol of oppression. “It’s not just the free speech… it is the belief that women have their own wisdom to impart.” She was made a Dame in 1990, and the Mira Szászy Research Centre for Māori and Pacific Economic Development was established in her honour by the University of Auckland Business School a few years before her death in 2001.

Dame Cath Tizard. Photo/Wikimedia

Dame Cath Tizard

THEN: Mayor of Auckland, 58

The Aotea Centre had been built under her watch as Auckland’s first female mayor – and Tizard, a Dame since 1985, was soon to become our first female governor-general (1990-1996). During her tenure, she ended the practice of bowing to the governor-general, declaring “No New Zealanders should have to bow to another” – although visiting travel writer Paul Theroux was infamously appalled by her table manners. On her retirement, Sir Geoffrey Palmer called her a presidential public presence. “She has been a part of New Zealand’s growing up.” A colourful and outspoken figure, the former Beauty and the Beast TV show panellist published her memoir, Cat Amongst the Pigeons, in 2010 and later appeared in an online video campaign supporting gay marriage.

Lady Margaret Trotter

THEN: Voluntary worker, 58

A lifelong supporter of the arts, Trotter is a founding trustee and life member of the Wellington Sculpture Trust, established in 1983 to support innovative public art in the city. Along with her late husband, business leader Sir Ron Trotter, she was instrumental in the formation in the early 60s of the Fletcher Challenge Art Collection, now one of the largest curated private collections of New Zealand art.

Kerrin Vautier

THEN: Economist, 44

Now deputy chair of the Reserve Bank, the career economist (including five years on the Commerce Commission), university lecturer, book author and board member has been an influential voice behind the scenes. First appointed by the Reserve Bank as a monetary policy adviser in 2002, Vautier’s current term expires next February.

Dame Beverley Wakem

THEN: Chief executive of Radio New Zealand, 45

“Smoothly spoken and tough” was how McLeod described Wakem, the first woman to head a government department in New Zealand. “She knows the right things to say and remains kingpin of radio.” As Chief Ombudsman (2005-2015), she criticised then-Prime Minister John Key’s attitude to the Official Information Act as cavalier, but copped flak when a subsequent review of the act – released shortly before she retired – found no political interference or deliberate misuse. Made a Dame in 2012, she was voted out in September after a single term on the Porirua City Council (where she voted against a successful motion to pay council employees the living wage). Wakem remains on the Department of Corrections’ Prisoner Welfare Board and the Chief Executive’s Advisory Panel on complaints against Oranga Tamariki.

Dame Fran Wilde

THEN: Labour cabinet minister, 40

Perhaps her boldest achievement, championing homosexual law reform, was already behind her. Three years later, it was taken for granted, noted McLeod, but “her work to achieve it was quite daring at the time”. Once the target of hate mail and death threats, Wilde went on to become a popular Mayor of Wellington – declaring the city a Peace Capital in 1993 – and then CEO of the Greater Wellington Regional Council. Made a Dame in 2017, she’s been involved with everything from Treaty of Waitangi negotiations and the district health board to Wellington on a Plate. In July, she became chair of the board of Te Papa.

Gay Williams

THEN: Executive director of the Nurses Association, 50

One of five union leaders featured in the list. At the time, she was fronting negotiations on pay and conditions for her newly unionised members, and accurately predicted both future nursing shortages and the expansion of responsibilities that has evolved into the role of nurse practitioners today. Williams later served on several government boards and in 2000, completed a PhD in Nursing Leadership. A keen genealogist and international traveller, she now lists her occupation as “Fun employment”.

Margaret Wilson

THEN: Member of the Law Commission/director of the Reserve Bank, 41

The following year, Wilson established Waikato University’s law school – and that’s where she returned, as Professor of Law and Public Policy, after retiring from politics in 2008. A unionist, feminist and influential president of the Labour Party in the 80s, she became the first woman Speaker of the House after being voted in as an MP in 1999. As Attorney-General, she presided over the introduction of the new Supreme Court (replacing the right of appeal to the Privy Council) and changes to the law on the division of property after a separation, giving de-facto couples of three years or more the same rights as those who are married.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.