Mabel Howard becomes first female Cabinet minister

29 May 1947

Mabel Howard, 1960 (Alexander Turnbull Library, EP/1960/0845-F)

First elected to Parliament for Christchurch East in a by-election in February 1943, Mabel Howard was to become one of the first Labour government’s ‘high-profile and sometimes flamboyant’ ministers.

She won the new electorate of Sydenham in 1946 and held this seat until her retirement in 1969. Following the death of Dan Sullivan in April 1947, she was appointed minister of health and minister in charge of child welfare, becoming the first woman to serve as a Cabinet minister in a Commonwealth country.

Coming from a strong trade union background, Howard declared her concern for ‘women, the aged, the sick and the unfortunate’. She had a forthright manner and a reputation for saying what was on her mind. She caused a fuss in September 1954 when during a lacklustre debate on the Merchandise Marks bill she waved two pairs of her bloomers in front of an astonished House. She was trying to show that although clothing sizes were supposed to be standardised and correctly labelled, much variation existed. The ploy clearly worked. While clothing manufacturers criticised the stunt, she received much support (some of it from within the National Party) and standardisation was soon legislated.

In the Walter Nash-led second Labour government (1957-60) Howard became minister of social security, minister in charge of the welfare of women and children, and minister in charge of the Child Welfare Department. Her reputation for lacking tact and being unnecessarily antagonistic towards departmental officials and doctors apparently contributed to Nash’s decision not to restore her to the health portfolio.

Howard was re-elected with large majorities in 1963 and 1966, when Labour was in opposition. She stood down in 1969 after the Labour Party introduced a mandatory retirement age. Her health had been declining and she was suffering the early stages of dementia. A court order saw her committed to Sunnyside Hospital, Christchurch, where she died in June 1972.

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