Mabel Howard


Mabel Howard
Mabel Howard

In 1947, 14 years after Elizabeth McCombs had become the first woman MP, and more than half a century after women had won the vote, Mabel Howard became New Zealand’s first woman Cabinet minister.

First elected to Parliament for Christchurch East in a by-election in February 1943, Mabel Howard was to become a high-profile minister in the later years of the first Labour government. She won the new electorate of Sydenham in 1946 and held the 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 female Cabinet minister in New Zealand.

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 gained attention in September 1954 when – during a lacklustre debate on the Merchandise Marks Bill – she waved two pairs of bloomers in front of an astonished House. She was trying to illustrate that although clothing sizes were supposed to be standardised and correctly labelled, much variation existed. Her plan worked. While clothing manufacturers complained, she also received much support (including from within the National Party) and standardisation was soon legislated for.

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 apparently contributed to Nash’s decision not to give her the health portfolio she had previously held.

Howard was re-elected with large majorities in 1963 and 1966, while Labour was in opposition. She stood down in 1969 after the Labour Party introduced a mandatory retirement age. Her health was deteriorating and she was in the early stages of dementia. She was committed to Sunnyside Hospital, Christchurch, where she died in June 1972.

By Neill Atkinson

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Posted: 02 Sep 2022

Seems to be a very misogynistic view of what seems to be a very progressive woman politician as Elizabeth McCombs was only appointed on account of her husband's death. Although Mabel Howard used unusual techniques, I feel like the wording here could have been better, words like flamboyant, fuss and ploy could have been replaced with "although unusual and slightly dramatic in her tactics, she proved a point to the house when..." I also find it interesting that until her Mandatory retirement other ministers had mostly abdicated their positions in death rather than in retirement. This article doesn't do her much justice for what she did. Before her remarks on the Merchandise Mark's Bill, there was little to no standardization for women's clothing and the aforementioned standardization largely applied to men's clothing. Can we have a female author rewrite?