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Suffrage 125

Page 3 – Are we there yet? Women in Parliament

Five women members of Parliament, 1981
Five women members of Parliament, 1981 (Alexander Turnbull Library, EP/1981/3920)

'Prime Minister AND a mum'

Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford

On 19 January 2018, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced via Instagram that she and her partner, Clarke Gayford, were expecting their first child. They would be ‘joining the many parents out there who wear two hats’; she would be ‘Prime Minister AND a mum’, while Clarke would be 'first man of fishing and stay at home dad.’

With 2018 marking 125 years since New Zealand women won the right to vote, this news was greeted by some as the perfect way to kick off Suffrage 125. As a measure of how far we had come, not only did we have a woman prime minister, but a pregnant one at that. When Ardern returned to work six weeks after giving birth, Gayford took on the role of primary caregiver for baby Neve. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark hailed this arrangement as ‘gender equality in action’, while Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson described it as a ‘symbolically significant moment for our country, women in particular.’ While not attracting the same levels of interest and hype, the Green Party MP and minister for women in the coalition government, Julie Anne Genter, gave birth to a baby boy in August 2018.

‘Sexist, stupid and irrelevant’

Jacinda Ardern

Ardern was not the country’s first woman prime minister, but at 37 years old when she took office, she was the youngest PM of any gender. This may explain the nature of some of the media inquiries she faced within hours of assuming the leadership of the Labour Party on 1 August 2017. Whether or not she intended to have children seemed of primary concern to the media. Jesse Mulligan kicked things off when he asked Ardern whether she felt she had to choose between a career and babies on TV3’s The project the evening she assumed the leadership. Ardern pointed out that her position was no different to ‘the woman who works three jobs or who might be in a position where they are juggling lots of responsibilities’. The following morning Mark Richardson pursued a similar line of questioning on the AM show, asserting that the New Zealand public was entitled to know whether she intended to have children. Ardern responded that while this was not an inappropriate question for her, ‘for other women, it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace … It is the woman's decision about when they choose to have children. It should not predetermine whether or not they get the job.’

Richardson’s co-host, Amanda Gillies, was appalled by the line of questioning. She pointed out that not only was this a private matter between Ardern and her partner, but she was pretty certain no one had asked Bill English that question ‘when he was 39 and leader of the opposition …  National Party’. Writing for Stuff, Michelle Duff put things even more succinctly under the headline, Asking Jacinda Ardern about babies is sexist, stupid and irrelevant.

A more family-friendly Parliament?

Trevor Mallard and baby Heeni

There were signs from the first days of the 52nd Parliament elected in 2017 that this would be a family-friendly House. The sight of the new Speaker, Trevor Mallard with baby Heeni, the three-month-old daughter of Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime sitting on his lap as the House debated extending paid parental leave, would have been unimaginable even a generation earlier. Women with children have found parliamentary life particularly difficult. Women MPs often timed the birth of their children around the parliamentary timetable. Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, the first female Māori Cabinet minister, had done this in 1970, returning to the House two weeks after her baby’s birth and looking after her child in her office. National’s Ruth Richardson gave birth during the 1983 recess. When the House was called back early she had to bring her baby with her, as she was still breastfeeding. A special room was arranged for her to do this. It was not until the 1990s that Parliament established a childcare centre. In 2002 National MP Katherine Rich made history by becoming the first MP to take her baby into the debating chamber to feed her. Any suggestion that Parliament had become more family-friendly seemed to fade when Rich admitted to having been stopped in her tracks while delivering a speech when a female MP shouted out, ‘Go home to your kids’. Acknowledging that life for working mothers was tough, Rich described Parliamentary life as ‘another level again.’

We have regularly dined out on the fact that we were the first self-governing country in which women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. With a new mum as prime minister, it is tempting to give ourselves a collective pat on the back in looking at how far we have come in the past 125 years. But when we put recent events into a wider historical perspective, it is worth asking whether we are truly there yet.

Breaking up the boy’s club

Until the last decade of the 20th century, Parliament, like politics in general, was a bastion of male, and predominantly Pākehā, culture. Our 40th prime minister, Ardern is only the third woman to hold the position following Jenny Shipley in 1997 and Helen Clark in 1999. Similarly, only three women have held the office of governor-general (Catherine Tizard was the first, in 1990). In 2001 New Zealand women achieved an unprecedented ‘clean sweep’ of our most powerful political and legal positions when Dame Silvia Cartwright was sworn-in as governor-general, joining Prime Minister Helen Clark, opposition leader Jenny Shipley, Chief Justice Sian Elias and Attorney-General Margaret Wilson. An equivalent male monopoly would go unnoticed. 

Elizabeth McCombs

Women couldn’t stand for Parliament until 1919, an entire generation after achieving the right to vote. In 1933 Elizabeth McCombs became the first woman elected to the New Zealand Parliament. The first woman to achieve a cabinet position here was Mabel Howard in 1947. The next woman to hold a cabinet post, Hilda Ross, would have had a thing or two to say about the state of politics in this country in 2018. She was firmly of the opinion that married women with children ‘should wake up to their responsibilities in the home and stay at home’. She shared the concerns of the 1954 Mazengarb Report into the perceived rise of ‘juvenile delinquency’ in this country, which blamed the alleged promiscuity of the nation’s youth on the ready availability of contraceptives, young women enticing men to have sex and working mothers.

Māori women in parliament

Iriaka Matiu Rātana

It was not until 1949 that the first Māori woman was elected to Parliament. Shortly before the 1949 election, Matiu Rātana, the Labour member for Western Māori, died from injuries sustained in a car crash. His wife, Iriaka Rātana, heavily pregnant with her seventh child, made known her intention to take his place. A number of prominent Māori men were also interested in winning the nomination for the safe Labour seat. While not initially favoured by the Labour Party hierarchy, Iriaka had the support of the Rātana movement. Fear of her standing as an independent Rātana candidate ultimately saw her endorsed by Labour. Her decision to stand was condemned by the prominent Tainui leader Te Puea Herangi, who opposed the idea of a woman ‘captaining the Tainui canoe’. Iriaka overcame this criticism as well as 10 male candidates to secure the largest majority of any of Labour’s four Māori MPs on election night. With little fuss or media attention she gave birth in December, then left her elder children and extended whānau to look after the family farm and younger children while she took her seat in the House.

By the time Iriaka Rātana retired in 1969, she had been joined by a second Māori woman MP. Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan won a 1967 by-election for Southern Māori, following the death of her father, the sitting MP Sir Eruera Tirikatene. As part of the Norman Kirk-led third Labour Government (1972-75) she became the first Māori woman cabinet minister and the first cabinet minister to have a baby in the entire Commonwealth. At the time of her defeat in the 1996 general election she was our longest-serving woman MP. Her 29 years in the house have been surpassed only by Annette King, who on her retirement in 2017 had clocked up 30 years as an MP.

MMP: a boost to female representation?

Changing to MMP

The election of the David Lange-led Labour government in 1984 resulted in a radical transformation of the country’s economic landscape. In addition to ‘Rogernomics’, with its commitment to a free-market economy, radical new directions in foreign and social policy upended other previous certainties of post-war New Zealand. One example was homosexual law reform, which was championed by the Wellington Central MP, Fran Wilde (who after leaving Parliament in 1992 became the first woman elected as Mayor of Wellington). Yet despite the reforming nature of this government and the wider sense of ‘time for a change’ that was blowing through New Zealand society, there were still only 12 women MPs out of a total of 95 (13%) in 1984.

Labour had come into office promising a review of the existing first past the post electoral system. There were a number of factors driving the call for such a review. In the 1984 election, minor parties such as Social Credit and the New Zealand Party won nearly 20% of the total vote between them, with only Social Credit winning just two electorates. Labour had also been dissatisfied with a system that in 1978 and 1981 had seen the party remain in opposition despite winning more votes than National. In 1985 a Royal Commission of Inquiry was established to consider the options for how our Parliament was elected. Labour’s leadership (and National’s, for that matter) showed little enthusiasm for the royal commission’s recommendation of Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP). Nevertheless, those supporting MMP were convinced that its mix of electorate MPs and those elected from a party list would produce a more diverse and representative Parliament that was reflective of modern New Zealand society. Following its acceptance via two referendums, MMP was introduced at the 1996 election. This first MMP election saw the single greatest boost to female representation ever, with the number of women MPs almost trebling to 35 (29% of the total).

However, little changed over the next 20 years, with the proportion of women in Parliament remaining about one-third. The 2017 general election set a new record with a total of 46 women MPs (40% of the total). The resignations of National MPs Bill English and Steven Joyce in early 2018 brought two more women into the House. But as females make up more than 50% of our population, does this level of female representation (125 years after gaining the right to vote) represent genuine progress? Despite our ‘world firsts’, in 2017 New Zealand ranked only 32nd out of 190 countries for women's representation in an elected assembly. Time will tell whether the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country coincides with a genuine move towards equal representation of women in Parliament.

  • See a summary of female MPs in the New Zealand Parliament 1933-2014 here.

Discussion points:

  • What do you think could be done to ensure we have an equal number of women in Parliament?
  • Should political parties have to ensure that 50% of their candidates are women?
  • Jacinda Ardern has said she would like to get to 50% women in cabinet but is still some way off achieving this. Should it also be compulsory to ensure cabinet has at least 50% women at the top table?
  • Hilde Coffé from Victoria University of Wellington argues that while ‘women’s political representation is now taken for granted, the struggle for equal representation remains’. What could be done to encourage more women to stand for Parliament?
  • Is representation in Parliament the best measure of gender equality?
  • Do you agree with the view expressed by Helen Clark and Marama Davidson that Ardern giving birth while serving as PM is ‘gender equality in action’ and a ‘symbolically significant moment for our country, women in particular’?
  • The fact that Jacinda Ardern is only the second world leader to have given birth while in office (Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was the first in 1990) means there is a certain novelty factor in having a new mum in charge. If the 2017 election result had gone the other way and Jacinda Ardern had ended up as Leader of the Opposition, do you think her pregnancy would have aroused as much local and international attention?
How to cite this page

Are we there yet? Women in Parliament, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated