Share Your Story — By Members

Celebrating trailblazing New Zealand women in the spirit of Suffrage Month

Dame Jenny Shipley

Dame Jenny Shipley DNZM, PC is synonymous with progress and leadership in Aotearoa New Zealand. Not only was she New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister she was key in founding Global Women NZ and Champions for Change.  It was a pleasure to speak with Dame Jenny about women in New Zealand winning the right to vote, celebrated annually on September 19.   

You were Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1997 to 1999.  What did that mean to you in terms of progress for women?

“Being first means you have to see the opportunity, have a vision and a sense of purpose, to be the change as you form networks and seek to inform and inspire.   I entered politics in 1987 and sought to do that in all my leadership roles, however, early female politicians like Dr. Marilyn Waring, Ruth Richardson, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan and others made it possible for me to do so. 

There were three reactions to my appointment as New Zealand’s first women Prime Minister. First, it was hugely newsworthy and a cause for excitement. I was applauded by many while some had different views.    Secondly, it is important to note I wouldn’t have become leader if the majority of my Caucus had not seen me as a leader and a woman who was capable of leading the national party and the country.  While it was an historic change, my peers saw it as a natural evolution. I want other women to work as leaders with their peers and make sure they see themselves as relevant, especially if they are first in a role.  And third, in every-day life as the Prime Minister when I lined up in the supermarket or at an event, men and women would say ‘’I’m so glad that you are there, my daughter now sees herself as having an unlimited horizon and our sons know there is change underway.

Of course, there were questions for the first man Burt (Burton Shipley, Jenny’s husband of 50 years) and how he was looking after the family, even though I’d been a minister for seven years and we had both managed careers and our parenting roles.   I love my family to bits however and they knew I was also capable of leading New Zealand with their support.”

Were you accepted differently as a female leader from your male counterparts?

“In 1999, New Zealand was slated to chair APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.), There’d never been a female chair before, so I had to plan how to set the country’s policy agenda and deal with the novelty of the leadership gender issue.  APEC is a complex political, cultural and religious group, so I made 12 state visits to ensure that the gentlemen in the group wouldn’t be distracted by the complexities of dealing with a woman leader.  By presenting myself with confidence and a sense of purpose, the curiosity and novelty settled.  I understood the responsibility and I needed to inoculate against the prejudice and anticipate the risks so APEC could achieve its potential which it did.   Suffragist Kate Sheppard believed that women should be at the table.”

Did you approach your leadership from a different perspective?

“I don’t support the idea of women’s organisations being set up to placate them, but rather as a center of policies.  By having women present we can look at issues and ask ‘have we thought about all sides of this situation?’  The Prime Minister chooses the Chief Justice.  My choice of Justice Sian Elias was not gender-based, but rather I believed her knowledge, experience and understanding of community was what was required at the time. A female lens can bring elements that are different. Another example was a memorable aspect of APEC.  I asked for the US President Clinton to be served lamb on multiple occasions because we were in dispute with WTO (World Trade Organization.)  Women do bring a different approach to getting attention and getting things done! Our leadership styles vary from our male colleagues. We are able to draw people into the conversations, bring complementary skills and different perspectives that are highly successful.”

When you think of Kate Sheppard and her courage and tenacity in pursuing the vote for women in 1893, what do we need to do in the 21st Century to progress with the same fervor?  What should we be striving for in addition to equality and equity?

“There were a series of breakthroughs that occurred before I got into politics. Women of substance who were politicians, Chief Justices and the Governors General all made an impact.  We stand on the shoulders of the suffragettes and should continue to think about how to embrace their energy and determination to bring about change. Many Maori women are increasingly highly qualified and breaking into new spaces, as are Pakeha women.  Corporations and political parties are increasing their diverse representation. Parliament is far more representative, and inclusive than in the 90’s, te reo is an official language and is widely used and while not everyone is comfortable with this we are maturing as a unique nation in our own right.  To do so I believe we need the appetite to explore New Zealand’s history.  We’re on a journey where people are understanding the gift of Te Tiriti o Waitangi which will be 200 years old in 2040. We can’t change colonization, but we can create success for Maori and Pakeha to be completely who they are.  We must collaborate and not be afraid, valuing our difference but shaping a shared future.  The future rests with all of us.  Not through disruption, but with diverse voices at the table that are being listened to equally.”

How does NZ fare on the global stage with regard to leadership in women’s affairs?

“We used to lead the world! We must now constantly consider what we do next in government, in corporations and the social arenas.  In the context of Kate Sheppard, do we want to continue to be first and set the agenda for achievements and then measure the success in getting there? Global Women is doing great work on the pay gap.  Where are and who are the changemakers now?  I’m interested in watching discourse among younger and indeed all Global Women members on how we solve New Zealand’s and global questions. We must appreciate that not all women leaders think the same. The contest of ideas is healthy and essential!”

You continue to pursue equity for women, especially wahine maori.  What is specifically lacking that we should address?

“Equity is both specific and general. The New Zealand Economy needs to do well in order to have choices to address inequity. Dealing with inequity must be seen as necessary in the race to the future. What could we achieve if we had resources to invest and enable people to achieve independence?  Historically New Zealand has borrowed to fund our way, avoiding difficult choices.  My generation had to address a public debt crisis and it may well challenge future Governments again.  It requires intelligence, determination and focus on what equity means and being willing often to make difficult choices to find meaningful and equitable solutions.  What are the barriers to those who don’t feel included? What do they and we need to change?  The current education deficit is a cause for alarm and is filling me with horror.  Too many New Zealand children are not in education. Covid has added to it causing some children to opt out. Too many are simply being left behind.  

I believe addressing Equity requires women leading what needs to be changed.  Wellington is not the only place.  Our seat of government needs to look at what works. Local solutions and greater choice and flexibility are essential if we hope to see equity of service access and delivery and improved outcomes that address inequality!  Women and Maori women in particular have a huge role to play in this space and where they have the opportunity are already making a meaningful impact.  Large populations are deprived and excluded and we have to be prepared to look at what is needed and make the appropriate social investments in new and innovative ways.  The North is not the same as the South.  We must enable, not control.  The blending of Maori and Pakeha traditions will lead to exciting outcomes if we are willing to explore these choices. If we do this well, we can be the changemakers Sheppard  expected of her generation.  

I’m excited about the future! There are so many more capable women in key roles across the economy and community. In preparing to celebrate Suffrage Day 2022 I want to encourage  people to look forward, to own our history (good and bad) and  find strength in what we can do as we shape a future together. Maori and Pakeha women fought for their rights during the suffrage movement, won the right to vote and did so strategically 129 years ago. It was a global first!

It is my hope that each generation of New Zealand women will feel a special obligation to discover the suffragist in themselves, define their own sense of leadership purpose, and lead with intent to be the change required!

Enjoy 19th Sept and every day as a Global Woman!”

Dame Jenny, we thank you for your continued service to our nation.

Louisa Wall

Louisa Wall, Labour MP from 2008 to 2022 and now Ambassador for Gender Equality (Pacific)/Tuia Tangata with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade shares her journey of courage and determination to secure rights for all. 

Born in Taupo,  Louisa has Ngati Tuiwharetoa, Ngāti Hineuru and Waikato ancestry.

One of four children, she had a very happy and healthy rural upbringing in tune with nature, where her father caught fresh trout every morning. Her parents were hard workers and instilled this ethic in their children. Louisa’s father was born in the ‘40s and if children spoke te reo at school they were physically abused.  That made her dad decide that his children needed a pakeha education and Maori language was not to be spoken at home.  Now, New Zealand has reached the 50th anniversary of the law that empowered te reo and the aspiration is to reach 1 million speakers by 2040.  

“We are making progress as part of our truth and reconciliation process, and so many iwi are preserving te reo and those that have settled are now engaged in the economy.  Overall, there’s a general appreciation that Maori language and culture is innately special to all of us as New Zealanders.”


What did your role as an MP mean to you in terms of progress for wahine Maori in NZ? 

“The Maori Representation Act 1867 contained Maori political representation within four Maori Parliamentary seats, however democracy has progressed. I first became a List MP in 2008, and then in 2011 I was elected MP for Manurewa; a Maori elected in a General Electorate, the first for Labour.  From that time to now we have had increased representation of Maori in every aspect of our political system and Hon. Nanaia Mahuta is NZ’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This speaks to the value of mana wahine voices across our political system, and we have a lot to contribute. Mana wahine and women generally have a way of working that is about community, especially kaupapa relevant to women and children and we commit to finding solutions. We seek to build and create a society where we can live in peace and harmony which is imperative for the world’s survival. 

Unfortunately, and in my experience, most males are not driven by kaupapa, but more about individual power.  My father was a person driven by kaupapa. He was chair of Pakira Marae for 30+ years, on the Waitahanui Primary School Board and he was on the Board of Trustees of Taupo-nui-a-Tia College and a Trustee for Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board. 

Dad taught me about service and how to be a representative and how to use my voice to serve the people.  Being Maori and a woman and a member of the Takatapui LGBTQ+ community, and an electorate MP, I became the biggest champion for the people I was privileged to serve. As MP for Manurewa, I fought to ensure access to public-good resources for my constituents and that these resources where distributed equitably to all citizens. Institutional racism was at the heart of some of my constituent needs and aspirations, and we were able to hold the system accountable. A politician must take a position that is underpinned by values of inclusion and principles of equality and non-discrimination. People may not appreciate you or agree with you, but when a politician takes a principled stand on something you can help people to rethink, to reframe, and to change their perspective.”


In 2012 you submitted a Bill to legalise same-sex marriage in NZ that came into effect in 2013.

 “Access to a license to marry, which only the state can issue, should be a simple and easily accessible process. The State’s role is to make sure who qualifies (and the only prohibited exclusions are based on consanguinity or affinity relationships) otherwise the state does not have a role in determining who should marry. New Zealand inherited sexist and homophobic laws and the simple principle of my Marriage Amendment Bill was to ensure the State was not discriminating against any citizen.  

New Zealand’s Bill of Rights respects freedom of religion, and the rights of religious organisations are countered with a responsibility not to impose their views on the rest of the public.  They can have rules and definitions of who can get married for their members only. The progress of the Bill meant it was open to scrutiny and there was a lot of opposition from religious organisations, especially the Catholic Church. And Family First, the manifestation of an anti-gender group and the Conservative Party.  I was happy to go anywhere to debate and create a dialogue that enabled New Zealanders to understand the principles of the law reform.  I received a lot of hate and vitriol – that I would go to hell, and that I was bringing our country into the world of the devil.  The process engaged lots of different groups and significantly the voices of young people came out strongly, with over 80% support from all the university students around the country. And, it was Marriage Equality we passed. Any two people regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity could marry. The law reform explicitly included trans people who in our LGBTIQ+ community face the worst abuse and discrimination.  Everyone deserves the right to live in dignity and to be who they are.  It has been an honor to be able to make the lives of people better.”

You have represented Aotearoa New Zealand in both netball as a Silver Fern and rugby union as a Black Fern.  Do you feel that your success in the world of sport is akin to your drive and determination in Parliament?

“My potential in sport was a gift from my tupuna, my ancestors. I started playing sport at age five. I played for my father’s rugby team; when they realized I was a girl they banned me.  That’s symbolic of a lot of things in my life and helped me prepare for Parliament.  I fought for my rights to play rugby and netball as Takatapui, a member of the LGBTIQ+ community. As an MP, I fought for health services for women, the rights of indigenous women to be heard, the specific needs of migrant women, outlawing all forms of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and ending the coercive practice of child brides.  In other words, supporting all women who needed our collective needs met. 

As an indigenous wahine and Takatapui, all these identities intersect.  Intersectionality – there’s an interesting word.   Women have been told historically to have children and stay home and to support men in every way.  Our indigenous peoples have experienced the most horrific abuse and violence from colonization and Takatapui LGBTQ+ peoples have experienced specific attempts to eradicate their identities too. This specific abuse is being recognized because of submission evidence coming out of residential school experiences in Canada and abuses in state care in Australia and New Zealand. Recently, there was an apology from The Pope to the indigenous peoples in Canada – I trust this focus on the attempted eradication of indigenous language and culture also recognises cultural identities such as Two Spirit peoples.  I have rallied against inequality, discrimination and violence against peoples.  Why am I so passionate?  Because if sexism, racism and homophobia exist, we’re not realizing the full extent of being a socially democratic society.  When I see an injustice, based on discrimination, my internal ethic means if I can help, then I must do all I can to tautoko the kaupapa.”


You are now the Ambassador for Gender Equality (Pacific)/Tuia Tangata.  How will you utilize this position to leverage advancement for LGBTQ+ and women?

“I am now four months into this very important role. It is an ability to contribute to global issues related to SDG5 the empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity and SDG10 focused on reducing inequality within and among countries.  My role is to help New Zealand to contribute internationally to the realization of gender and LGBTIQ+ equality in the Pacific which is also mandated by the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration signed in the Cook Islands in 2012.

All Pacific leaders have committed to addressing issues of gender equality and insuring women’s voices are heard in Parliament and in public-good institutions, and highlights women’s rights to sexual and reproduction health services, access to education and economic independence and to live free from all violence, specifically gender based violence. There are no clear targets in the Gender Equality Declaration, so we are currently revitalizing the Declaration with a focus on the relevance of targets, and an implementation plan and advocacy strategy. 

So far in my new role I have visited the Cook Islands, Fiji and Tonga to meet with women leaders, community service organisations and government representatives. 

I have attended forum focused on ending violence against women, the role of government, the public service and specifically the police, social service providers and how we empower victims of sexual and family violence. New Zealand is concentrating on getting the architecture for formal women’s organisations right. Violence isn’t a solution.  It’s not a normal act for self-reflective human beings. We have re-framed the discussion based on users of violence. Why, when and how are men using violence? And, in fact why, when and how are family members using violence against one another on an every day basis? We need appropriate programmes to help change this behaviour.  My role is to help understand the needs of women and the LGBTIQ+ community in every country in the Pacific and to help connect people with solutions so they can be better resourced and to collaborate with all stakeholders in a coordinated way.”


In terms of the rights of women, especially wahine Maori, how do you feel that Āotearoa NZ is progressing?  What more could be done to achieve gender equality?

“We are progressing because we are moving on from being contained initially in four Maori seats, to being represented across Parliament in all roles and especially on public boards.  The government requires that 50% of boards must be made up of women. The Mana Wahine claim before the Waitangi Tribunal lodged in 1993 by Te Roopu Wahine Maori Toko I Te Ora MWWL is progressing.  

The Maori Women’s Welfare League claim asserted the right of mana wahine to become governance leaders within public sector boards. The Tribunal has expanded from settling with iwi to looking at different kaupapa or issues and has included a focus on institutional racism within the health system. The Maori Health Authority in essence has been created to ensure that institutional racism is addressed so it can be eradicated. 

Globally, there is a lot of money in the anti-gender movement to keep women and Trans-women in their place.  We must all collectively fight against discrimination. The current issues around abortion are all part of the same anti-gender global initiative. We have to be on the same team fighting against the oppressors. Our rightful place as Wahine is everywhere, and no one else is going to do it but ourselves. A lot of coordination and strategy and funding is needed but we have passion and commitment to build fair and just societies. 

At Global Women we have come together for a shared vision for the empowerment of all women and girls and we have developed strategies to address the systemic lack of support for women. Global Women has had some tense moments exploring the relevance of racism to our Roopu and we have come together to use the collective privilege we have for good. I am proud to be a member.”

Helen Osborne, Property Lead Kate Sheppard House

Helen Osborne, Property Lead at Kate Sheppard House in Christchurch is passionate about the celebrated leader of New Zealand women’s suffrage movement.  Helen is from Ōtautahi.  She studied Fine Arts and received a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Canterbury. Her interests are art, buildings and history. As Property Lead for Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House at Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga means Helen has her dream job as she manages the house, garden and the layers of significant stories attached to the property. Speaking with Helen brought Sheppard’s strengths and accomplishments to vivid life.

“Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House and gardens had been in private ownership by Kate and her husband Walter since 1887. In 2019, the property came under the care of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.  The House is mandated to have a clear and accessible visitor experience for all as it tells the story of Kate’s life and work throughout the nine rooms. People want to know what made Kate tick and led her to dedicate most of her life balancing gender equality and women’s rights.  But there were no diaries and only a few photos.  Kate’s parents married in Scotland and lived in various cities before Kate’s father went to New York and never returned to his family.  We had to carefully piece her life together to understand why she was so motivated to support women in gaining the right to vote.”

Helen continues: “Kate married in 1869 and would have been expected to be a good wife and mother.  Women were not allowed to attend university.  When Kate arrived in New Zealand in 1885, she joined a congregational church and heard Mary Clement Leavitt speak.  Leavitt was a missionary with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and sparked Kate’s interest in the suffrage movement.  In 1887, Kate was appointed the National Superintendent of Franchise and Legislation because of her intellectual prowess.  She lobbied and persuaded all the superintendents to circulate propaganda. Kate’s husband Walter supported her suffragist work, by opening their home to her volunteers and attending rallies.  

In 1891 Kate began the first of her petitions which she pasted together in her home at 83 Clyde Road, Ōtautahi.   In 1892 she organized the second in her dining room. In 1893 she said: ‘We have suffered numerous defeats but each battle lost has given us a larger army.”  On August 11, 1893, Kate and her colleagues, franchise leagues and societies had collected 31,872 signatures of women over the age of 21 who were eligible to vote. Women did want a voice!  On voting day, 18 November 1893 70,000 women turned out to vote, higher than the number of men.  

By now, eyes from around the world were on New Zealand.  Prime Minister Richard Seddon initially opposed votes for women, however, Sir John Hall a former conservative premier moved a Bill to enact women’s suffrage and Seddon relented to the will of the people.  Thus, a beautiful, gentle Victorian woman who trod lightly in her persistent campaigning, achieved the right for women to vote.” 

So how will September 19, 2022 Suffrage Day be celebrated at Kate Sheppard House?

“First, we will gather at the national memorial in Christchurch. The Mayor, MPs, the National Council of Women’s President and I will speak. Then we’ll proceed to the House to mix and mingle, enjoy afternoon tea and a soiree of Victorian songs that Kate would have sung in her day.”

How do visitors react to the memorabilia and education at the House?

“They are fascinated by the memories of this pioneering woman.  There is a coatrack inside the front door bearing Kate’s cape which symbolizes her love of clothes that communicated her authority and power.  The House has a mandate to welcome all school children as learning about Sheppard is part of the curriculum.  Currently, on display at the House is the pen that was used by the Governor to sign the Parliamentary petition, which Seddon presented to Kate as a symbol of her strength.

Kate would have fitted very comfortably into the world today because she was a modern visionary. She fought for representation in Parliament and before her death in 1934, she did see her dream come to fruition when Elizabeth McCombs won a by-election in the Lyttelton seat for the Labour Party in 1933. 

September 19, 2022 will be a very special day as we commemorate an amazing woman who fought for rights for women until her dying breath.”