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Helen Clark speaking at National Assembly for Wales, 11 April 2012
Helen Clark speaking at National Assembly for Wales, 11 April 2012 | © National Assembly for Wales/Flickr

10 Inspirational Women From New Zealand

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 9 March 2018

New Zealand has always been a pioneer when it comes to gender equality. It was a world leader in women’s suffrage and was the first country in Oceania to legalise same-sex marriage. Kiwi women have been at the forefront of many remarkable feats. Here are 10 inspirational figures of the past and present who have made a difference.

Kate Sheppard (10 Mar 1847-13 Jul 1934)

September 2018 will mark the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Kate Sheppard was the driving force behind the campaign, travelling all over the country to promote the idea that women should be given a voice in local elections. Despite fierce opposition from Parliament members, Sheppard was able to tip the balance when she presented a 270-metre (886-foot) long petition – the longest the government had ever seen – signed by 32,000 women who supported the cause. The Electoral Act 1893 was subsequently passed, inspiring several suffrage movements to follow New Zealand’s (and Sheppard’s) footsteps. Sheppard later became the editor of the first New Zealand newspaper created and produced by women, and was also elected honorary vice president of the International Council for Women. 


Kate Sheppard | © Wikimedia Commons

Dame Whina Cooper (9 Dec 1895-26 Mar 1994)

Dame Whina Cooper dedicated her life to fighting for Māori land rights and improving living conditions for Māori women. By the 1930s she had established her presence as a leader in the North Island’s Hokianga district, where she worked alongside Āpirana Ngata to set up several land development schemes. She later relocated to Auckland and became the foundation president of the Māori Women’s Welfare League before gaining notoriety in 1975 for leading a hīkoi (march) from the Northland community of Te Hāpua to Parliament in Wellington. The march, devised to protest Māori land alienation, is iconic in New Zealand history not only because of its then 79-year-old female leader but also due to its growing size as the crowd walked 1000 kilometres (621 miles) from one end of the North Island to another.

Helen Clark (26 Feb 1950-)

In 1999, Helen Clark became New Zealand’s first elected woman prime minister. By 2008, Clark had become the fifth longest-serving PM as well as being the first Labour leader in New Zealand history to win three consecutive elections. After failing to secure a fourth term, Clark focused her attention to international matters, becoming the leader of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 to 2017. In 2016 she unsuccessfully stood for the UN’s Secretary General – she actually came in fifth place overall but ultimately had her candidacy vetoed by three permanent Security Council members.


Helen Clark speaking at National Assembly for Wales, 11 April 2012 | © National Assembly for Wales/Flickr

Jacinda Ardern (26 Jul 1980-)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is currently the world’s youngest female leader. Her swift rise to power quickly caught the attention of international media – especially after she publicly defended the right of New Zealand women to keep their child-bearing plans to themselves. In 2018 she also made history by becoming the first female prime minister to be welcomed into Waitangi grounds and the first PM to march in Auckland’s gay pride parade. Ardern became a Labour list Member of Parliament in 2008, holding onto that title for almost a decade before she was voted into Auckland’s Mount Albert electorate in February 2017. That same year she was unanimously elected as the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party before being offered the top leadership position.


GGNZ Swearing of new Cabinet – Jacinda Ardern & Winston Peters  | © Governor General of New Zealand/Wikimedia Commons

Kate Edger (6 Jan 1857-6 May 1935)

Kate Edger was the first woman in New Zealand to gain a university qualification, and the first woman in the British empire to earn a BA. She graduated with a BA in Latin and Mathematics from the University of Auckland in 1877; by the age of 26 she was appointed the foundation headmistress of Nelson College School for Girls. Edger and her three sisters spent their early education years being taught by their father, Reverend Samuel Edger, before he obtained permission for Kate to study at a prestigious boys’ school in Auckland. Edger was able to proceed with her tertiary studies after applying for permission to sit for a University Scholarship – which she managed to do successfully without revealing her gender.

Georgina Beyer (November 1957-)

In 1995, Georgina Beyer became the world’s first openly transsexual mayor – in a rural New Zealand town that’s known for being quite conservative. After holding that position for five years, she went on to complete three terms as an elected Labour Party MP – thus becoming the world’s first openly transsexual Member of Parliament. In her lifetime, Beyer has also worked as councillor, sex worker, screen actress and community leader. She has since retired from politics but continues to be a staunch supporter of gender activism.

Jean Batten (15 Sep 190922 Nov 1982)

New Zealand aviatrix Jean Batten is globally renowned for her record-breaking long-distance flights. She first captured international media attention in 1934 after she successfully completed a solo return journey from Australia to England. By November 1935, she had become the first woman to fly herself across the South Atlantic; in October 1936 she took things up a notch by making the first ever direct flight from England to New Zealand. Batten’s final long-distance flight, again from Australia to England, took place in 1937. She kept a relatively low profile until her tragic death (she suffered from a pulmonary abscess) in 1982.


Jean Batten being interviewed after her flight from England to Australia in 1934 | © State Library of Queensland/Flickr

Nancy Wake (30 Aug 1912-7 Aug 2011)

Nancy Wake, better known as the ‘White Mouse’, was the most decorated WWII servicewoman on the Allies’ side. She was also on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list – in fact, her code name was inspired by her ability to dodge her enemies. At the time war broke out, Wellington-born Wake was married to a wealthy Frenchman and was enjoying a luxurious life in Marseilles. She then became a Resistance fighter, saboteur and leader of an army of 7,000 troops during a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Nazis.

Dame Miriam Dell (14 Jun 1924-)

Dame Miriam Dell has dedicated most of her life to women’s advocacy in New Zealand and abroad. She was the founding member of the Hutt Valley branch of the National Council of Women (NCW), which led her to being elected as the National President of the NCW from 1970-1974. From 1979 until 1986 Dell was the president of the International Council of Women, becoming the first New Zealander to be elected into the role. She was also the New Zealand Government delegate to all UN Conferences on gender equity held in the 1970s, organised the International Council of Women 1988 Centennial Celebrations in Washington, D.C. and was in charge of the International Council of Women’s Third World Development Programme until 1991. In 1993 her ongoing efforts to support and foster women’s rights earned her a membership in the Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest civil honour.

Kristine Bartlett

Equal pay campaigner Kristine Bartlett was recently named the 2018 New Zealander of the Year. The aged care worker from Lower Hutt spent five years fighting in court to secure a pay rise for some 55,000 low-paid care and support workers – roles which are primarily taken up by women. Bartlett’s landmark legal case began in 2012, when she lodged a complaint with the Employment Relations Authority arguing she had been working for very low pay for more than 20 years because her chosen industry is dominated by women. Three court cases and two appeals later, the courts finally ruled in Bartlett’s favour, offering a major NZ$2 billion equal pay settlement.