A 16-YEAR-OLD having a leg amputated could be forgiven for choosing an easy path through life. Margaret Wilson, on the other hand, has always been up for a fight.
"It was a high amputation," she says, "specifically to try to halt the spread of a potentially fatal cancer - and it worked. These days chemotherapy would be used first, but there were no options for me, except death."
One of the things she rues most - apart from the pain which is increasing with age - is not being able to wear stylish shoes. "Let's say I cope, but if I find something that works I buy two pairs. I used to have two artificial legs, one for high heels and one for low, but they took the high heels off me."
Before the amputation Margaret planned to be a physical education teacher, but could no longer fulfil course requirements. "And there were no Paralympics for me to continue being involved with sport. I woke up one morning and decided to study law - without knowing anything about law. My parents, who lived in Morrinsville, didn't think it was a respectable career."
Although New Zealand may have lost a first-class PE teacher, it gained, among other things, an Attorney-General, Minister of Labour, Minister in Charge of Treaty Negotiations and Speaker of the House. She was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit after retiring from Parliament in 2008, refusing to "regress to a Dame" the next year when Prime Minister John Key reintroduced titles.
"I come from a social justice Catholic background and can honestly say I've been politically active and aware forever, although we called it fairness rather than politics."
Margaret, who gained her law degree from Auckland University, in 1990 was founding dean of Waikato University's School of Law, where she returned after retiring from politics.
When I was a young woman working at a university I was told I wouldn't get promoted because I would 'only go off and have babies'. In a way it was liberating as I felt I could be involved in other things so began taking an interest in worker rights.
"I still tell my female law students they are unlikely to earn the same as their male colleagues and are unlikely to have the same job opportunities - and the male students sitting next to them are probably getting lower grades."
She is co-authoring a book on human rights in New Zealand and "reminding myself how slack we are - promising everything and delivering bugger all" and last year wrote a BWB Text, The Struggle for Sovereignty.
On June 4 Margaret joins business commentator Rod Oram, Awanui Black of the Tauranga Moana Iwi Leaders Forum, and Charlie McDermott, a writer, actor and producer, to discuss the state of our society at the Escape! festival. "If I had to characterise our society I would say we're in an adolescent phase," she says. "We can't commit to anything, we're short-termers and we love anything shiny and new. But while we're looking the other way a business model is being applied to moral and ethical issues.
"Do people even understand how far we've sold out?"
Margaret Wilson appears in Don't Mention the Flag at 4pm on Sunday, June 5 at Baycourt. Tickets $20 ($16 TECT, until May 27) from Baycourt or ticketek.co.nz. See the full Escape! programme at www.taurangafestival.co.nz