New Zealand's first elected female Prime Minister Helen Clark helped pay tribute to a historic Tauranga suffragist today.

The United Nations Development Programme administrator helped plant three camellia shrubs at heritage site The Elms, in honour of Alice Maxwell.

For more than 60 years Maxwell worked tirelessly to preserve The Elms - one of New Zealand's oldest heritage sites - and its contents.

The planting also honoured the Women's Suffrage movement, 125 years on, which Ms Maxwell was part of.

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Standing inside the historic mission house where Maxwell lived most of her life, Clark told the Bay of Plenty Times the efforts of women like Maxwell were "quite remarkable".

"It should be remembered," she said.

"I think we all stand on the shoulders of those women who were so ahead of what was happening elsewhere in the world."

When Maxwell was 21 she moved from Wellington to Tauranga, and The Elms became her permanent home until her death in 1949.

The camellias were planted near the chapel on The Elms' site.

Julie Green, a descendant of Maxwell's, said it was a special day.

"This is a tribute to Alice Maxwell ... who ... was a great supporter of great organisations. All through the year, homegrown flowers were sold to raise funds for those charities.

"Alice ensured The Elms was presented as a memorial to the early missionaries."

In 1893, Ms Maxwell signed the petition that led to women winning the vote - making New Zealand the first self-governing nation in the world to do so.

"I believe, if she was alive today, Alice Maxwell would appreciate the presentation of three camellias to commemorate the occasion."

The Elms Foundation chairman Ian Thomas said It was entirely fitting Clark took part in the planting of the camellias - the symbol for Women's Suffrage.

"It's certainly appropriate given that Alice Maxwell resided here and signed the petition in 1893."

Thomas gifted Clark a selection of local books.

Clark was also speaking at a booked-out event titled "Are We There Yet?" at Holy Trinity Tauranga Church tonight.