In the month marking the anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, NZ On Screen’s Zara Potts looks at some of our pioneering women on screen.

Women's suffrage is a pretty big deal: 125 years since New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote is something to celebrate.

Now, most of us know the story of Kate Sheppard and the suffragists – but they were just the beginning of a long history of pioneering women who have contributed to making New Zealand both a better place and, in some cases, the envy of the world.

The list of notable women is too long for just one column – but here are just a few of the women who have helped make New Zealand great (again!).

Kate Sheppard

Given it's suffrage month, it's only right that we start with Kate Sheppard. The most famous suffragette in New Zealand, she's more than just a face on a ten-dollar note. Her perseverance in organising petitions to give women the right to vote was unshakeable and her efforts ensured that New Zealand was the first country to adopt universal suffrage, no matter what the Hollywood stories may have you believe. This full-length television docudrama reimagines Sheppard's major achievement with an award-winning performance by Sara Wiseman.


Watch What Really Happened – Votes for Women here:

Jenny Shipley & Helen Clark

Aotearoa's world-leading suffrage movement gave many women, following in Kate Sheppard's footsteps, the opportunity to have a voice not only in society, but where it really counts – in government. In this documentary, former Prime Ministers Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley talk about their experience of being women in politics. There are also interviews with Dame Cath Tizard and then Wellington Mayor Fran Wilde.

Watch Votes for the Girls here:

Dame Whina Cooper

Dame Whina Cooper was one of the most influential Māori leaders of the 20th century and was the guiding force behind the historic 1975 Māori land march. The poignant photograph of her walking with her mokopuna has become one of New Zealand's most iconic images. This documentary follows the historic land march to Parliament.

Watch Te Matakite o Aotearoa here:

Sonja Davies

Sonja Davies was another pioneering woman who was influenced by the early suffragists. A trade unionist, politician and feminist, Sonja Davies rose to prominence in the 1940s and 50s. She stood firm to her personal values, instilled in her by her grandparents, saying that her life was about "compassion and responsibility, caring for others more than you care for yourself…"

Watch Sonja Davies in The Write Stuff here:

Celia Lashlie

The late Celia Lashlie was a strong voice for equality in New Zealand. The first female prison officer in a male prison in New Zealand, Lashlie fought to get people the tools for making responsible decisions, from female prisoners to fatherless boys to impoverished children. Lashlie had a particular focus on empowering mothers. The documentary was filmed over the last months of her life, following a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

Watch the trailer for Celia here:

Rita Angus

Artists can often help define what's unique and special about their homeland and Rita Angus was one such artist. Her enigmatic self-portraits and her striking regional paintings won her admirers, but critical acclaim came relatively late and it wasn't until after her death that she was given the accolades she deserved for being one of the most outstanding artists of her generation. This Gaylene Preston documentary explores Angus' relationship between her life and work.

Watch an excerpt from Lovely Rita here:
Lovely Rita

Dame Malvina Major

The arts have always drawn women of talent and that is doubly true of the competitive world of Opera. New Zealand has been blessed with some amazing singers who have been feted on the world stage. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has found fame with her soprano – and Dame Malvina Major is another major (sorry) opera star who shared the same singing teacher as Dame Kiri. In this This is Your Life episode Dame Malvina talks about giving up her international career for a life on the farm.

Watch This is Your Life – Malvina Major here:

Jean Batten

New Zealanders love to break records – and we're very good at it. One such record-breaker was nicknamed 'The Garbo of the Skies' – aviatrix Jean Batten. In the 1930s Jean Batten broke solo distance flying records and achieved international fame. This telemovie celebrates her groundbreaking and record-breaking life.

Watch the trailer for Jean here:

Marilyn Waring

Another groundbreaking woman – was MP Marilyn Waring. At 23, she became the youngest member of Parliament when she was elected to represent the National Party in 1975. In this episode of Queer Nation, she speaks candidly about the personal cost of being in Parliament — especially when she was outed as a lesbian. Waring made headlines in 1984 when she precipitated the general election by threatening to vote for opposition-led nuclear free legislation – which prompted Prime Minister Rob Muldoon to call a snap election. Muldoon stated that Waring's "feminist anti-nuclear stance" had threatened his ability to govern.


Watch Marilyn Waring on Queer Nation here:

You can watch more extraordinary Kiwi women in NZ On Screen's Pioneering Women Collection, which can be found here.