The Herald’s 125 years of suffrage commemorative edition featured a historic photo of our three women prime ministers. Kim Knight explains how it all came together..

As per the history books, Dame Jenny Shipley got there first. She drove herself into a parking spot under the Herald's Auckland office and said yes please to a coffee.

Once, writers had described her voice as "coffee with cream". Then it became the voice of a Prime Minister.

Helen Clark came direct from the National Council of Women's conference. She was its new patron. That Saturday morning, she had told an audience of 200 that domestic violence was our national crisis: "Men who hit women are expressing a view that women are inferior to them and they can do whatever they want to them. You've got a fundamental attitude problem."

It's the first time the three have been pictured together. Photo / Babiche Martens
It's the first time the three have been pictured together. Photo / Babiche Martens

She was the country's second female prime minister; our first elected to the position.

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"Hello, hello, hello," she said to Shipley. "I'm having the paint job done this morning!"

"I can't talk," said Shipley. "I've got the . . . "

Shipley stopped, as a lipstick brush came within poking distance.

"You've done a speech already," Shipley, 66, observed.

"Yes," said Clark, 68. "And I was down in Christchurch last night at the Isaac Theatre Royal. Have you seen the restored theatre? Absolutely brilliant. But what I found odd was I hadn't been down there since the earthquake, so I'm being driven there and I'm thinking 'hang on - this doesn't look like the neighbourhood', because I was used to the theatre being on a Victoriana street. And it's the only thing standing."

Later, they will talk international travel documentation like two other people might talk about bus passes or supermarket discount cards. Just two women who used to lead the country chatting over coffee and lipstick.

Dame Jenny Shipley, DNZM, first entered Parliament in 1987 as the National MP for Ashburton. In 1997, she led a leadership coup against Prime Minister Jim Bolger and, when he resigned, replaced him to become New Zealand's first female prime minister.

Helen Clark, ONZ, entered Parliament in 1981 as the Labour MP for Mt Albert. In the 1999 general election - the first time both major parties were led by women - Labour defeated National and Clark became the country's first elected female prime minister.

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Good things come in threes.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the makeup room. Photo / Babiche Martens
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the makeup room. Photo / Babiche Martens

Jacinda Ardern, 38, became a Labour list MP in 2008 and the MP for Mt Albert after a 2017 byelection. When Labour's Andrew Little stood down, seven weeks out from the general election, she moved from the deputy role to Leader of the Opposition. In October, 2017, New Zealand First announced it would form a coalition government with Labour and Ardern become the country's third female prime minister.

Three Saturday mornings ago, on the eve of the 125th anniversary of New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote, its three female prime ministers came together for an historic photoshoot.

Strength in numbers? The mana in that room was pounamu-palpable. Smooth, cool, strong. Pick it up and build a nation.

"I think it is an international story," said Shipley. "In so far as we don't have quotas, and yet the proportion of women in the New Zealand Parliament is now very significant. Miles higher now than when I started."

In 2017, the general election returned 46 women MPs, or 38 per cent of Parliament - the highest proportion ever, according to Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. It's tricky to comparably quantify the country's female leadership record because governance systems differ around the world; some leaders are presidential, others take the top position via party politics. Some countries are led by captain regents or vice-chancellors or federal councils with multiple members. But on a Wikipedia list of international female leaders since 1940, only one country lists three women with the permanent job title "prime minister" - New Zealand.

The ladies have come a long way since 1893.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark in the makeup room. Photo / Babiche Martens
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark in the makeup room. Photo / Babiche Martens

New Zealand women won the vote in September that year. They went to the polls for the first time in November. In March the following year, the Southern Cross ran a report from suffrage leader Kate Sheppard, summarising the hows and whys of the campaign and the congratulatory correspondence received at its successful conclusion.

"There is only one letter from a private individual to which we feel called upon to refer," Sheppard writes. "It was from Mrs Müller, of Blenheim, who wrote saying that for 50 years she had been a warm advocate of the franchise; that in 1869 she had published a pamphlet on the subject. She wrote: 'I am an old woman now, but I thank God I have been able to register myself an elector, and I now look forward with hope'."

It poured down on the Friday before this photoshoot. Camellia-bruising buckets of rain. No florists were able to supply a corsage. Very early Saturday, when the sun came out, a reporter raided the neighbour's tree with the branches that grew across the fence and under sheltered carport eaves. She pulled the daffodils off the Cancer Society pins she'd bought on Queen St the day before and replaced them with the flowers suffragettes once gave to the members of the House of Representatives who had supported their cause.

In other Auckland suburbs, the Herald's premium content editor assembled a fruit platter and a photographer nursed her 6-month-old daughter. Two make-up artists unpacked brushes and tissues; the reporter vacuumed the photography studio. Nobody had really expected to pull this moment off.

"As you can imagine, these are three rather busy people," said Miriyana Alexander, premium content editor, who worked with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as she guest edited Wednesday's special Suffrage edition of the Herald where the historic photo first appeared.

Jenny Shipley looks on after having her makeup done. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Jenny Shipley looks on after having her makeup done. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Everyone was keen to be involved from the outset, we just had to find a slot that would work. It took dozens of calls and emails over several weeks.

"I began checking my phone obsessively the day before the Saturday shoot, nervously expecting someone to cancel. Helen was flying into Auckland on the Friday night in a week where fog had disrupted flights, and even when by 10am - an hour before the shoot - and no one had cancelled, I couldn't relax."

Ardern was last to arrive. She did her own makeup at home.

"I'm still in pregnancy pants," said the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand. "They're not the best . . . "

A diplomatic protection officer sat by the door; another was stationed in the next room. In the adjacent glass-walled Radio Hauraki studio, the Saturday morning host announced, incredulously, "I think I've just seen a couple of prime ministers walk past".

"We wanted this picture because it had never been done before," said Alexander. "We had never seen our three female Prime Ministers together in one photograph, and it seemed a fitting image to capture on the 125th anniversary of New Zealand women winning the vote.

"As a journalist I was elated we had captured an historic image, and had a great scoop. As a woman in a leadership role, it was incredibly inspiring. I felt a bit teary actually - proud to be a New Zealander, that I lived in this fantastic country where we had already elected three women leaders.

"Yes, we are constantly striving for further equality. But what a powerful message this photograph sends to the world - especially those countries who are yet to elect a single female leader. It's time they caught up."

Positions, please.

Behind the scenes. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Behind the scenes. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Jacinda, we'll put you on the chair," said photographer Babiche Martens. "Jenny, if you could stand here . . . "

Shipley: "The right and the left? Someone's got it worked out."

Ardern: "I'm not sure I should go in the middle . . . "

They had all done this before.

"You're looking gorgeous already, by the way," said Martens. "Drop your chins. Straighten your head a little bit, Helen. I'm telling you what to do? This is crazy."

Ardern asked if her hair was blocking anyone. Shipley adjusted the angle of the wrap she'd bought from a designer in Shanghai. When the photographer asked the trio to shift their hands slightly, Clark observed, "If it was a man, it would be 'take it out of your pocket'."

Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark wait on the couch for the shoot to begin. Photo / Babiche Martens
Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark wait on the couch for the shoot to begin. Photo / Babiche Martens

Click. Flash. Click. A photographer photographed the photographer. Technical specs for posterity? A Canon 5Ds and nine-minutes-and-twenty-five-seconds from first frame to last.

"It was pretty special," said Martens. "I felt like I'd made a little piece of history . . . it really humanised them. I guess they have a little bit of celebrity status, and they are so admirable and intelligent. Whatever side they're on, they're brilliant. But at the same time, they're just cool women."

It was 1869 when Mary Anne Müller's pamphlet An appeal to the men of New Zealand was published - the country's first official document arguing against gender discrimination. New Zealand didn't get its first female Member of Parliament until a 1933 byelection. Women had the vote, but they were not allowed to stand for office until 1919 and it took the female electorate a very long time longer to use its power to achieve anything like proportional representation. Anne Else, writing in Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, records that by 1970 only 11 (seven Labour and four National) had ever become MPs.

"By the end of the 1970s women had never held more than 6.3 per cent of the seats in the House, and only four had ever served in Cabinet."

In 1981, the year Clark entered Parliament, there were just eight female MPs. Two elections later, when Shipley debuted, there were 14. And in 2008, when Ardern won entry, there were 41.

Take that progression for granted and then consider this 1894 letter to the editor of the Nelson Evening Mail: "Manhood in New Zealand must certainly be on the wane . . . the colony can already boast of a female mayor; why not have a female governor? Why not have a female premier? Why not finish the whole farce in style and give the women the breeches and let the men have a turn at the perambulators?"

History made a fool out of that man, but women's suffrage had been hard-fought. Back in 1892, the Otago Daily Times had reported on one pro-demonstration. Mrs Hatton noted the publication of statistics revealing that, in England, 350 women worked as blacksmiths.

"The weaker vessels swinging heavy hammers that would make many of you strong men faint and weary from exhaustion," she said.

Mrs Morrison observed that opponents of the women's franchise believed a woman's sphere was her home.

"But can all woman be offered a home? No, they cannot. Women are compelled to go out into the battle of life and earn their daily bread."

Mr Booth said he could scarcely understand why men should be allowed to speak at all. There had been two women speakers to one man so far; he presumed that by and by, there would be three women and no men.

Why did these three women want to be Prime Minister?

The trio in the studio. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The trio in the studio. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Because why wouldn't we?" said Shipley, in a brief stand-up at the photoshoot's conclusion.

"Because we thought we could do the job," said Clark. "We thought we could do it better than anyone else who was doing it at the time."

Ardern said that if a country could count three women prime ministers, then "you're getting pretty close to normalising" women in leadership.

Shipley: "And even though our causes have been different, we are able to lead our country. That's really important, because the 'clone' idea, that women think the same, that's not true."

New Zealand's three women prime ministers are various permutations of married and unmarried; with children and without children. Their own childhoods were provincial, their parents were farmers, police officers and church ministers, and between them they represent both ends of the political spectrum.

"Each of us has made different life choices," said Shipley. "And that gives women everywhere role models . . . we don't have to be the same, we don't have to judge each other."

Earlier, there had been talk of lactation biscuits versus stout and raspberry and "fennel until you smell like it" to bring on milk for newborns. Then they talked about financial literacy, female confidence and the cross-party effort needed to reduce domestic violence. They stood (and sat) tall. They stood - as so many women have said during media coverage of Suffrage 125 - on the shoulders of giants.

Dear Mrs Müller of Blenheim: This is what New Zealand did with your legacy.