MABEL HOWARD
Politician
1894-1972

New Zealand's first female trade union leader and first female Cabinet minister

Labour MP Mabel Howard made history in 1947 when she became the first female Cabinet member in the Commonwealth. But she is also remembered as one of New Zealand politics' first big personalities, famous for her flamboyant arguments and love of animals.

It's reported that she once found two mice in her office and decided to keep them as pets, naming them Sid and Keith after former National Prime Ministers Sid Holland and Keith Holyoake.

Howard was also a staunch supporter of workers rights and an early champion of gender pay equity. She cared deeply about children's health and welfare and campaigned to improve mental health facilities during her time in Government.

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Born in Adelaide, South Australia, Howard and her sisters moved to Christchurch as children, following the death of their mother. Though the family was poor, Howard went on to study at Christchurch Technical College, where she was one of the first female students at the newly established school.

In 1911, Howard became an office assistant for Canterbury's General Labourers Union and spent the next 22 years working for the union before landing the top job. In 1933 she became the secretary of the union and the first woman to lead a male union in New Zealand.

Howard's flamboyant nature was first recorded during this time when she reportedly chased a union member who hadn't paid his subs up three storeys of scaffolding. Yet Howard was also known for her deep empathy, often finding food for the poorest of her members and their families.

Howard entered Parliament in 1943 after winning the Christchurch East byelection and spent the next four years championing social welfare and women's rights. In 1947, she was officially appointed Minister of Health and Minister in charge of Child Welfare.

In 1949, Labour lost the general election and Howard spent the next eight years in Opposition, regularly taunting National over the cost of living. It was during this time, she performed her most memorable stunt, bringing two pairs of women's bloomers into the debating chamber and waving them in front of the shocked house.

Her point was to illustrate a lack of standardisation in the garment industry - the two pairs of underpants were labelled the same size but were visibly not even close - and her flamboyant argument worked, with standardised sizing passed into law soon after.

When Labour reclaimed power in 1957, Howard became the Minister of Social Security, Minister in charge of the Welfare of Women and Children and Minister in charge of the Child Welfare Department.

During this time she also introduced the Animals Protection Act, a cause close to her heart. Howard's love of cats was well known and she was president of the SPCA in Christchurch for many years.

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In fact, Howard was once caught in a lie after asking the Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, if she could absent herself from Parliament as her nephew had been in an accident and was in hospital. It soon emerged, there was no nephew but rather, her cat had been run over and Howard had left it in her fridge at home, awaiting a proper burial. Howard confessed she had lied to the Prime Minister but was still allowed to leave the house and tend to her cat.

Howard remained in Parliament until 1969, when Labour introduced a mandatory retirement age, forcing the 75-year-old politician to retire. By that stage, she was already suffering the early stages of dementia and died three years later.