DAME GEORGINA TE HEUHEU
Lawyer
1943

First Māori woman to gain a law degree and be admitted to High Court

One of the reasons Dame Georgina Te Heuheu decided to become a lawyer was because she fancied herself as Shakespeare's Portia in

The Merchant of Venice

.

In graduating from Victoria University in 1971 with a law degree, Te Heuheu became the first Māori woman to do so. The next year she was the first Māori woman admitted to the High Court as a barrister and solicitor.

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Of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa and Tuhoe descent, she served five terms as a National MP from 1996 until 2011, including as a cabinet minister in the John Key-led Government.

Te Heuheu gave the Ethel Benjamin commemorative address in 1999, named after New Zealand's first woman lawyer.

Outlining the reasons she had decided to pursue law at a time when there were few women lawyers and fewer Māori men and Māori women, she said most were superficial.

"I was flattered my friends thought I could do it," she said in the speech. "I liked the get up, and fancied myself as Shakespeare's Portia in

The Merchant of Venice

. It never really turned out that way."

But she also said that in the late 1960s there were major Māori land reforms occurring and a clear need for qualified people with both an interest and experience in this area.

"The real reason has emerged over the last 15 years and it has to do with making the most of your potential in order to make a contribution to your community and your country. It also has to do with families and our country," she said.

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In 2004, Te Heuheu was stripped of her role as National's spokeswoman on Māori Affairs by leader Don Brash after she refused to back his new hardline stance on Māori issues outlined in the Orewa speech.

Te Heuheu was chairwoman of Māori Television from 2012 until this year, and is also the deputy chairwoman of the Tuwharetoa Māori Trust Board.

She was appointed a Companion of the Queen's Service Order in 1993 and was appointed a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit this year.