Elizabeth McCombs was lazy, according to an older sister, but that didn't prevent her from forging an energetic political career and being elected New Zealand's first woman member of Parliament.

Today is the anniversary of McCombs' winning the Lyttelton seat in a 1933 byelection following the death of her husband James, an MP from 1913.

She secured a massive increase in the Labour Party's hold on the electorate, lifting it to a 2600-vote majority on polling day, up from 32 at the 1931 general election.

Gordon Minhinnick's Herald cartoon of September 15, 1933, showing Elizabeth McCombs ascending the steps of Parliament.
Gordon Minhinnick's Herald cartoon of September 15, 1933, showing Elizabeth McCombs ascending the steps of Parliament.

New Zealand was a world leader in giving the vote to women. On September 19, 1893, the law was enacted that made it the first self-governing country in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

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But women were not permitted to stand for Parliament until 1919. And even now, 98 years later, barely more than one-third of MPs are women.

Gordon Coates, the Coalition Government's acting prime minister at the time of the byelection, told the press that McCombs "... is to be congratulated both on her handsome win and in being the first woman to gain Parliamentary honours in New Zealand".

Congratulations complete, he reverted to partisan politics, saying Lyttelton voters appeared to have preferred the illusionary and airy promises of the Opposition, which would involve violent inflation, rather than a policy of the country paying its way and insisting on aiming to balance the Budget in a reasonable period.

Herald report on Elizabeth McCombs' becoming the first woman MP in New Zealand. Source: NZ Herald, National Library of NZ
Herald report on Elizabeth McCombs' becoming the first woman MP in New Zealand. Source: NZ Herald, National Library of NZ

In her maiden speech - New Zealand was in the depths of the Great Depression - McCombs attacked the Government's "mental euthanasia" in its unemployment policy, a phrase repeated in the House by Labour MP Ruth Dyson in 1994 after she had won the Lyttelton electorate.

The McCombs were committed socialists, belonging to the Socialist Church and the Fabian Society.

James, a draper, founded the Woolston (Christchurch) branch of the Social Democratic Party, and when in 1916 he became president of the second NZ Labour Party, Elizabeth was elected to the executive.

The daughter of a storeman, Elizabeth "was lazy at school and we did not expect great things from her", one of her older sisters wrote.

But she became a leader in the Women's Christian Temperance Union and established a successful political career long before she was an MP.

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In 1921 she was the second woman to be elected to the Christchurch City Council, remaining a member until 1935 when she did not seek re-election.

"Where other middle-class women had promoted the interests of their sex through women's organisations, she took their cause into the political arena where men were dominant and sometimes obstructed her policies," Jean Garner wrote in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

In furthering a campaign of "domestic feminism", McCombs fought to have the cheapest household electricity rates in the country, to make life easier for housewives.

Other political firsts for McCombs were that she was the first woman to chair the council's electricity committee and the first woman and first Labour representative on the city's Tramway Board.

She had two unsuccessful cracks at becoming an MP - Kaiapoi in 1928 and Christchurch North in 1931 - before her 1933 win.

Labour leaders had reservations about her standing in the Lyttelton byelection because of James' tiny majority.

"Women's groups backed her," said Garner, "and although one of her opponents argued that 'the difficulties of the country are too great for women to grapple with', she was elected with an overwhelming majority ..."

McCombs died in 1935. She was succeeded in Lyttelton by son Terry, who was Minister of Education from 1947 until the first Labour Government fell in 1949.