The very first words uttered by a woman in Parliament's debating chamber was a warning to the men that "women are never satisfied unless they have their own way".

They were said by Elizabeth McCombs, who became the first woman MP in 1933 after winning the Lyttelton byelection after the death of the sitting MP, her husband James McCombs.

"It happens," she added in her maiden speech, "that the woman's way is the right way."

It was not always easy, turning the old boy's club of Parliament into what it is today – there are now 38 per cent women, the highest proportion so far.


The Herald talked to some of those other women who were not satisfied until they got their own way.


National Party MP 1975 to 1984.

In 2000, Waring told the Herald she hoped there would come a day when people would stop ringing her and asking about feminism.

Eighteen years later, people are still ringing to ask about feminism.

Waring became a National Party MP in 1975 at age 23, winning the Raglan seat.

She was one of only two women in the government caucus and four in Parliament.

Professor Marilyn Waring in 2014. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Professor Marilyn Waring in 2014. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Waring became famous for her rumbles with her boss – Sir Rob Muldoon – and the night Muldoon called a snap election, blaming Waring and her pesky feminism for making it impossible to govern.

That was after Waring told National, which had a majority of just one, she would cross the floor to support a Labour Party bill to make New Zealand nuclear free.


Waring says she crossed the floor more than 100 times on bills including industrial relations reforms that she believed impacted unfairly on low-paid women workers.

Waring remembers the night of July 14, 1984, hiding out from the media.

She snuck out the rubber door of Parliament in the middle of the night and bumped into then unionist and women's rights advocate Sonja Davies.

"Sonja saw me and said 'thank you. Rest. You don't have to do another thing."

It caught up on her nine years later in 1993. Waring took part in a nationwide tour for the 100th anniversary of suffrage.

"I'd start to talk and I wasn't sobbing, but I'd just start to cry because I obviously hadn't healed. So I got some help then."

It wasn't all hellfire and brimstone. Waring was a "mad knitter" and would always wear suits of New Zealand wool when overseas.

"I completed 32 garments while I was a member of Parliament in the House. It can be very intolerably boring for women in the House."

When it comes to what is left to be done, her answers are the same as in 2000: family violence, pay equity, recognition of unpaid work by women, pay for 24/7 carers such as those looking after relatives who are sick or disabled.

Then there is abortion law reform, due to be reviewed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

"There are a whole lot of people who still go to public meetings every Sunday and get told what to do and do it. People are just going to have to be staunch and brave."


Labour MP 1996-2004 and Maori Party MP co-leader 2004 to 2014. Minister as part of National Party-led government, 2008 to 2014.

Like Waring, Dame Tariana Turia became a household name for crossing the floor in 2004 to vote against Labour's Foreshore and Seabed Act. That remains Turia's defining moment.

Dame Tariana Turia in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dame Tariana Turia in 2014. Photo / Mark Mitchell

She had an example to look to.

The first Maori woman MP in Parliament, Iriaka Ratana, was Turia's aunt.

Turia recalled Ratana, a Labour MP, telling her of the time Labour had refused to agree to Maori housing at Ratana Pa so Ratana went to National to secure it.

"Aunty Iriaka was a very interesting woman. She was quite strong-minded and I can recall at one point there, there was talk of her not being able to stand on the marae.

"She made the comment that if it was the case that she couldn't speak on the marae to the people, well then those people who believed she had no place when it came to having their issues addressed that they would take them to the men.

"I would imagine she would have meant it."


Labour MP 1984-1990 and 1993-2017 and minister in 1990-1999 Labour governments.

By the 1980s the number of women in Parliament was on the rise.

Former Labour Party MP Annette King at Parliament in 2016. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Labour Party MP Annette King at Parliament in 2016. Photo / Mark Mitchell

King was part of a Parliament which boasted 12 women.

"When we came in, we were't crashing down and bashing down the barriers. Some of that had already been done.

"But one of the early things we did was to go around and unscrew the 'men only' toilet signs off the doors because there were so few women's toilets and replace them with penned signs saying 'unisex'."

She says the most sexist comment hurled her way came from Muldoon.

Once, King was sitting next to mentor Fran Wilde. "Muldoon looked across and said 'I know who you're going home with tonight', the implication being that Fran Wilde and I were lovers. We both laughed at him."

She considers her greatest contribution came in her time as Health Minister with measures such as extending free breast and cervical screening and the availability of IVF.

King was also the Health Minister who received the report on the under-reporting of cervical cancer from Gisborne, and implemented the recommendations.

She says MMP has improved opportunities for women, although it is still hard to get safe electorate seats.

She is disappointed that Labour's attempt to introduce measures to improve that by holding female only selections was derided – but pleased it kept the 50 per cent goal of representation.


National MP 1981-1994. First (and so far only) woman to be Minister of Finance, 1990-1993.

Richardson recalls going to a business event as National's finance spokeswoman in the lead up to the 1990 election.

A man asked what qualifications she had to be finance minister.

She ran her hand down her back and replied "spine."

Ruth Richardson in 1987. Photo / Herald Archive
Ruth Richardson in 1987. Photo / Herald Archive

The Mother of All Budgets in 1991 rather proved that, as did other measures aimed at getting a massive deficit under control. Her reign was nicknamed Ruthanasia.

Richardson was accused of hanging women out to dry with the welfare cuts she presided over and for opposing the Ministry of Womens' Affairs.

But Richardson says feminists come from all walks of life – not just the left - and she had been once since "year dot."

There are the things that are now commonplace, but were not when it was happening to her.

She kept her maiden name when she married and her husband Andrew quit his job to take care of daughter Lucy in the 1980s.

Richardson has gone down in history for taking her baby Lucy to Parliament to breastfeed.

She had to return when her daughter Lucy was just a few weeks old.

Labour's whip Jonathan Hunt had agreed to a 'pairing' arrangement in which a Labour MP's vote would not be cast if Richardson took time off for Lucy after her birth.

However, that was withdrawn after objections to Hunt by some Labour women, she says.

"That's why I had to bring Lucy to Parliament at the age of three weeks. It was the Labour women, led by Ann Hercus who plunged the knife into my pair.

"I'm sure if they had their time again they wouldn't behave as they did."

She recalls another time when feminism triumphed over tribalism.

Rape law reform was before a select committee and its future was in the balance.

Richardson said she and Helen Clark came up with a cunning plan to go to their respective caucuses and "shame them" into supporting it by saying the other side was voting for the reforms.

"And so we got it through."

The talk of collegiality does not last long.

As the interview draws to a close, Richardson turns to the Labour Government of today.

"The gloss is coming off now!" she declares.

She later emails with a suggestion of a soundtrack for the NZ Herald's Suffrage edition.

It is 'Walking in the Sun' by Julia Deans.


1893: Women win the right to vote, Māori women are included in the Electoral Bill at the last minute after a successful petition.

1919: Women are allowed to stand for Parliament

1933: First woman MP elected - Elizabeth McCombs (Labour) in Lyttelton. McCombs dies two years later.

1938: Second woman is elected, Catherine Stewart (Labour) in Wellington West.

1942: National Party gets its first woman MP - Mary Grigg in Mid-Canterbury.

1947: Labour's Mabel Howard becomes first female Cabinet Minister.

1949: Iriaka Ratana (Labour) is first Maori woman MP.

1972: Whetu Tirikātene-Sullivan is first Maori woman Cabinet Minister.

1996: First MMP election sees the number of women leap from 21 to 35 MPs.

1997: National's Jenny Shipley becomes the first woman Prime Minister after rolling Jim Bolger.

1999: Helen Clark becomes second woman Prime Minister (first elected) after Labour wins election. Winnie Laban (Labour) becomes the first Pacific Island woman MP and Margaret Wilson the first Speaker.

2001: The top three jobs in the country are held by woman: Clark as PM, Dame Sylvia Cartwright as Governor-General and Dame Sian Elias as Chief Justice.

2017: 46 women are elected, 38 per cent of Parliament, the highest level so far. Women again hold all top three jobs. Jacinda Ardern is PM, Elias remains Chief Justice and Dame Patsy Reddy is Governor General.