Professor Marilyn Waring

Dame companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to women and economics

Marilyn Waring isn't one for titles. After being elected to Parliament in 1975 — at age 23 — she asked to be referred to as "Ms Waring" in the House, only to be told it wasn't appropriate. She could be Miss or M. Waring, the Speaker's office declared.

"So I became Marilyn Waring. And that's all I am," she says, having been appointed a dame companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Waring's political career needs little introduction.

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The 15th woman elected in New Zealand and one of only four women in Parliament at the time, her nine tumultuous years as a National Party MP boiled over in 1984 when she backed the Labour Opposition's nuclear-free policy, prompting then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to call a snap election he would lose.

In her recent autobiography, The Political Years, Waring describes at times laughing as Muldoon berated her in a parliamentary office. She recounts eating an apple to taunt him as he drank and grew enraged.

Waring admits her younger self might not have accepted a damehood. "I must have mellowed with age," she says. "I thought, well look, [Dame] Patsy [Reddy] will give it to me and Jacinda [Ardern] is the Prime Minister. So if I'm going to do it, it feels like a good time.

"But you know, it's pretty good for a kid born in Ngāruawāhia."

Waring's appointment in the New Year Honours recognises decades of service to women and economics, as well as her many other labels: Academic, economist, feminist, human rights activist, mentor.

A professor of public policy at the Auckland University of Technology, Waring in her academic work challenges the way economic wealth is measured by governments. It has for decades seen her cited as the founder of feminist economics — a mantle she says is sometimes used to push her out of the mainstream.

Waring's work for international development programmes is also extensive, including leading major projects for the United Nations and sitting on expert panels, boards and advisory groups.

But she points to her supervision of 70 research degrees, mostly PhDs, as a particular source of pride.

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"I've just been really lucky with the opportunities I've had to be in the position of supervising the best work individuals will ever do in their lives, contributing to new knowledge in the world," she says.

And while Waring avoided Parliament for a quarter of a century she has played the role of tuakana to women in politics.

Waring says she's received calls from members of every major political party seeking her advice, in what she jokes is an "open-door policy for suffering women MPs".

"I think it's been really important that I've been able to be there for anyone who needed that ... I've felt very useful doing that," she says.

"Just to say: 'You're not going crazy. This is truly what they do. And this is truly how the system operates and, yes, it hurts'."

Her heart goes out to women in politics today. "I don't think I would survive in a social media environment," she says. "The letters were bad enough."

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Dame Marilyn Waring was made a companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008.