Wanting to make her own decisions, Dame Georgina Kirby walked out of her parents' home at 17 and started a journey that would pave the way for Māori women across New Zealand.

Kirby was born in Horohoro, near Rotorua, in the summer of 1936 - 43 years after New Zealand women were given the right to vote and three years after the first female MP made it into parliament.

Her mother was Irish Māori and her father Prussian Māori.

"My mother was a beautiful cook, a beautiful dresser, a beautiful knitter," she said.


"We were the best-fed and best-dressed kids in the world."

She was the eldest, and smallest, of 11 children with five sisters and five brothers.

"My dad shouted at us all the time to tell us what to do.

"I walked out of the house at 17 and from then on I had to make my own decisions without my father yelling at us."

A staunch advocate for the rights of Māori women, Kirby became a member of the Māori Women's Welfare League.

Through the league, she represented New Zealand, presenting papers on women's and indigenous issues at conferences overseas but said her biggest achievement in life was "meeting other women", that was "wonderful".

She was the league president from 1983 to 1987.

Despite the criticism she received for speaking out she handled it very well, she said.


"I had to get used to it standing there listening to my father all the time, getting told what to do and how to do it.

"I guess that's why, when I left home I read everything and reacted to it in my way. I always spoke out ... I always used to insist that the other Māori women spoke too."

In 1993, Kirby presented a submission on gender representation to Parliament.

"It is wonderful that we now have a woman Prime Minister and so many female MPs, just imagine when there are going to be 50 per cent in parliament."

Kirby is still a trustee of many organisations including the Māori Education Fund, Te Kohanga Reo National Trust, and NZ Women's Refuge Foundation.

She is pushing for a te reo resurgence.


"At about the age of 5, Dad started to speak to us in this strange language. He said, 'that's English and that's what you're going to learn when you're talking at school'.

"Whether you're a Māori woman, Pākehā woman, Irish woman, or a Scottish woman or an English woman, whatever, go for it. Go for it in your language."