HELEN CLARK
Politician
1950

New Zealand's first elected female Prime Minister and the first woman to run the United Nations Development Programme

Helen Clark didn't so much blaze a trail as light a fire that has burnt bright for more than 30 years and continues to inspire future generations of leaders.

Once voted the Greatest Living New Zealander, Clark has achieved more on the political world stage than any other Kiwi and has regularly featured in Forbes' list of the most powerful women in the world.

Born in the Waikato, the eldest of four daughters, Clark was destined for a leadership role. As a child, she showed early signs of her steely determination when she refused to play the organ or attend church, resisting her parents' expectations of her.

As a teenager, Clark became interested in politics and activism, sparking fiery debates with her National-supporting father at the dinner table.

Advertisement

After studying at the University of Auckland, she spent several years working in local politics before winning the Mt Albert electorate in 1981 - a seat she would hold until 2009, when she stepped down from Parliament.

Upon taking her seat in April 1982, Clark quickly made herself known, delivering a powerful maiden speech condemning the United States and the Soviet Union for deploying nuclear cruise missiles in the Pacific.

In 1989, Prime Minister David Lange promoted Clark to Labour's front bench. Clark had only been in cabinet for 18 months and became the first woman ever to sit on a Labour Government's front bench. Just six months later, she became deputy prime minister when Lange stepped down and was replaced by Geoffrey Palmer.

After Labour lost the election in 1990, Clark spent three years as the deputy leader of the opposition before becoming leader in 1993. She spent the next six years battling both the opposition and her own party at times, before winning the 1999 election and becoming the first woman to be elected Prime Minister in New Zealand.

During her nine years as Prime Minister, Clark introduced several measures to support working-class families - lifting the minimum wage and lowering unemployment - and became known for her firm, stable leadership.

In 2008, a mood for change and a charismatic new National leader in the form of John Key saw Labour lose the election, with Clark announcing she would stand down as party leader.

But the end of one chapter simply marked the start of another and Clark didn't waste time ruing her defeat. Instead, she was off blazing a new trail, as she set her sights on the United Nations.

In 2009, Clark resigned from Parliament to take a role with the UN, becoming the first female Administrator of the UN Development Programme - a role which saw her manage a $7 billion budget and work to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

In 2016, she was tipped as a favourite to become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, which would have made her the first female ever to hold the position. Instead, Antonio Guterres won the vote and Clark announced she would step down from the United Nations.