In 1999, Helen Clark became the first woman in New Zealand history to be elected Prime Minister—and that was just the beginning of a remarkable ascent of women in power.
Question: Which nation was the first to have women occupying all the top roles in government (and the opposition party) at the same time?
Answer: New Zealand
When Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley faced off in the 1999 election for Prime Minister of New Zealand, it was a battle of the firsts. Shipley, appointed after the resignation of her predecessor in 1997, was the first female Prime Minister in the nation’s history. But Clark, in defeating her, was also a first, as the only woman elected to the position. Between them, two consecutive Prime Ministers made history.
But the ascent of women did not stop there. By 2001, Dame Silvia Cartwright was the Governor General (direct representative of Britain and the Queen), Sian Elias occupied the role of Chief Justice, and Margaret Wilson was the Attorney General. Meanwhile, Shipley remained the leader of the formal opposition (the National Party). This made New Zealand the first country to have all of its leading political positions—what The Guardian called “the constitutional Top Five”—simultaneously held by women.
All five kept making a difference in the years after that confluence. After three terms as Prime Minister, Clark served in the legislature before moving to become Administrator of the United Nations Development Program. Wilson went on to become the first female Speaker of the House before returning to teaching at the University of Waikato Law School, which she founded. Cartwright was appointed as one of only two international judges on the Cambodia Tribunal bringing charges against Khmer Rouge parties responsible for the genocide. And Shipley went on to work in business and charity, currently with New Zealand Global Women Trust, the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, and the New Zealand National Heart Foundation. Elias alone remains in Kiwi government, still in her role as Chief Justice, a post she will hold for life.
7 More Women who Made Waves in New Zealand
- Ethel Benjaminearned her law degree in 1897, the first woman to do so in New Zealand. When she started school, she wasn’t sure if she would ever be allowed to practice, but the Female Law Practitioners Act was passed months before her graduation, and she started taking clients soon after.
- Rotorua native Jean Battenwas the best-known New Zealander in the 1930s as an aviator who made the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand, as well as record-setting flights to Australia and Brazil. Her good looks and white silk scarf earned her the nickname “Garbo of the Skies.”
- In 1943, Kiwi spy Nancy Wake topped the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List. Working for British Special Ops and the French Resistance, she parachuted behind enemy lines and snuck through multiple Nazi checkpoints, never caught. She eventually won medals of honor from New Zealand, the U.S., France, and Britain.
- Iriaka Matiu Ratana ran to fill a seat in Parliament made empty by the death of her husband, becoming the first Maori woman to serve, despite organized opposition to her candidacy. Defeating seven male candidates to win, she would go on to serve for 20 years.
- Maori land rights activist Whina Cooper became head of the Maori Women’s Welfare League and the face of gender equality for her peers. She was honored with the title Te Whaea o te Motu ("Mother of the Nation”) by her people and made a Dame by the government.
- New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion became the first (and still only) woman ever to win the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Also one of only four women ever nominated as Best Director for the Academy Awards, she won best screenplay for her film The Piano.
- Georgina Beyer, the first openly transgender woman in the world elected as mayor of city (Carterton, New Zealand) went on to be the first to serve in a national parliament as well. She has spent the past two years batting kidney failure, while speaking out on human rights.
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