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Last year, New Zealand elected its most diverse parliament ever, with a record number of female, LGBTIQ+ and Māori MPs. It is easy to forget just how different our parliament was a century ago. In my interview with Dame Marilyn Waring, she makes the point that you don’t even have to go back that far to discover a New Zealand political scene that was far less diverse than today. ‘From 1975 to 1981 I was the only woman MP in the North Island. When you’re in that position, it’s a lot of work because women seek out a safe person to write to and talk to and, as one of only a few women in parliament in those days you did get awfully pigeonholed.’

Looking back, she wonders how much more challenging it must have been for the first women who stood for office in New Zealand and observes how poorly we remember them. ‘Who were those women? Too frequently they were recorded simply as widows who won by-elections yet they had fascinating lives.’ It is a theme she is looking forward to covering as guest speaker at this year’s Zonta Ashburton International Women’s Day (IWD) Breakfast and is excited to have the opportunity to show her support for Zonta.

‘I’m a very big supporter of Zonta and have a number of honorary awards from them. I had a lot of support from Zonta branches when I was an MP. They do so much work in the forefront of issues that people don’t want to know about such as obstetric fistula in Africa, and they are very active around domestic violence.’

After a strange year that inevitably saw many events cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19, she is also pleased to be heading south from Auckland soon for this important engagement. ‘I have great memories of special holidays in the South Island like doing the Doubtful Sound trip with my 91-year-old mother on a day that was completely blue and very different to the misty weather we’d expected. I’m looking forward to visiting Ashburton’s fantastic gardens again and catching up with my cousin who farms at Hinds.’

In 1975, Dame Marilyn was the youngest MP to be elected at that time and only the fifteenth women ever to be elected to parliament in New Zealand. As a 23-year-old, entering parliament in the Robert Muldoon years, an exhausting road lay ahead. Her principles on core issues were to increasingly diverge from those of the National Party. Ultimately her commitment to a nuclear-free New Zealand contributed to Muldoon’s fateful decision to call a snap election in 1984. Instead of backing National, there was a huge public swing to Labour and the new government subsequently legislated for a nuclear-free New Zealand.
While her nine years in parliament were bruising, there are no regrets. By standing up for women – and being a voice for women – at that time, Dame Marilyn knows she helped inspire others. In fact Jacinda Ardern famously credits a phone call she had with Dame Marilyn years ago for helping spark her own political career. As a 14-year-old social studies student she had approached the former MP for comment on a school history assignment and was inspired when she actually had her query answered by a phone call sharing insightful political advice.

Women MPs still get in touch with her today. ‘I’m like “Dear Dorothy” for women in parliament, largely because there’s nothing they could say to me that would surprise me or that I would not believe and they also know I’m an extremely safe person to talk to.’

Since leaving parliament, Dame Marilyn has had a highly influential career as an academic and author. She helped found the discipline of feminist economics and, since 2006, has been working as a professor at AUT’s Institute of Public Policy.

Thirty years ago her book Counting for Nothing was a global phenomenon, highlighting the crucial importance of women’s unpaid work in the world’s economy. She revisited the same theme in her 2018 book Still Counting and explored how the application of narrow economic indicators to measure wellbeing is a flawed approach. She has long been critical of GDP as an ideological tool that ‘counts oil spills and wars as contributors to economic growth, while child-rearing and housekeeping are deemed valueless’.

Dame Marilyn’s presentation at the Zonta Ashburton International Women’s Day Breakfast is not to be missed. All are welcome at the event on 6 March, 8.30 am – 11.30 am at Hotel Ashburton. Limited tickets available from Todd’s of Ashburton. Tickets $40 per person, including breakfast.

Words Kim Newth