25 Oct 2022

Women will have equal share of seats in Parliament with Soraya Peke-Mason's swearing-in

9:00 am on 25 October 2022
Parliament will achieve gender equality when Labour list MP Soraya Peke-Mason is sworn in on 25 October, 2022.

Labour list MP Soraya Peke-Mason. Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

Parliament is on the verge of a significant milestone for women.

In just a few hours' time, women will have an equal share of seats compared with their male counterparts in the House.

Soraya Peke-Mason will be sworn as a Labour list MP this afternoon, replacing outgoing Speaker Trevor Mallard.

"I'm feeling rather special. I mean it's a special day anyway but it does make it extra special," she said.

New Zealand women led the world in 1893, when women won the right to vote in the hard-fought suffrage battle.

It took another 26 years before they could stand for Parliament and a further 14 years before Canterbury woman Elizabeth McCombs was sworn in as the county's first female MP.

Marilyn Waring

Marilyn Waring Photo: Supplied

Former National Party MP Marilyn Waring is also among Parliament's firsts; the 15th female MP and youngest person to enter politics at 23 years old in 1975.

She said it was intimidating but she was told that part of her job was "throwing herself physically in front of the juggernaut".

"From the very beginning, George Gair marched me to the front row and put me down directly across from where Muldoon sat, saying to me 'well he can't ignore you there, dear'. So yes, it was daunting."

Waring, who went on to be one of only two women in in National's caucus until 1981, said misogyny was part of the most basic of procedures at Parliament in the 1970s.

"There would always be the obvious. Things like, you'd walk into a room, and it was not necessarily the Parliamentary caucus, it was just a sign of the times, and the meeting would be called to order and they would say 'gentleman', because you're just not supposed to be there."

As the number of women in Parliament grew, there was a battle to combine motherhood with work.

Prime Minister Jim Bolger and Finance Minister Ruth Richardson make their way to the House of Representatives for the presentation of the 1991 budget

Prime Minister Jim Bolger and Finance Minister Ruth Richardson make their way to the House of Representatives for the presentation of the 1991 budget Photo: Te Ara / Public Domain

Ruth Richardson was one of the first sitting MPs to have a baby and Waring recalled the resistance to this.

"I can remember Ruth Richardson breastfeeding in one of the offices off the voting lobby and a Member of Parliament had a point of order saying 'there was a stranger in the House' ... the baby."

It took a decade before Parliament had its own childcare centre and it is now normal to see women breastfeeding in the debating chamber.

Labour's Willow-Jean Prime was the first to do so in 2017 and rules have also changed to allow parents to take compassionate leave to get their children home earlier on sitting days.

Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime in Select Committee

Willow-Jean Prime Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

"Otherwise we are here until 10pm," Prime said.

"I have vivid memories of bathing my baby in my office, in her baby bath on my table, at 8pm before that had changed," Prime said.

National's Judith Collins said Parliament may be more family-friendly, but women MPs still faced harassment working in the public eye, even in their own homes.

"I get things like, and I'm sure other MPs will have had this, people who ring up at 3am. Recently I had one that started about 12am and finished about 8am," Collins said.

Judith Collins

Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"It's normally a male on the other end, actually it's always a male, to be frank, on the other end."

Aotearoa celebrated the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in 2018; the same year Jacinda Ardern became this country's first female prime minister to have a baby in office.

While these milestones - including today's - are being commemorated, Collins said there was more work to do.

"We have to remember that us having equal numbers in Parliament does not necessarily translate to all women in New Zealand having a fair go."

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