You are free and strong. Go forward and lead on.

You are in front! Behind you are all the women in the world and all the children! Keep moving forward. Do not stop to blame those who are behind. Remember that they are weighted with what remains of all the shackles of all the women of the past; they cannot step forth free. But you are free and strong. Go forward and lead on.

Stirring words written in July 1914 by Elizabeth McCombs: her article "Women in politicsopens a new window" still has relevance today.

So who was New Zealand's first woman Member of Parliament?

  • Elizabeth (Bessie) Reid Henderson was born at Kaiapoi on 19 November 1873. She was the eighth of nine children, and despite the death of her father when she was 13, she stayed at school until aged 16.
  • In 1899 she became a committee member of the Progressive Liberal Association, a group that had as one of its aims the removal of barriers to women's participation in civil and political life.
  •  A prohibitionist, she was the first president of the Young People's No License League (1902-1905) and was a prominent figure in the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union
  • In 1903 Elizabeth married draper James McCombs. They had two children, Terence and Alison. They also raised two orphans.
  • When the second NZ Labour Party was formed in 1916, Elizabeth was elected onto the executive and her husband was elected President. He had been elected the M.P for Lyttelton in 1913, and held the seat until his death in 1933
  • She served on the Christchurch City Council from 1921-1934, where she was very active on committees - being appointed to the electricity committee in 1925 and chaired the Electricity Committee in 1929, and 1931-1935. She fought to win ratepayers the lowest domestic electricity rates in the country.
  • From 1925-1934 Elizabeth was also a member of the North Canterbury Hospital Board, and served on the Board's Benevolent Committee. She worked to improved the quality of meals for nurses and patients, nurses' working conditions, and the situation of the unemployed - remembering that the Great Depression started in 1929.
  • In 1926 Elizabeth's name was included in the first group of women to be made Justices of the Peace in New Zealand.
  • 1927 first woman representative on the Christchurch Tramway Board, and in 1933 was elected to the committee managing the mayor's Relief of Distress Fund
  • Following the death of her husband in 1933, Elizabeth won the Lyttelton by-election with a huge majority - over 50% of the 10,347 votesopens a new window cast were for her, recognition of her work over the previous ten years.
  • In 1935 she was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal

During her two year tenure as M.P. , Elizabeth proved herself a skilled and effective orator, advocating for women's rights - attacking a government unemployment policy that gave little assistance to unemployed women, not even including them in statistics, yet working women paid unemployment tax. She advocated for women police officers, and equal pay for women, as well as for unemployed youth and the need for New Zealand industries to be established so as to reduce unemployment

The huge workload took its toll, and Elizabeth's health suffered as a result. She died in Christchurch on 7 June 1935.  Her son Terence succeeded to her parliamentary seat. The McCombs Memorial Garden in Woolston Park commemorates the lives of Elizabeth and James McCombs.

  Cover of My Dear Girl: A Biography of Elizabeth McCombs opens a new window Cover of Marching on opens a new window Cover of Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan opens a new window Cover of The Book of New Zealand Women = Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapaopens a new window

Further reading

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