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Unless you have just crawled out from under a rock, you will be well aware that we are currently celebrating 125 years of women’s suffrage.

September 13 was also a big number anniversary; 75 years since the election of the first woman MP.

Women got the vote in 1893 but were not allowed to stand for parliament until 1919 and it was still another 14 years before a woman was elected. Even so, one could, uncharitably, claim that she rode in on her husband’s coattails.

Elizabeth McCombs (Labour) became New Zealand’s first woman Member of Parliament when she won a by-election in the Lyttelton seat caused by the death of her husband, James McCombs.

Unfortunately, she died less than two years later and the seat was taken by her son Terence, who was MP for Lyttelton until 1951. Back to the men.  Plus ça changeplus c’est la même chose.

A fearless and fluent speaker, McCombs was deluged with correspondence from women and fought hard for women’s issues. Parliament had to make some adjustments for her. The ‘No Women Permitted’ sign over Bellamy’s dining room came down, the wording of the swearing-in ceremony was altered, and the Governor-General had to refer to ‘Members’ rather than ‘gentlemen’ in the Speech from the Throne. But McCombs was not allowed into the inner sanctum of Bellamy’s bar.

Members applauded loudly and the crowded galleries cheered as McCombs entered the House for the first time. After she bowed and took her seat, government Members crossed the floor to congratulate her. On her desk were two bouquets, one from the ladies’ gallery and another from an admirer. The Speaker called it ‘a scene unique in the parliament history of New Zealand’.

In spite of her short time in Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs is this week’s keen individual who inspires and surprises. Quote.

According to one of her elder sisters, Elizabeth was ‘lazy at school and we did not expect great things from her’. She became politically active, however, in organisations dedicated to the removal of women’s civil and political disabilities, and was a prominent figure in the WCTU.

In June 1903 Elizabeth married James McCombs. They had two children, Terence and Alison, and also raised two orphans. James was elected to Parliament as a representative of the Social Democratic Party in 1913. He became the first president of the second New Zealand Labour Party in 1916, when Elizabeth was also elected onto the party executive.

In 1921 Elizabeth McCombs began a long association with local politics when she was elected to the Christchurch City Council. She convinced the council to build a crèche and women’s rest room in Cathedral Square, and in 1925, as a member of the electricity committee, fought for the lowest domestic electricity rates in the country. During the early years of the Depression, she worked hard for the unemployed as a member of the hospital board’s benevolent committee and the committee administering the Mayor’s Relief of Distress Fund.

[…] Elizabeth McCombs stood unsuccessfully in 1928 and 1931, campaigning in the latter year under the slogan ‘Vote the first Woman to the New Zealand Parliament’. The opportunity presented itself again in August 1933 when her husband died, forcing a by-election in the Lyttelton seat. Some Labour leaders were not convinced about her candidacy as James had only won by a narrow margin in 1931 [32]. They had no cause for concern – Elizabeth was elected with an overwhelming majority. [2600]

In her time in Parliament Elizabeth McCombs tried to keep women’s issues at the forefront, advocating causes such as equal pay. But she had little opportunity to effect change. Labour was then in opposition and she died less than two years later, in June 1935. End of quote.

The first woman to be elected in a General Election was Catherine Stewart (Labour) for Wellington West in 1938.

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