New Zealand’s First Woman Cabinet Minister – 14th May 1947

On 14th May 1947, Mabel Bowden Howard became not only New Zealand’s first woman Cabinet Minister but the first in the Commonwealth excluding Britain. She was the Minister of Health and Children’s Welfare.

Mabel was born on 18th April 1894 in Bowden, Australia. After the death of her mother at the age of nine, the Howard’s moved their life to Christchurch. After she finished school, Howard showed her first sign of her political passions by joining the Christchurch Socialist Party while attending the Christchurch Technical Institute (today’s Polytechnic). Maybe it was no real surprise to those who knew her – as her father, Ted Howard, was also involved in the city’s politics and Mabel assisted him as much as she could. It was a loyalty she had until his dying day – even to the point of costing her the chance of having a family of her own.

At the age of thirty-nine and at a powerful 4 foot 11, Howard became the first woman secretary of the Canterbury General Labourer’s Union. Very much like those history changing women before her, Howard pushed for equal rights for women, and for the vulnerable of Christchurch. She even attempted to turn Burnham Military Camp into a Pensioner’s Village. She also volunteered tirelessly for St John and the R.N.Z.S.P.C.A.

In 1933, Howard continued to serve Christchurch as a Councillor with the C.C.C. She was also a member of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Under the Labour Party, Howard became a Member of Parliament in 1943 and served until 1969 – despite of showing signs of illness since 1966.

She began to get paranoid, coming up with conspiracy theories when she did not get her own way in her work, leading her to distrust her colleagues. She became known for her jealously about upcoming political figures and would break into dangerous rages at the smallest things.

Upon her retirement in 1969, she grew old very fast and became isolated. She began to suffer from dementia, pneumonia and was submitted to Sunnyside Hospital by court order. She died there on 23rd June 1972. She is buried with her father at Bromley Cemetery, Christchurch.

*Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library – Alexander Turnbull Library – Reference: PAColl-6181-01 Photograph by Stanley P. Andrew *

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