Our first fe­male PM DAME JENNY’S LEGACY


New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - COVER STORY - Kelly Ber­trand

Dame Jenny Ship­ley’s cof­fee ta­ble tells you a lot about New Zealand’s first fe­male prime min­is­ter. A copy of A His­tory of New Zealand Women lies at the bot­tom of a pile of heavy books, along with a pa­per­back en­ti­tled You Have the Power to Change Stuff.

Next to these is a cat­a­logue for Kiwi de­signer Paula Ryan and, un­less we’re very much mis­taken, a cheeky Danielle Steel num­ber is pok­ing out from un­der­neath a pile of mag­a­zines.

Then there’s the rest of her el­e­gant Auck­land apart­ment – an eclec­tic col­lec­tion of trea­sures take up many of the shelves, such as a gor­geous blue bowl gifted to her by for­mer US President Bill Clin­ton. And then there’s the or­di­nary, like her grand­chil­dren’s pots of felt-tip pens and toys that have been stashed away in an open cab­i­net.

Pow­er­ful, con­fi­dent, de­ter­mined, stylish – Jenny (65) is still all these things. But al­most 20 years to the day she broke the high­est glass ceil­ing in New Zealand pol­i­tics, Jenny tells how she’s been more than happy to shrug off the man­tle of power she once wore with such pride.

“I’ve had an in­ter­est­ing life, of which be­ing prime min­is­ter was a part,” she says. “While I’m very proud, it doesn’t de­fine who I am. I was who I was be­fore I went there and I hope I’m the same per­son now. It was a cloak I wore.”

Jenny hasn’t given a mag­a­zine in­ter­view for a num­ber of years, pre­fer­ring a much more “un­der the radar” yet im­pos­si­bly busy ex­is­tence fol­low­ing her re­tire­ment from pol­i­tics in 2002. But the for­mer PM has wel­comed the Weekly into the Auck­land home she shares with her hus­band Bur­ton for two rea­sons – to recog­nise the 20-year an­niver­sary of her as­cen­sion to the top job, but also to cel­e­brate the re­cent groundswell of women’s voices, both across the world and here in Aotearoa, in­clud­ing the fact we’ve re­cently wel­comed a third woman to the high­est of­fice in the land.

“Women are speak­ing up,” she tells. “Peo­ple are re­al­is­ing there is just no grounds not to value women’s con­tri­bu­tions or to treat them dis­grace­fully. When I was in Par­lia­ment, the sys­tem shut those con­ver­sa­tions down and women would rarely speak up. I could

‘ There is just no grounds not to value women’s con­tri­bu­tions or to treat them dis­grace­fully’

en­ter­tain you with some things that hap­pened in Par­lia­ment, which one or two peo­ple who are still there would not want me dis­cussing. Be­hav­iour I don’t think you’d see now.”

While she won’t di­vulge just who those one or two in­di­vid­u­als might be, she ad­mits she ex­pe­ri­enced both bul­ly­ing and sex­ist be­hav­iour dur­ing her time as both a mem­ber of par­lia­ment and as prime min­is­ter, “us­ing the worst tech­niques that you’d ex­pect”.

“At the time, I de­cided I would deal with them pri­vately and per­son­ally,” she ex­plains. “I never just let them go. There are one or two peo­ple who, if they were to be hon­est, would re­call some very sharp con­ver­sa­tions when I had to make it clear they would stop do­ing that or it would be­come a pub­lic de­bate is­sue.

“I was very com­mit­ted in pol­i­tics to women hav­ing a voice and I had the con­fi­dence to put my­self in that po­si­tion, even in the early years... I mean, Sir Robert Mul­doon once said to me in Cau­cus that I should be at home on the farm mak­ing scones.”

Jenny knows first-hand that Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern has and will be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sim­i­lar dis­crim­i­na­tion in the job – such as when she was asked about her plans for chil­dren

on na­tional tele­vi­sion. “We’ve still seen the bias ap­plied to our new prime min­is­ter, but it is dif­fer­ent.

It’s still there, and the Prime Min­is­ter was com­pletely cor­rect to stand up to it. There will be per­sonal com­ments made that just wouldn’t be made to a man – how you look, what you wear... it’s less of a nov­elty, but we’re not there yet.”

De­spite the ob­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, Jenny says she is happy to see an­other woman in the top job and has the great­est re­spect for Jacinda, just as she did for the woman who ousted her from the Bee­hive’s ninth floor, He­len Clark.

“While He­len and I didn’t al­ways agree, we re­spected each other as lead­ers. While Jacinda and I wouldn’t al­ways agree, I ab­so­lutely re­spect her as a leader who will do her best in the time and cir­cum­stances she finds her­self. The worst thing women can ever do is tear each other down. It’s just dis­grace­ful.”

These days, Jenny bal­ances her in­ter­est in New Zealand pol­i­tics with a host of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional com­mit­ments – she chairs three com­pa­nies here, is the pa­tron of “good­ness knows how many things” and spends a fair bit of time in Asia, as well as men­tor­ing emerg­ing fe­male lead­ers.

Now el­i­gi­ble for a Su­perGold card, Jenny is busier than most 30-year-olds and that’s ex­actly how she prefers it, thank you very much. Though she does con­cede she has to re­mem­ber she’s not ac­tu­ally 30 any more.

“My run­way is a bit shorter than it was, al­though I like to think it’s still quite long,” she smiles. “I turned 65 this year, which was a big hur­dle. But it does feel like 65 years young, not 65 years old. Well, un­til you try and move. I wake up think­ing I’m 35, then I try and get up and I re­alise I’m not. I’m sure my mind thinks it can still run the coun­try, but I don’t think phys­i­cally... well, it’s not that bad!”

In­deed, at 65, Jenny’s never looked bet­ter, dis­play­ing her trimmest fig­ure yet. Pri­ori­tis­ing her health is im­por­tant to her af­ter a brush with death in 2000, when she suf­fered a heart at­tack. Hap­pily, she says, she’s now in tip-top shape.

“Since I’ve left pol­i­tics, I’ve had chal­lenges, but I’ve dealt with them. I’ve had great sup­port from the health sys­tem and I’ve made some choices that have helped me get the weight off, and deal with di­a­betes, which I’m right on the mar­gin of but it’s com­pletely un­der con­trol. I have to work ev­ery day on stay­ing healthy, well and fit, I swal­low vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, and the sorts of things peo­ple who have had heart at­tacks have. I feel lucky. I’ve ducked a bul­let and to be hon­est, I should have ad­dressed it a truck­load ear­lier.”

Her pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion for keep­ing healthy is so she can keep up with her four young grand­chil­dren, Zara, Otis, Flynn and Coco, who are the ab­so­lute lights of her life, as well as to spend qual­ity time with Bur­ton.

“I have a fam­ily who I love to bits,” she says. “My kids

Anna and Ben are grown up now, and I’ve got four gor­geous grand­chil­dren. I’m very proud of my kids, who came through life know­ing that moth­ers do stuff and they step up. They had par­ents who were wrapped around them, but who also had ca­reers.“

Jenny can still re­call the “ab­surd con­ver­sa­tion” she had

‘ The worst thing women can ever do is tear each other down. It’s dis­grace­ful’

with her then-19 and 20-year-old chil­dren on Easter week­end in 1997, eight months be­fore she top­pled Jim Bol­ger and be­came leader of the Na­tional Party.

“I told them I might be prime min­is­ter be­fore the end of the year, but I would only do this if they un­der­stood what it would mean for them,” re­calls Jenny.

“I was fully aware that if a woman be­came PM, it would cause an avalanche of pub­lic at­ten­tion. But they were com­pletely fan­tas­tic.”

The events of 1997 now seem like they took place in an­other life, she muses. But as she looks back, she’s adamant she has ab­so­lutely no re­grets.

“I don’t dis­pute I made mis­takes, but I can hon­estly tell you I did my best un­der the cir­cum­stances.”

There were unique moun­tains to climb dur­ing her time as the Bee­hive’s Queen Bee and even be­fore that, she suf­fered un­pop­u­lar­ity due to tough wel­fare cuts in her role as Min­is­ter of So­cial Wel­fare.

“Look, ev­ery­one likes to be pop­u­lar, let’s be clear about that,” she says with a wry smile.

“It al­most al­ways de­pends on whether you’ve got a head­wind or a tail­wind. It just hap­pened that my gen­er­a­tion, and my era in par­tic­u­lar, we had gale-force head­winds. To­day, we’ve got tail­winds. I was try­ing to cre­ate choices and now New Zealand has choices.”

She does ad­mit some of the be­hav­iour of her col­leagues did af­fect her. “Many women would feel the same thing. That ques­tion of, ‘Am I wor­thy?’ You have to have broad shoul­ders and a sense of hu­mour, but I also had an ex­tra­or­di­nary mate – there were days where Burt would pick me up and shake me out and say, ‘Come on, you can man­age.’ And when I was con­fronted with sex­ism, I asked my­self the same ques­tion – is this about them or about me?”

Find­ing that the ma­jor­ity of the time it was in­deed about them, Jenny in­stead fo­cused on mak­ing the tough calls on be­half of the na­tion.

In­clu­siv­ity, she tells, was al­ways at the cen­tre of her de­ci­sions, and shaped some of her proud­est mo­ments, such as her de­ci­sion to be the first prime min­is­ter to at­tend a gay pride march, as well as her call to re­sume the PM’s vis­its to Wai­tangi. She was also the first woman to chair an APEC sum­mit – nav­i­gat­ing the diplo­mat­i­cally touchy is­sue of some male lead­ers who didn’t want to shake her hand.

“We should value dif­fer­ence,” she shrugs. “When I went to gay pride, it’s not be­cause I’m gay

– I want peo­ple who are not nec­es­sar­ily the ma­jor­ity to feel they’re re­spected and val­ued and in­cluded.”

De­spite the ob­vi­ous pas­sion with which she still speaks of pol­i­tics and so­cial is­sues, Jenny’s firm when she says she doesn’t miss pol­i­tics at all. That, she says, is firmly in the past. How­ever, she still can’t help watch­ing the events of the day from a dis­tance, but grate­ful to have hung up that cloak a long time ago.

So if be­ing our first fe­male prime min­is­ter doesn’t de­fine her, who ex­actly is she?

“I’m Jenny Ship­ley,” she says sim­ply. “Lit­er­ally, in this or­der, mother, grand­mother and mar­ried to a guy for more than 44 years whom I still com­pletely adore. We’re friends, and we work hard at that re­la­tion­ship and it’s pre­cious to me. He’s al­lowed me to have the con­fi­dence to be who I am.

“And I’m com­fort­able in my own skin. At 65 years young,

I still have lots of things I want to do. Life’s good.”

From left: Daugh­ter Anna with Flynn, son-in- law An­drew with Zara, daugh­ter-in- law Chelsey with Otis and son Ben. Mar­ried for 44 years, Jenny says she still “com­pletely adores” her hus­band Bur­ton. The proud grandma feed­ing the new­est fam­ily mem­ber,...

Serv­ing as PM from 1997-1999, she met for­mer US President Bill Clin­ton (be­low).

Jenny ad­mits she made mis­takes dur­ing her time in power, but also says she did her best un­der the cir­cum­stances.

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